The Covid-19 pandemic is hardest on the most vulnerable, especially people with addictions. AA and NA meetings in church basements have been canceled, treatment facilities have closed their doors and health units have reduced their services.
But one community in Eeyou Istchee was able to operate its treatment program – Waskaganish.
Nina Diamond, the director of the Waskaganish Wellness Society, couldn’t be prouder of this achievement. “I have proven that during a pandemic no one needs to close their doors to healing,” Diamond said.
The Traditional Mobile program is a five-week program for those suffering from combined trauma and addiction or substance-abuse issues. It is a cultural and land-based program that conducts workshops and counselling in the Cree language and offers traditional foods.
“This mobile gives back the positivity of their identity and gives the tools to heal,” Diamond explained. “You’re healing at home. This program’s keys to success are land-based, mother tongue and having traditional food.”
The original retreat was to take place on Nuuskanch Island that has fully equipped cabins and communal facilities. However, a delay in receiving the green light from Health Canada meant this location was off limits due to its location. Fall weather meant boat travel to the island was too dangerous.
That’s when Diamond started to look for a location in Waskaganish. She came across Kilometre 48 where the Stephens family were building a fishing camp and agreed to let the Wellness Society use their land for the program. “I am forever grateful to tallyman Allan Georgekish and the Stephens family who let us run the program on their land,” said Diamond.
Her staff got to work building five cabins while a main communal hall was extended for the kitchen and meeting place. Richard Lawson, who was part of the program team, commented on this achievement.
“What amazed me the most was how they scrambled organizationally and made this happen,” he enthused. “The first time I went to the camp, the cabins were barely built. They managed to get the cabins built and hire cooks, drivers, security and counsellors. It’s difficult in the best of times, but during the Covid pandemic, this is an amazing feat. Nina was determined to make the wellness retreat happen and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Treatment director Daryl Cupples of Kahnawake self-isolated for one month due to Covid protocols. “Because Waskaganish is a northern community and has measures in place before anyone can enter it, I self-isolated here at my house for two weeks and then in Amos for another two weeks,” explained Cupples.
“The other great person we had was Dennis Windigo,” said Diamond. Windigo is a Cree trauma therapist who remained in Eeyou Istchee once the pandemic hit.
Traditionally, the mobile program offers painting or beading as an art-based therapeutic activity. Another first was accomplished this session in the offering of ceramics using locally sourced clay as a therapeutic exercise led by Lawson and Neil Diamond.
Cupples saw the benefits. “It was great to have them come in to teach about creating with the clay, where the clay was extracted and the process,” he observed. “The clients took to it and enjoyed it very much.”
Lawson and Neil Diamond had spent the previous summer digging, processing and testing clay from nearby Nuuskan Island as part of a Canada Council research grant. Connecting the Wellness clients to the land through the process of digging and sourcing clay was meant to be a part of the program, but Covid affected that too.
“Originally, we were going to dig the clay with the participants, but we had to process the clay ourselves,” explained Lawson. “We got clay from the water intake a few kilometres up the Rupert River and used that in combination with James Bay tidal clay.”
Geraldine Wapachee, 21, felt an immediate affinity for working with clay. “It was interesting doing pottery because that was the first time I ever did it. It was fun learning all about it. It was really calming too. I didn’t know it was a hobby to make pottery. I didn’t even know that clay was made from mud!”
Wapachee is most proud of a ceramic piece that was inspired by her daughter, Isabeth. “I made a heart out of my daughter’s full name. I added her date of birth and wrote ‘from Mom’ and ‘xoxo’.”
That’s a common theme, noted Cupples. “You see the clients focusing and working on their art and making messages for their loved ones. It’s something they would never think about doing, when they’re out there using,” he remarked.
Wapachee felt encouraged by Lawson and on-site counsellors observing her motivation to create pottery. “One of the counsellors said that she could see I was interested in doing pottery. It got me thinking that I should finish my high school, then go to pottery school and then work as a pottery teacher.”
“We always discover artists when the clients find themselves in their healing. And it gives them an incentive to keep their journey going strong,” said Nina Diamond.”
As for Cupples, he created a piece that he thinks might shake up local historians.
“I made a piece for my daughter, and Richard was impressed because it’s not very symmetrical. I used blueberries for colouring, wood, and Mohawk designs. It looks like a 300-year-old piece. I said, ‘I’m going to bury it where they’re doing an archaeological dig’ and I’ll let them find it. There’s proof we were here,” he laughed.
More seriously, Cupples hopes other communities will discover the Waskaganish Wellness program and emulate its success.
“We’re seeing an increase in the use of opioids, alcohol, other drugs like meth, cocaine, speed… and then there’s Covid,” he emphasized. “A lot of people are feeling depressed, or they don’t feel they have people for them, so they continue to increase their amounts of drugs. Given that we were able to put on a treatment program, I hope that other communities see that this can happen in their own communities. So that we’re able to continue to address these issues.”
Three months after completing the program, Wapachee is still sober. “I’m doing good. Some days I have temptations, but it’s not worth it. When I get in trouble, I want to drink. It’s dumb if I start to drink because I might lose my daughter again and I don’t want that.”
And the experience still resonates with her. “During the program, we would start the day with the open circle and say the serenity prayer. When I got back to Waskaganish to see my auntie, she gave me the prayer. I keep it in my room and it’s hanging on my wall. When I look it at, I miss the treatment, I miss the people, I miss starting the fire. It was really a good experience. I wish other people would go there too. It’s really helpful to let my people know that they’re not alone in what they’re going through.”
Meanwhile, Nina Diamond is organizing another Wellness retreat for youth in Waskaganish this summer. “It’s already a lot of work, especially a lot of team work to get a program going, but with pandemic measures it’s twice as hard,” she mused. “I always thought anything is possible and now I know it is.”