Years ago, when the detox unit at Montreal’s CHUM hospital was receiving only one or two Indigenous clients per year, staff confiscated an Onkwehón:we’s beading needles.
It seemed like an obvious thing to do – patients are not supposed to keep sharp objects because of the risk of self-harm and other potential dangers.
“We didn’t really know much about the importance of beading, so we removed them, letting her know we’d give them back to her after her detox,” said Dr. Stéphanie Marsan, an addiction physician with the unit.
For the client, beading had been a way to stay grounded, to stay connected, and to deal with her anxiety. “We had removed that one thing that was going to be healing for her,” said Marsan.
Without beading, the client decided to leave against medical advice.
Recognizing a problem, CHUM sought the support of the Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge, which provided training and soon became an ongoing partner. At the time, the partnership was forged by Robin Sky in her capacity as an outreach worker at the healing lodge.
Now, with the help of Onen’tó:kon and other Indigenous organizations, CHUM’s detox unit receives three or four Indigenous clients a week.
The relationship between CHUM and Onen’tó:kon has only grown since, with a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) hashed out over the past year.
As of last week, Onen’tó:kon outreach worker Ashley Norton is a permanent fixture at CHUM, working with Indigenous clients at the Montreal hospital on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays. She continues to work from Onen’tó:kon in Kanesatake on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“It means a lot to me to be able to have my foot in the CHUM and have my foot in Onen’tó:kon and just everywhere else, helping my people and helping out people that are struggling on the streets,” said Norton.
“It’s just very rewarding, and I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity.”
Norton is accustomed to working with urban Indigenous clients, having spent several years with the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. More recently, she was going to the Native Friendship Centre each week.
Her work experience is an asset not only because of her familiarity with the issues, but also the people.
“The way things work on the street is word of mouth,” Norton said. “Go see this person, she’ll help you with this. You want to get into treatment? She’s going to help you.”
She said her priority is to meet clients where they’re at, asking them what they want out of treatment.
“I think with that approach and them not feeling judged or pressured in any way is what keeps them coming back,” she said.
Norton encourages people who are struggling with addiction issues to call or text her at 514-668-6399 if they wish to reach her for help.
Many of the clients Norton meets at CHUM will end up going on to receive treatment at Onen’tó:kon, where the emphasis is on nurturing a culturally-relevant approach for Onkwehón:we suffering from addiction.
“Due to the history of generational trauma and the impact of a lot of harsh colonial approaches towards our people, there’s a strong bias toward Indigenous populations that are struggling with substance abuse,” said Travis Gabriel, mental health worker and clinical supervisor at Onen’tó:kon.
He noted that the partnership has been a benefit for the healing lodge as well over the years.
“We were seeing an influx of people who needed detox, and we were very limited on resources,” he said.
Onen’tó:kon has been working to adapt to meet the needs of its clientele, he said. He believes Norton is the right person for the job to represent the healing lodge at CHUM.
“She doesn’t wait in an office for phone calls to come in,” he said. “She actually hits the ground running to make these connections and develop these partnerships with people, which is really important because that’s what you need to do to reach out.”
“A person who’s there from the beginning to the end for the whole care trajectory is going to be very important,” said Marsan. “It’s going to be helpful in terms of communication and to increase cultural security and sensitivity within our team and to provide better care for the clients.”
Marsan is hopeful that the partnership will lead to fewer Indigenous clients choosing to leave the unit against medical advice, a goal that is ongoing as the detox unit searches for new ways to connect with Indigenous clients and make them feel comfortable.
“The partnership with Onen’tó:kon has really helped to change our practice and to become more aware of, and more attentive to, the specific needs of Indigenous patients. We still have a lot to learn and are working hard to improve our services,” said Marsan.
The detox unit is connecting with other organizations to provide telehealth services, for instance. It is also working in partnership with Projets Autochtones du Quebec (PAQ) to implement a wellness liaison program that aims to provide access to elders and healers and even to develop an Indigenous garden at the hospital.
Another thing: today, the detox unit keeps beading materials on hand – in case patients did not bring their own.
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.