When Brayden Jay Shakohawitha Etienne would walk down the road, music followed him. You could hear him coming by the rap songs he played on the bluetooth speaker he carried, but his tastes were eclectic; when he was relaxing, he would sometimes opt for the more mellow sounds of country icons George Jones and Waylon Jennings.
He had a quick wit, plenty of friends. According to his mother, Shawna Etienne, Brayden had given his girlfriend a promise ring. He loved his dogs. If he was watching television and saw something he found interesting, he’d send his mom a message – “Hey ma, check this out.”
“We were always in close contact. He knew that he could come to me with anything,” Shawna said.
It had been that way for a long time. When he was stuck in a group home as he navigated becoming a teenager, Shawna visited him three times a week, helping him with his homework and staying for supper.
The state had deemed her an unfit parent because she smoked cannabis to deal with her anxiety. Yet this had always worked better for her than the Ativan, which made her drowsy. Knowing the western drugs were more likely to undermine her parenting than the cannabis she relied on, she continued to self-medicate.
When Brayden was a young teenager, Shawna was able to go to court to try and get her son home to Kanesatake, citing United Nations-recognized Indigenous rights. “I fought and fought and fought, and I got him back,” she said.
It wasn’t easy. The system still distrusted her. But the group home agreed Brayden needed his mother. That he needed therapy – not to be taken away. Finally she was able to take him for six months, she said, during which there were no incidents. She got letters from community leaders to submit to the court. And the judge awarded her custody of Brayden, even congratulating her on her persistence, affirming her choices as a mother.
But there was a problem.
“I got my son back from the group home, and he was already addicted to the pills,” Shawna said. He was about 14 years old.
Despite the trauma that clung to him from years of hardship and abuse, he did not receive therapy.
“He wasn’t ready. He had too much anger in him to sit down and talk with somebody,” Shawna said.
Brayden held onto this disposition as he grew up. He couldn’t get through a doctor’s appointment without anger about what he had endured rising to the surface. He’d get worked up, and then he’d need to calm down.
Eventually he decided to begin taking methadone to get off the pills, according to his mother.
Methadone is a substance used to treat an addiction to opioids, a class of drugs that includes morphine, oxycodone, and heroin. Yet methadone is itself an opioid. It diminishes cravings, soothes withdrawal. But the high is much less intense than that of other similar drugs. The idea is to decouple getting high from mitigating the frightening, painful, even dangerous medical effects of cessation.
It’s supposed to be taken under the supervision of a doctor. But Brayden was getting his supply from the black market, his mother said.
Last week, Brayden was struggling with pain in his knee after a fall on the staircase going up to his apartment. The pain was intense, preventing him from sleeping.
“He called me complaining he could barely walk,” Shawna said.
He’d gone to the hospital, but they told him to come back another time, according to Shawna. They needed to schedule x-rays. He went home. He called his mom, told her about his day.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to have to take a Xanax so I can sleep. I can’t sleep.’ I said no, don’t touch those, you have a problem with them. I guess he went and bought them.”
Brayden was addicted to Xanax, a prescription benzodiazepine – a tranquilizer. Shawna thinks the pills he took that night were fake, laced with fentanyl, a potent opioid lurking in all manner of drugs these days, put there by illicit manufacturers looking to cut corners.
Fentanyl is responsible for increases in drug-related deaths over the past few years, with people who use illicit substances risking drug poisoning from even the smallest amount of fentanyl in their supply. These days, drug poisoning from fentanyl is responsible for the majority of deaths in Canada that involve opioids.
According to Shawna, Brayden’s friend said he had warned Brayden that the Xanax looked fake. Yet, real or not, benzodiazepines and methadone are a dangerous mix, fully capable of producing a fatal overdose all on their own.
An investigation by the coroner is still underway, according to the Quebec coroner’s office. The autopsy will include a toxicology screening, which should shed more light on the cause of death.
Here is what we do know: on February 9, Brayden Jay Shakohawitha Etienne was taken to St. Eustache Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was barely 23 years old.
“The whole system failed him, I find,” Shawna lamented.
While all of Canada is undergoing an opioid crisis, Onkwehón:we are falling victim at disproportionate rates. The loss of Brayden reflects an urgent reality in Kanesatake and Kahnawake, one mired in colonialism and stigma – one that threatens the lives of community members every day.
Ashennontie Diabo of Kahnawake has been sober for six years. It was his father-in-law, 30 years into recovery, who suggested he open his own local chapter of Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Diabo had already been trying to help people one on one, so he decided to take the next step.
The Kahnawake chapter is still going – the group meets at the United Church Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays. It has taken persistence from Diabo. There was a stretch once where nobody showed up for six months. But he refused to cancel meetings.
“If somebody wants to show up and I’m not there, where are they going to be left? Where are they going to be? They’re going to go back out. I’m not going to say it’s my job or my duty, but for me to be there for someone else the way somebody else was there for me, that’s how I want to be,” he said.
Diabo first decided to get sober after his third time in the hospital; he’d thought he was having a heart attack or stroke.
The journey hasn’t been easy. His work helping other addicts went a long way toward keeping him on track, he said. But it took time and false starts.
“I never got sober with a counsellor. I went to rehab. I was sober. But my mind wasn’t. My body was but my mind wasn’t. It took me five or six months to relapse because I didn’t know how to deal mentally with the stuff I was going through.”
He’s now six years sober, but this period, too, has had its challenges. A couple years in, he felt like he hit a wall. It was the last time he said he had a strong urge to use drugs.
“Nothing was working. I was broke. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t provide for my family. I was really struggling,” he said. “Some people might think it’s not much, but I had a tooth infection. And it was so painful. The only thing I could think of was if I go get a bag of drugs right now, it would go away. I was thinking that for hours, just laying there in pain.”
Diabo noted that the quality of drugs has gone down and that he knows people who have taken fentanyl by accident or else not realizing how potent – and therefore dangerous – it is. He said he heard of one week over the summer during which six people overdosed in the community and required naloxone.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is available over the counter and is capable of counteracting an overdose. The harm-reduction tool is considered an important way of minimizing overdose deaths. It’s also free to pick up in most pharmacies across Quebec – Old Malone Pharmacy carries Narcan in a nasal spray, which anyone can collect without a prescription.
While Diabo and his NA meetings are based in Kahnawake, he has often visited the Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge in Kanesatake, which is ordinarily – but not currently – the venue of local NA and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, and which continues to offer counselling and referral services in addition to its bedrock six-week, 16-bed treatment program in the Pines.
The program receives hundreds of applications from across Canada, although Onkwehón:we in its catchment area, which includes Kanesatake and Kahnawake, are prioritized for treatment.
The program focuses on helping clients identify stressors and get to the root causes of addiction.
“Trauma-informed care is making a person feel safe in their environment. It’s more open to discuss what they’ve been through,” said Lori Tarbell, executive director of Onen’tó:kon.
While treatment at Onen’tó:kon includes features of western medicine, it emphasizes Onkwehón:we identity by incorporating sweat lodges, land-based activities, and other traditional aspects.
“A lot of our clients are children of survivors of residential school survivors, or they went themselves, and then that trauma is passed down through generations,” Tarbell said. “And what we see in treatment is people have been traumatized throughout generations and they don’t know how to break that cycle.”
The treatment at Onen’tó:kon is assisted by medication such as methadone. Some clients continue to use methadone after their treatment is finished. They usually come with a pre-existing prescription to the centre, and when their six weeks are done, the prescription will be transferred back to where it originated.
Typically those who are being treated with methadone have to go to a clinic to receive and take the medication, according to Tarbell, although some long-time patients may be permitted to bring it home, provided they pass routine drug screenings.
It’s a useful tool that can be dangerous if its use is not supervised by medical professionals, she said.
Tarbell is all too aware that drug abuse is an urgent problem in Kanesatake and Kahnawake, adding that the drugs in the community are more dangerous than they used to be, especially considering the presence of fentanyl.
“I feel like in all our Mohawk communities it’s prevalent. It is a big concern,” she said. “And there are services but there always could be more services to reach everybody that needs help.”
She hopes to introduce new workshops to raise awareness about what the treatment centre can offer to local Kanien’kehá:ka. “A lot of people that do need help don’t reach out as much as they could, because they don’t know what resources there are.”
That said, the centre does not currently have programming or supports for youth under the age of 18.
Drug abuse is also on the radar of the Kanesatake Health Center (KHC), according to its executive director, Teiawenhniseráhte Tomlinson.
“We are also looking at ways to help with the growing threat of overdoses,” he said.
“Kanesatake is a small place, and we are all touched by (drug addiction) in one way or another – through family members, friends, or other community members we know who are struggling with substance abuse.”
He said mental health support is a top priority for KHC and that the health centre is investing in a multi-pronged approach, looking to enrich services it already provides through the recruitment of new staff. Many of the services the centre offers are geared toward youth, he said.
“Our youth programming department operates as primary prevention services to keep our youth engaged in an effort to mitigate at-risk behaviour, identify some of the behaviours early, and help them access pertinent services,” Tomlinson said.
A culturally focused healing program is also in development, he said. “This program, which is in its infancy, will marry traditional cultural knowledge and teachings with modern practices to help address some of the deep issues left behind by colonization, which leaves our people and youth disproportionately affected by mental health and addiction issues.”
KHC is also in the early stages of a possible takeover of the child welfare system. “As it relates to tackling the issues of addiction, I believe that all of the steps we take to reclaim our identity and cultural practices will help in that regard,” he said. Shawna believes that had Brayden’s case been handled within the community, it could have made a big difference for him.
In Kahnawake, many of the addictions services available to the community are provided through Kahnawà:ke Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS). While a wait list was recently announced for psychological services, addiction services are available through KSCS intake workers.
According to longtime KSCS addictions specialist Hazel Mayo, there has been an increase in need since the pandemic began, owing largely to the forced isolation and the divisions that emerged in the community around issues such as the vaccine.
“There’s a lot of people who fell into depression and severe mental health issues,” Mayo said.
She emphasized the deleterious legacy of colonization, which has burdened Onkwehón:we with intergenerational trauma and left people overwhelmed by shame and guilt, which can make them feel like they don’t deserve recovery.
“It’s not what’s wrong with us but what has happened to us,” she said. “As you understand what has happened and why we are coping the way we are, when you have you get more awareness and more understanding, then it becomes not so much about personality…. It’s not about your self-will. It’s a way of coping with the trauma that we’ve experienced.”
She remarked on the role of culture in overcoming stigma and promoting recovery. “We’ve always had our own way of healing, and it’s just that it wasn’t supported or encouraged, so it kind of went underground. Now that we’ve come to fight for that, we’ve restored that,” she said.
Mayo said that she was contacted by a friend whose son was friends with Brayden, and she noted the close connection between Kahnawake and Kanesatake.
“We’re very affected. We’re connected,” she said. “If there’s a loss in that community, it affects our community. It affects all of the youth. And it’s devastating. It’s devastating when we have to lose someone to drug overdose.”
“People are in disbelief,” said Shawna. “I’m finding it hard to believe that it’s real. It’s like I’m just waiting for him to message me – ‘Hey ma, check this out.’”
Shawna was motivated in talking to The Eastern Door by a desire to raise awareness about the problem of drugs on reserve, about the need for services and for supervision. And ultimately, a desire to ensure nobody ever has to go through what she is going through right now.
“Just love them while you have them, because you never know. You never know. Just always tell them that you love them. I just keep hoping to wake up and it’s a dream. Just always tell them that you love them.”
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
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.