‘We have multi-generational traumas’: Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program breaking ground in Port Hardy

Click to play video: 'Port Hardy’s Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program seeing success' Port Hardy’s Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program seeing success
RCMP on northern Vancouver Island are joining the Indigenous community on a harm reduction approach to addiction care and as Kristen Robinson reports, the unique partnership is believed to be one of the first of its kind in Canada – Nov 8, 2020

On northern Vancouver Island, Port Hardy RCMP and the Gwa’sala ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations are seeing success with a unique harm reduction partnership that is believed to be one of the first of its kind in the country.

More than half of the Gwa’sala ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations’ 1,100 members live on the Tsulquate Reserve just outside of Port Hardy.

The small community shut down when COVID-19 hit, according to the Gwa’sala ‘Nakwaxda’xw Health & Family Services Department, and walking into town each day to access the liquor store became a challenge for members battling alcoholism.

Local physician Dr. Sophia Waterman spearheaded the idea of prescribing a daily dose of alcohol to help those struggling manage their addiction, and the Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program (GMAP) was launched.

“We’re giving them enough alcohol to prevent withdrawal occurring,” registered nurse Alexa Bisaillon told Global News.

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“But it’s not enough to get them severely intoxicated.”

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Bisaillon and outreach worker Cathie Wilson works closely with doctors and Port Hardy Mental Health and Substance Use Services to deliver regulated daily alcohol doses to those in need. The GMAP team gets referrals and potential clients are assessed to make sure they will be a good fit for the pilot which is breaking new ground, given the region’s history.

“The partnership that the Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program and the local detachment have is one of the first I’m aware of in Canada,” said Port Hardy RCMP Cpl. Chris Voller.

The Gwa’sala ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations were amalgamated by the federal government in 1964, and the RCMP were involved in relocating the Indigenous peoples from their homes in Smith and Seymour Inlets.

Today, the district of Port Hardy is not only home to those uprooted decades ago – but also survivors of the former St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay.

“We have multi-generational traumas,” Voller told Global News.

“A lot of people utilize alcohol and through that addiction, try and avoid the traumas.”

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With no controlled alcohol consumption site in Port Hardy, Bisaillon and Wilson are doing once to twice daily liquor drops to clients at their homes or the Salvation Army.

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Participants must pay for half of their drink of choice, commit to seeing the GMAP team every day, and only drink what’s provided to them. The alcohol doses may also be delivered to RCMP cells to help prevent those arrested from suffering tremors or seizures while in custody.

“Not unlike a methadone program or something to that effect, we’re giving someone something that their body requires and it could be fatal if they don’t get,” said Voller.

Wilson said one client is already seeing fewer emergency room visits for falls or other injuries due to excessive drinking.

“There’s been these, in just the past month you know, really beautiful wins.”

Funded by the First Nations Health Authority, GMAP hopes to eventually team up with BC Housing to build on the success of the RCMP partnership.

“Being proactive in our approach is one step towards reconciliation and acknowledging what was wrong, what we did,” said Voller.

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