Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is the director, writer and producer of Kímmapiiyipitssini – the Meaning of Empathy.
Originally from Kainai, she saw a gap in coverage when it came to the opioid crisis.
“It’s about my community’s response to the opioid crisis,” Elle-Máijá said. “It’s a portrait of all the hard work that’s been happening in the community since this crisis hit seven years ago.”
Kainai is also referred to as the Blood Tribe, located in southern Alberta. It’s the largest reserve in Canada.
Filmed between 2017 and 2020, Elle-Máijá wanted to show people the work that was happening on the Blood Tribe during the opioid crisis.
“It felt like we were often framed through a lens of tragedy and there wasn’t enough coverage of all the hard work that was happening in the community,” she said.
“I wanted to be able to document that because I knew there was countless people in the community spending so much time and putting so much energy into trying to find solutions.”
One of those people is her mother, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, who works as a physician on the Blood Tribe.
She remembers the first time she saw an overdose. It was August 2014. She wasn’t working, but was at a Wal-Mart in Lethbridge picking up some things for the Sun Dance.
“The young man had three young children in his van,” Esther said. “He overdosed and fell into the parking lot. At that time it was a mystery about what happened to this young man who suddenly went unconscious.”
At the time, she was working at the emergency room in Carsten.
“Prior to that, we saw maybe two or three overdoses a week. And then suddenly it surged up to two or three a day, and sometimes eight to 10 a day, in the emergency room. And we knew we were in the middle of a crisis.”
Fentanyl, an opioid believed to be behind a number of those overdoses, is 100 times more potent than morphine.
“It works really fast, it wears off really fast, and it brings people to where they want to be in a matter of seconds,” Esther said.
In 2018, the Blood Tribe had 365 overdoses and 6 deaths.
Kímmapiiyipitssini is a Blackfoot word that means “giving kindness to one another,” and it’s exactly that message that Elle-Máijá wants to share with her documentary.
“I hope people walk away from this film with the understanding that drug and alcohol users deserve respect and dignity,” she said.
“What we’re witnessing is a public health crisis, it’s not a criminal justice issue.”
The film not only follows those working to save the lives of their family and friends, but also people as they start their road to recovery.
“Their journeys are pretty remarkable and what they share with us in the film is really beautiful,” said Elle-Máijá. “I have a real responsibility to my community to get it right. It’s an honor and a privilege when somebody decides to share their story, especially if they’re in a vulnerable situation.”
One of the film’s highlights for both Elle-Máijá and Esther was the opening of the detox centre in 2019.
But the opening was no easy feat.
“Addiction and detox does not fall on reserve. It falls off reserve in the provincial jurisdiction, and the on reserve jurisdiction is with the federal government,” Esther said. “So we could not launch a detox on reserve, which I thought was really important in our continuum of care answering to the opioid crisis.”
Under the previous NDP government, the centre was granted funding for two years, with no promise of continued support.
Funding ran out in December 2020, but the centre is still operating off one-time government grants. Esther hopes to one day make the centre sustainable.
“We have a very high success rate,” she said. “We also have a huge waiting list and we have people from across the province, not only Indigenous people but we have had non-Indigenous people in our facility.”
The centre combines a traditional model with Western medicine.
“I’m just really proud of my community, where I come from and all the hard work that’s happening from within Kainai,” said Elle-Máijá.
“I don’t think people who are not from the community recognize the strength of our community and all the hard work and all the love, compassion and empathy that exists within our community.”
Kímmapiiyipitssini – the Meaning of Empathy premieres at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto at the end of the month. It will also be available online from April 29-May 6.