NIcole Bernard of Pikwakanagan is a grandmother of 3 and recently wrote a poem about the impact of the opioid crisis in her community.

Pikwakanagan – Nicole Bernard is tired and frustrated of attending wakes and funerals at the Makwa Centre, seeing people overwhelmed by their loss and watching a community she loves continue to be plunged into sadness due to deaths caused by drug overdoses.

Not one to share her thoughts publicly, she prefers instead to put them on paper and keep them among her personal files.

“When I get to a certain point where I feel I am weathered, I sit down and I write,” the grandmother of three little girls said. “There are no filters in it. I just write what I feel and that’s what I wrote.”

Watching people being taken because of their addiction has been on her mind for a couple of years now and she is very concerned for the future. She doesn’t have the answer but is hoping communities will come together and deal with this epidemic and find a solution.

Drug overdoses are not confined to Pikwakanagan, she said, adding it is a global problem.

“Everybody is suffering whether you live here, there, wherever and we’re all affected by that,” she said.

After reading what she had penned, she said to herself ‘this is reality’.

“We’re living in it and that is the biggest motivation to me because I am also a grandmother now. I have three granddaughters under the age of six and I worry.

“You can be the best parent, you can be the best grandparent, but you can’t hover over your children 24/7,” she continued. “So, when they go to birthday parties, it’s always in the back of my mind, ‘are there enough adults watching that nobody comes in and perhaps gives the child a candy?’ and then we’re in a situation we can’t get out.”

Ms. Bernard said everyone is aware of the crisis in her First Nation community.

“We are in a state of emergency here like many other communities and that is not an easy pill to swallow, to admit there are wrongs here and there is addiction here and when I talk addiction, it could be anything,” she said.” It could be drugs, it could be alcohol, whatever the reason is. And the biggest problem here is that because we are such a small community and everybody knows everybody, it hits harder. It’s no different than Eganville, Pembroke, Golden Lake or Barry’s Bay; in all of these small communities everybody knows everybody.”

Ms. Bernard attended a couple of meetings of the special task force organized in the community late last year, but she didn’t feel she was being productive.

“When you feel like that, you’re better off maybe just stepping away and getting some clarity,” she said. “I haven’t returned to the meetings since, but within that time there has been a couple of overdoses here where people were able to get the Narcan delivered properly and get it on time. And then there are other ones that weren’t as fortunate.”

Ms. Bernard said the thoughts she expressed on paper are her own. She is not speaking for any committee or chief or council.

“When I wrote that, I wrote it for me, to get rid of my frustrations and to try and find clarity as to how are we going to fix this,” she said. “I can tell you one thing. There is no solution coming soon. We all know that. Where we go from here, I don’t know what that looks like.”

Legalization Not the Problem

Ms. Bernard doesn’t feel the legalization of marijuana and several pot shops in the community in recent years has added to the problem. She said there are many people who need marijuana for different purposes including lupus and cancer.

“We know that those remedies and healing stuff works on those things, so I really wouldn’t say that. The thing is, at the end of the day, you are not going to overdose on marijuana,” she said.

She said some of the victims have been addicted for 15 or 20 years. Originally, people went off reserve buy it, but now dealers are coming into the community.

“We have people delivering it, doing drop offs. We know that,” she said. “And they say, ‘call 911 Crimestoppers’. Why? So, they can show up the next day to see what went on? Nobody wants to do that. And then the other half is people are afraid because of retaliation. What if they come after us?”

Ms. Bernard feels lucky her boys didn’t get into heavy drugs. But most residents are affected by family members who suffer from addiction.

“We’re all related here; we’re all family and even within my own family we’ve had people addicted and we still have and it’s a struggle because it’s the people left behind that have to pick up the pieces. And how do you explain that to a child whose father or mother….?

“I want people to understand, and I think people forget this and it’s one of the most important things to me. That is somebody’s daughter, it’s somebody’s son. That person is still a human being, even though the addiction is there. They can’t help it. It’s a want, it’s a need and it’s something they are willing to die over and they know they are taking these chances.”

She said the community is big on Every Child Matters but her new saying is Every Life Matters.

“We don’t know the circumstances that drove them to that because most people, and I am no doctor by any means, but most people who are having an addiction issue, there is some kind of hurt there. It is a very rooted thing and they’ve either been living with it all their lives, who knows, maybe they were born with it. And some people just got into recreationally and it went too far and they can’t get away.

“There are different reasons that fuels a person to do this. I am no expert in anything, but I like to think I am an expert of the heart because I love my community, I love the people here. I love my sons and I love my granddaughters.

“What I don’t love is going to the graveyard steady and going to the Makwa Centre and we’re meeting under those circumstances.”

Still Time For Celebration

Ms. Bernard said the one shining star in this story is four weddings are planned this summer, her son’s included.

“I want to see those kinds of celebrations. I want to see the little ones playing in the park safely, I want to see people, after supper, to be able to push the stroller down the road and have a nice walk with the family and not have to worry about maybe helping somebody who has gone down on the road or something like that.”

Most businesses carry the Narcan kits, but the thing that scares Ms. Bernard is some of the new drugs now available that makes Narcan ineffective.

“You could administer it, but there is no guarantee they are coming back because it’s being cut with different stuff,” she said.

She said she decided to pen her thoughts because the present situation bothers her a lot and she didn’t want to blow up at the wrong people for the wrong reason.

“I’ve always tried to have rhyme and reason, and I thought I’m going to write, because that’s what I do. I write. This is the first time I’ve ever shared any of my writings this deep with anybody and you know what, if it helps one person, I don’t care. One person is all we need.”

She said the overall feeling in the community is one of concern, sadness, apprehension and residents are very unsure because they don’t know what’s going to happen.

She would like to see a facility established to provide counselling for Natives and non-Natives so that if a person wants to go to rehab, there’s no waiting.

“Right now, the wait time here is long and by that time, they have relapsed and they don’t want to go,” she remarked. “It’s kind of like trying to climb a greased pole. You get halfway up and you can kind of see the end of the football field where the lights are and then you slide back down because all hopes drop because now, they don’t want to go.”

Ms. Bernard hopes her story might start people talking and thinking and bring several communities together that could develop an action plan and solution.

“We have to find a solution. We’re losing too many people and to me it’s tragic,” she said. “I’m a joyful person and I have wonderful days here and I am proud of this community. I am one of those people, maybe one of the very few of a select type of person that tries very hard not to judge because we don’t know that person’s story. We don’t know what drove them to do that. There’s a driving force behind every decision. That I do believe.”

She has never used drugs but for some who do she feels it might be like a dog with a steak: they’re not going to leave it alone once they have it.

“We’re a broken world. We’re in different times and people are panicking about COVID. Forget all about that. This is beyond COVID. This is a living nightmare.

“Something has got to change. We can’t keep going the way we’re going. It’s disturbing, it’s heartbreaking and like I say, when you’re standing up there and you are seeing the tears on people’s faces and they are speechless, there is nothing you can do.

“I just don’t know what we can do to bring these individuals hope. Sure, you can go to the funeral and you can give them your condolences, you can take food and you can show up with flowers, but that is not the answer. Those gestures are beautiful but it’s not the remedy.”

Working Towards Same Goal

Ms. Bernard feels in her own community, the chief and council, the task force and health workers are all working towards the same goal and doing their best to deal with the situation.

“The world, it needs heroes and it needs people who are going to stand up and it needs voices and we need solutions. And I don’t know what that looks like.

“But I know one thing. We can’t keep going the way we are going. Every life that is taken or somebody who falls to this disease of addiction, it’s like someone taking a piece of your heart and pulling it out. You die a little death with them every time.”

Ms. Nicole is not a churchgoer, but she prays a lot and she believes in Creator. When her sister was diagnosed with cancer and there was not much hope for her, she prayed a lot for her to get better and she is still here today.

“We are in very uncertain waters right now,” she said. “I don’t know how we are going to get back on track, but we cannot surrender. We have to keep going.”

Poem

For awhile I’ve looked around our community; the majority of us in our later years. We grew up here, raised our children here in peace and harmony. For awhile now, there’s a dark, deadly demon living here on our First Nation. It’s name is Fentanyl, middle name is cocaine and it’s last name is DEATH. And it absolutely fears no man, woman or child.

It can spread poison faster than we can blink an eye. It destroys things we treasure the most: our families, our children, our spouses, siblings and parents, even our own identity.

It shows up wherever and whenever it wants to, coming here uninvited and unwanted, ultimately owning our sacred land and those who fall victim to its poisonous venom. It makes a person yearn for it steady … morning, noon and night. Beg, steal and borrow to get their hands on it. No matter what the cost, death included with all that. It laughs because it already knows the same thing we the people who aren’t addicted know – it can end your life whenever it wants to. It has claimed many to date here in Pikwakanagan. There will be more, unfortunately. I’m frustrated, sad and angry. Many emotions running through my mind.

Time is such a precious thing, a gift from Creator himself. It’s just too bad there’s not enough time to save the countless victims that will fall because of it. There isn’t any solution for this right now. It won’t be easily killed or taken away, and that’s the truth.

I pray a lot and I pray every day that healing will come as swift as the Warrior’s arrow.

What I wouldn’t give to make it go away forever.

I remember as a younger kid growing up here, the toughest decisions were about where we were going to swim and who would be hosting the next sleepover so we could all visit together and laugh, to enjoy ourselves in safety. Those days are gone now. Long gone. Now I’m afraid all the time as a Grandmother to my three beautiful granddaughters that someone will give them a ‘treat’ and the unthinkable happens.

I wouldn’t be able to ever get revenge, knowing deep in my heart that two wrongs don’t make a right.

My prayers are that I live long enough to see this monster evicted from our territory for good, that not one more person dies because of it, that our children and grandchildren can live in harmony with Mother Earth and each other, that our nation becomes the ultimate Warrior and defeats this monster. Going to the graveyard seems to be the new ‘gathering place’ for all of us lately. That needs to change. It just has to.

I also pray for the outside communities and many other First Nation Territories who are also facing this demon. It is widespread.

Creator, hear my prayers.

Nicole Bernard