By Calvi Leon
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A $1 million boost from the Ontario government will go a long way in tackling the mental health and addiction crisis facing three First Nations communities, local Indigenous leaders say.
Jacqueline French, chief of Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, said the funding announced Thursday marks a milestone contribution to support members of the communities on their road to healing and recovery.
“It’s huge,” French said.
“It’s a significant move that we are making together, as three First Nations,” she said, stressing the importance of collaboration between her community, Oneida Nation of the Thames and Munsee-Delaware Nation.
The money will support the development of a new community wellness strategy and external partnerships to address mental health and addiction. It also signals the beginning of a long-term plan to construct two buildings on First Nations territory that would house services for harm reduction, medical support and outpatient care, French said.
“We have a crisis team, as well as a cultural outreach team (and) harm reduction, so the facilities that are coming in will really address ? that need in the community around mental health and addictions.”
One of the biggest challenges facing on-reserve members is a lack of available services. Typically, when residents are ready to seek support, they must commute to London or nearby towns, French said.
“There are huge gaps in accessing those types of services, from detox to treatment, (and) there are huge waiting lists,” she said, adding many cannot afford to pay for private programs.
French was one of the leaders to secure the funding from the Ontario government. Thursday, she joined chiefs Todd Cornelius of Oneida Nation of the Thames and Roger Thomas of Munsee-Delaware Nation in signing a joint declaration on the fight against illegal drugs and human trafficking in their communities.
The declaration, read by Liz Antone, stated the chiefs will take action to hold “those individuals who supply harmful drugs to our communities accountable” and work with agencies to “eliminate the flow of illicit drugs.”
It also outlines multiple calls to action, including working with local police to keep community members safe and planning for future generations.
“It really hits home that we’re going to tackle this together,” said Chippewa Coun. Myeengun Henry, who led a prayer and pipe ceremony Thursday.
The $1 million funding was announced by Ontario associate minister of mental health and addictions Michael Tibollo during his visit to Chippewas of the Thames. He said it was a priority for his government to help provide culturally safe and culturally sensitive services and he recognizes there is no “one-size-fits-all solution.”
The money is part of the province’s $33 million pledge during the 2022-23 year for mental health and addiction programs and services for Indigenous communities. Tibollo said the dollars signal the start of a longer-term commitment to strengthen the response to mental health and addiction in Indigenous communities.
“There’s a lot more work that is going to be done, not just in this community, but in all communities,” he said.
French said the opioid crisis that has swept Ontario and much of the country in recent years is particularly concerning among Indigenous youth in her community, all the more reason the funding and declaration are urgently needed.
“We can’t continue down this road at this rate, or we’ll lose generations,” she said.
Calvi Leon/ Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/LONDON FREE PRESS The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada