Pics News

A place for healing: Gitpo Spirit Lodge tries new way to help people with addictions | CBC News


At Natoaganeg First Nation next to the powwow grounds, the Miramichi River glistened under the sun. 

Looking out on the water from the picture window in the Gitpo Spirit Lodge, Roger Augustine reflected on what makes the space perfect for healing.

“This place here is just — it’s ideal,” Augustine said. “Everyone that’s been here the past couple of years has said, ‘I can feel the peace here.’ … We have the sweat lodge out there and eagles flying around here all the time.”

Augustine, a former regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations and of Natoaganeg, also known as Eel Ground First Nation, is the president of the spirit lodge and for years has been committed to reduce the harm associated with drug and alcohol use. 

WATCH | ‘Now I’m trying to give back,’ says Gitpo Spirit Lodge president

He knows addiction first hand. Now this Elder is steering a lodge that emphasizes healing

Roger Augustine, the president of Gitpo Spirit Lodge, opens up about his sobriety journey — and how it influenced his desire to help others in similar situations.

When he was 28 years old, Augustine was struggling himself. 

“I lost, you know, not only material things, but my family,” he recalled. “I had nothing. Not even driver’s licence, not even a job.

“One day, I woke up that morning and I said, ‘I think I’ll quit this for a while.’ And tried it for six months and got up on the sixth month, which was July [and] I told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to quit forever, and forever is still going on.”

It’s not just important to us — it has potential to really help beyond this.– George Ginnish, Natoaganeg chief

Forty-seven years later, he’s still sober.

Augustine wanted to do something for people like him. He started a drug and alcohol education program for school kids at Natoaganeg, which soon spread across Canada. From there, he started helping set up drug and alcohol treatment centres, including the Rising Sun Treatment Centre at Natoaganeg.

Now Augustine is working on a new program that will start patients on low doses of medical cannabis to help those who have been relying on a better known approach called opioid agonist therapy.

Opioid agonist therapy uses medications such as suboxone and methadone to treat opioid addictions. Methadone prescriptions are currently administered through the Natoaganeg health centre.

$1.2 million from Health Canada

The new program will be run by the Gitpo Spirit Lodge and has received $1.2 million from Health Canada for two years. The treatment of the 30 participants from Natoaganeg is expected to begin in January. Patients will meet regularly with their health-care provider and daily or every other day with a support person who will help regulate their cannabis dosage.

The goal is for cannabis to be administered by health-care professionals on site at the Gitpo Spirit Lodge.

Dr. Shelley Turner, a member of Pimicikamak First Nation in Manitoba and an expert in medical cannabis, will educate the health-care providers on the use of medical cannabis for this therapy, also called cannabinoid therapy.

A woman with short hair and clear glasses in front of a blurred background.
Dr. Shelley Turner, the medical consultant for the program, said patients in this program will meet with a provider regularly and a cannabis navigator daily or every other day. (Zoom/CBC)

In low doses, Turner said, this medication can be quite beneficial. In her practice, she starts patients on THC, the main component in cannabis that causes a high, and CBD, an ingredient derived from the hemp plant which does not cause a high, in one milligram increments.

In comparison, she said a one-gram cannabis cigarette that’s 20 per cent THC could be potentially 200 milligrams of THC for the whole thing.

The program will also have a research component, led by the University of New Brunswick but very much guided by the community.

A sign in front of a forest area that says "Gitpo Spirit Lodge" with artwork of an eagle's head.
The Gitpo Spirit Lodge is a place for wellness, healing and skills development. (Michael Heenan/CBC)

“First Nations have been researched to the nth degree without their involvement, and this project is led by the community,” said Turner. “We are there as humble advisers and essentially subject matter experts to provide the guidance.”

Natoaganeg Chief George Ginnish said he recently spent three days with the Assembly of First Nations chiefs from across Canada, and a recurring theme was colonial trauma because of residential schools, day schools and the relationships with Canada.

Different people have different needs, said Ginnish, so he sees cannabinoid therapy is another possible tool to help members of the community.

A man, seen from the shoulder up, wearing a black shirt and slightly tinted glasses.
Natoaganeg Chief George Ginnish sees cannabinoid therapy as another possible ‘tool in our toolkit’ to help members of the community. (Michael Heenan/CBC)

“Being a leader in the community and seeing how damaging opioid addiction has been to people and even the methadone, even the treatment itself, wasn’t a quick fix,” said Ginnish. “And seeing many of our members struggle to break free of that — there was an opportunity here for an alternative treatment.”

He said the project might have the potential to go even further than the two years, depending on the research and evidence that comes out of it. But just having the support to do it initially, said Ginnish, is “an accomplishment in itself.”

“It’s not just important to us — it has potential to really help beyond this.”


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button