You would think having your kids taken away from you would be the wake-up call needed to kick an addiction. For Sarah Rene, this was not the case. When her drug use got so bad that her two daughters and son were taken from her, things only got worse.

Once her children were taken – her daughters to live with her mother and sister, her son to a centre for behavioral therapy – Rene spiraled into a daily cycle of drug use and depression.

Her day would consist of waking up in the morning, calling a drug dealer to get what she would need; cocaine, fentanyl, or maybe both. She would pick it up, go home to use it and fall into bed for the rest of the day; unconscious from the potent mix of drugs and emotional pain of her kids’ absence.

This was her life for approximately two years. The only exception was when she was sick or was able to visit her kids.

rene 2Sarah Rene standing outside Sunrise Healing Lodge. Photo courtesy of Sarah Rene.

“Then I would get up and make myself look as clean as I could,” says Rene. “I would go to my visit then I would come home and just bawl, cry and just lay in bed.”

Rene first started experimenting with drugs when she was 15, and throughout her life, she tried many times to get help at treatment centers, but she always relapsed. And when she tried Narcotics Anonymous, she would never complete the steps.

It wasn’t until she went to Sunrise Healing Lodge, the only treatment centre in Calgary that blends Indigenous culture and the 12-step program, that things started to turn around. Here, she was able to connect with her culture through traditional practices that deeply resonated with her.

According to Drug Rehab Services, there are over 190 drug and alcohol treatment options in Calgary, with a majority of them being Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and several treatment centres.

Most of these centres, but not all, have something in common: their treatment follows mainstream Western ideas of recovery and how to get there.

The Western-based recovery isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People from different cultures have benefited from these methods in the past and continue to do so. But sometimes, although well-intentioned, these methods are misaligned with culturally diverse beliefs and values.

There is no cure-all treatment method. Every individual is different and may require different treatment, whether it’s rooted in Indigenous culture and traditions or not.

Being aware of this, mainstream treatment organizations often refer clients to other organizations that better suit their needs.

In 2000, Rod McCormick, currently a professor and research chair in Indigenous Health at Thompson River University, wrote a paper titled Aboriginal Traditions in the Treatment of Substance Abuse. McCormick writes: “It is thought that differences in value orientations between Aboriginal people and mainstream health service providers led to different beliefs concerning the causes and solutions of mental health problems.”

Indigenous culture is collectively oriented, and mainstream Canadian culture is more individually oriented.

“Being connected to those things like family, community, culture, the land, spiritually; that is a source of strength for people,” says McCormick in a phone interview.

Rene, now 36, found this source of strength when she eventually went to Sunrise on May 2nd, 2018 after finishing a detox.

One of the first people she met at Sunrise was Jordan Bareshinbone, the cultural coordinator.

Rene was placed in a group with others who arrived that day. They each had to tell the story of themselves and Rene remembers how Bareshinbone listened.

“I just remember how uplifting he was, how much he appreciated me telling my story, and he listens. I could tell that he was more than listening, like he could feel my pain.” -Sarah Rene

Bareshinbone is responsible for organizing cultural events at Sunrise, including smudges in the morning, frequent visits from elders who come to talk to clients, and the once-a-month trip to a sweat lodge (although soon they will be hosting their own in a sweat lodge they are building at the centre).

Bareshinbone says these events and activities are beneficial to the recovery of their clients.

“It’s spiritual; that’s what I find a lot of people who come here lack,” he says.

“There are four things that we stress that you take care of here,” he continues. “The physical you, the emotional you, the mental you, and the spiritual you — take care of those. The one that’s not taken care of the most is the spiritual part.”

bareshinboneJordan Bareshinbone suffered from alcoholism for many years before becoming the cultural coordinator at Sunrise Healing Lodge. Photo by Mason Benning.

By nature, most, if not all the cultural activities at Sunrise are geared toward connecting to that spirituality. Something that Rene found in the sweat lodge.

The first time she went to sweat, she had a bit of a rough time.

“It was so draining. After it I had a really bad headache, and I felt really dehydrated, and I went to sleep,” she says.

The third time she went was when the spiritual side started to come through for her.

“It was really weird because during the sweat I had this white light that was coming towards me, and so I remember praying and asking for it to stay, and it did.”

Afterward, Rene talked to some people who said that the light was spirits that heard her prayers. They told her it was a big deal and doesn’t happen often.

“That was very healing for me,” says Rene.

The spirituality connected to these activities, and blended with mainstream methods such as the 12-step program, work well together.

According to the Alcoholics Anonymous website, the 12-step program is described as “a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

“The 12-step program, the whole Alcoholics Anonymous model, is quite popular in Indigenous communities,” says McCormick. “I think part of the reason is it’s very spiritually focused.”

But, as Bareshinbone said, the focus is not just on the spiritual. Rene found that the sweat lodge was also a test of her physical and mental resilience. She found that if she focused on praying, she could overcome the intense heat of the lodge.

“My very first sweat I was told…‘just pray; pray really hard, otherwise it will be really hot, and you’ll have to get out.’”

These practices are not only beneficial for Indigenous people, but many non-Indigenous people have used these methods to help with their addiction.

Harold Johnson is an author who wrote the Governor General Award-winning book Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing my People (and yours). He is also a former Crown prosecutor in Saskatchewan.

He says Indigenous practices work for non-Indigenous people because some of the methods, such as land-based treatment, can be found in other cultures.

“The Japanese talk about forest bathing and evidence from their studies show that being in nature has a positive impact on people.” -Harold Johnson

Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, in Japanese culture was developed in the 1980s and according to, “The idea is simple: if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating, and restorative benefits to be achieved.”

A similar land-based treatment activity implemented at Sunrise is the occasional visit to Nose Hill Park to pick sage.

When Rene went sage picking, she was surprised because, despite a rainstorm, she found it to be a healing experience.

“I’m so scared of lightning and thunder,” says Rene. “But I don’t know what it was. It was about being up there and finding sage and doing all this. It was just a really cool experience.”

Although these examples come from Japanese and Indigenous culture, Johnson says that these land-based treatment methods would also work for other non-Indigenous people.

“Nature doesn’t recognize race,” says Johnson. “Our culture, the spiritual side of it, doesn’t allow for proselytization.” This means that they do not attempt to convert anyone to any religion or opinion. “We don’t preach,” he continues. “We show by example.”

Freda Sakebow is the treatment manager at Poundmaker’s Lodge, a treatment centre North of Edmonton, that like Sunrise, uses Indigenous culture alongside the 12-step program. 

At Poundmaker’s, they adhere to this by not pushing any clients who might be part of a different belief system.

“We also support those that prefer to attend church, people that grew up with Christianity or some faith like that,” says Sakebow. “We don’t discourage them, we continue to support them in their faith; the significance is in having a higher power. We’re not trying to convert anyone.”

Johnson says the best way people can come to learn about these practices is through curiosity.

“When we get to a point when everyone is dedicated to increasing their understanding of their place on the planet,” says Johnson.  “That’s it, to encourage people to seek their own understanding.”

One place that people have gone to seek that understanding is Bow Valley College in Calgary,  where Indigenous material is integrated into the programs.

One of these programs is addiction studies. Once completed, there is an optional Addictions Studies Aboriginal Focus diploma, which is an additional year of schooling.

The Aboriginal Focus program is taught mostly by teachers from Indigenous backgrounds.

Thalia Anderen is a registered clinical social worker and program coordinator of the addiction studies and social work program at Bow Valley College. She says students who choose to take the Aboriginal Focus program have to take courses specific to Indigenous culture and history.

Anderen says students coming into the program often don’t have a lot of knowledge about the Indigenous side of addiction treatment.

“We definitely have a lot of learners that are coming into the program that haven’t had any solid education on Indigenous history and culture,” says Anderen.

This lack of education might lead to a steep learning curve for methods other than the typical medical model.

“It really comes down to the professionals’ – or in our case, our learners’ – willingness and openness to be aware of all of their clients’ cultural background,” says Anderson. “And understand them within their own environment and cultural context.”

Although Rene’s children are still not back with her, she is doing her part to instill curiosity into the next generation, starting with her son.

“He has his own smudging kit, and he smudges every day. I’ve taught him, ‘If you’re ever upset or sad, if you want to pray, then you can smudge and do that,’” says Rene.

She also brought him with her to her last sweat lodge visit with Sunrise.

“I thought maybe it might be too much for him, but he’s 12 years old and so many kids go to sweats, I was told, so you know what, why not. So, he did it with me, and he really enjoyed it.”

Rene has asked her daughters if they want to go to a sweat lodge, but they have been a bit more hesitant and haven’t taken to it yet.

Having her son learn these practices has helped with her own recovery. 

“That’s very healing for me, that I’m teaching my son and he’s doing it too. It feels good to pass that on to him.”

As an alumni of Sunrise and a parent, it’s not only important for Rene to heal herself, but also to prevent future generations from falling into the cycle of addiction.

“We’re breaking the cycle and passing on good things… As soon as I see that I can break that cycle for my children and then maybe their children, then that’s something I have to do.”

Report an Error or Typo

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Very well written and informative. I had taken an addiction studies program 10 years ago, unfortunately it didn’t have an Indigenous component.
    I’m going to pick up the book Firewater that is mentioned in the article.
    Thank you for the info Mason. 🤗

Leave a comment

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