[Editor's note: This article is Part Three in a six-part series on Native youth speaking out about their challenges and their dreams. The 14 young people interviewed for this series are introduced in Part One.]
"Let me tell you why we drink," says 16-year-old Monica Sam. She leans back, cocks her head, and looks me in the eye.
"In Grade 9, me and my brother discovered alcohol. It caused us to skip school, so we got kicked out. So then we were drinking even more. It got really heavy. That summer, my brother passed away. He got too drunk and died of hypothermia."
Soon after, Monica's mother was diagnosed with cancer. "It spread to her brain, and she died in July. In two years, I have lost my brother and my mom, as well as two cousins. So that's why I don't go to school too much."
Monica still drinks, but not as much. "The difference between me and my brother is that I always make it in." She says that the worst thing that has ever happened to her was being brought to the hospital. "I can't remember what happened, I couldn't wake up."
Patrick left school in Grade 11 because he didn't have a place to live in Port Alberni. Back in his home village at Hot Springs Cove, he was soon caught up in a cycle of smoking and boozing.
"Pot's an everyday thing. Some days I could just not do nothing, just get high. When I start drinking, I could go not just a day or two, I could go for a couple of weeks." But he acknowledges, "It's just dragging me down. I'd like to go back to school, but my habits are getting the best of me."
'Heart stuff' for life
Pat indicates that, in his community, peer pressure is strong to drink -- and especially to get young kids to start drinking. "I started drinking at 11, and had ulcers by 13-and-a-half." He also has had alcohol poisoning, and has what he calls "heart stuff" for life.
Pat figures that about half of the 90 people who live in Hot Springs Cove drink. There are only a handful of kids his own age. "There used to be more, but some have moved to Nanaimo or Port Alberni, and some are in jail."
I wondered if the high level of drinking up here was due to having nothing to do -- if maybe things were better in the bigger centres like Port Alberni. He shakes his head. "It's way worse in Port Alberni. I hardly get to see my friends there, so when we do get together we just want to have fun."
Pat readily acknowledges that there are "more ways of having fun than getting drunk and smoking weed." He tells me how it stops people in his community from getting together on culture nights, how it's even mostly stopped him from what he is most passionate about: playing basketball.
"Before I started drinking, all the kids used to show up for basketball. The older boys would teach us. Now, as soon as our group turned into teenagers, they call us, 'Let's go party.' The older kids are supplying it. We go over, and not even an hour later people will want to fight, once the booze gets into you.
"Drinking is separating everyone. We get rough, and rowdy, and people start fighting. Our community is not as close as we used to be."
Pat and his father recently moved from Hot Springs Village back to Port Alberni. They, along with his brother, talk openly about their addictions and their effects. "We are talking about going to a treatment centre soon. I'd say that it's a start. My dad's really trying to stay sober too. He asks, 'Who is going to stop in our family?' Because if we don't, our nieces and nephews are probably going to do it too..."
'Better off in the States'
Pat also acknowledges how peer pressure, and role modeling from family and community play an influence. "I grew up watching it, seeing it." He fondly remembers a family trip by canoe to Tulalip, Washington, as part of Tribal Journeys 2003, when he was 12.
"We would have been better off if we had stayed in the States. We wouldn't be potheads and alcoholics. The family we stayed with is a sober family. They don't do any substances. I'd probably be just about done school, too, if we'd stayed."
For the Squamish kids in North Van, too, the issue of alcohol and pot, as well as harder drugs, is ever-present.
Sarah says she has some relatives who do a lot of drinking, and she sees the effects first-hand. "I see my young cousins exposed to it, their parents drinking. Even at age seven, the kids are going to get drinks for them. I don't think they should be learning that when they are eight or 10, not till they are at least 13 or so." Sarah's parents did drink in the past, but she says that they're good role models now.
One of the teens says that "half of [her] family" is on drugs. "I walked in on my uncle shooting up. He apologized. But I don't go over there any more." She feels affected by their using, and by the hurt she sees being propagated down through the generations.
Another says he has a sister who is "on all that stuff" and who has had her kids taken away. "Her 11-year-old daughter is back with her now, but we're not sure how long that's going to last."
LanLan also has an aunt who did "hard drugs" while carrying her kids. "We were just so happy they even survived." But the four kids are now in care and split up, being raised by three different families.
The exposure these kids have had seems to have given them a degree of perspective and wisdom. "Yeah, we drink," the Squamish kids admit, "but more like a celebration. It's casual, and it depends on whether we have money or not. It's not a problem or out of control. If we don't have a lot of money, we just go to a movie or something."
Bud notes that, "If you're active, it keeps your mind off things. And if you keep your body working, it keeps you from doing those things." Here in North Vancouver, the kids are luckier than those from some of the smaller communities; they keep active and keep their minds occupied through a number of community centres nearby, where they can play video games, air hockey, ping pong, or pool, or simply hang out.
'I just stopped'
Several of the kids that I spoke with have overcome past addictions. Becky started drinking when she was 14 and in Port Alberni. "It was harsh. My boyfriend Gary's cousin died because of alcohol, and the cops had to pick me up once."
Becky found herself pregnant at 17 by her boyfriend of three years, but they were aware of the risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). "I know people who keep drinking when they have kids. But I just stopped, and Gary stopped too."
Like her classmate Monica, Belinda from Port Alberni also started young. "I started drinking and everything when I was 12. I started hanging out with the wrong people. I was drugging, I grew up with it, too. I am glad it only went on for a couple of years, though."
Belinda had spent several years of her life in foster care. Her parents drank, and so did some of her foster parents. Her parents sobered up eight years ago, and she has been living with them ever since.
For Belinda, several personal crises made her wise up, including a car wreck. "I totally changed."
Another significant factor for her was the birth of her young cousin Seth. "He was telling me he doesn't like when I drink or smoke. He loves me so much." Belinda quit drinking over a year ago. "I go to school. I got fed up with my drinking life."
These days Belinda keeps busy, playing on several different basketball teams as well as playing hockey over winter, and she doesn't miss the drinking or drugging at all.
For Monica, too, sports has helped her at least to slow down on her drinking. Since her brother and then mother died, she and her youngest sister have lived with her aunt and uncle. "I am still drinking, but not as much. It got really heavy after my mom passed away. But then I got a phone call saying I made Team B.C. for the Indigenous Games for softball." The 2008 Indigenous Games were held in Duncan that August; Monica's team took the bronze medal.
'Not only natives have these problems'
As I press on with questions about drinking and drugs, Squamish teenager Joan points out emphatically, "It's not only Natives who have these problems." And she is right. According to the 2003 Adolescent Health Survey, which was completed by over 30,500 B.C. students in grades seven through 12, usage patterns of alcohol and marijuana do not vary a lot between Native and non-Native youth.
For alcohol use, use by aboriginal students was only slightly higher (67 per cent) than by non-aboriginals (57 per cent). However, nearly 50 per cent of the native youth had tried alcohol by the time they were 12. Rates of binge-drinking were also similar between off-reserve natives and the population in general. The significant difference was for native youth who live on reserve, of whom 28 per cent were frequent binge-drinkers.
The survey found a more significant difference in marijuana use -- 53 per cent of aboriginal youth reported having tried it, compared to only 36 per cent of non-aboriginal youth. But among those who have tried it, frequency of use is similar.
What seems to be different, though, between the two groups, is the role modelling that kids receive from the adults in their lives. Several of the young people I interviewed, when talking about their own addictions, told me, "I grew up with it."
There is clearly a relation between substance abuse and family health. Dysfunctional families engender substance-abuse problems, as both children and adults seek coping mechanisms or desensitization to deal with trauma.
But substance abuse also threatens families themselves. Parents who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to have their children apprehended, and thus to have the very structure of their family unravelled.
In the next article in this series, we will look at family influences, and how removal of children into temporary or permanent care can have lasting emotional effects upon them.
Tomorrow: Psychic scars, handed down.