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Out of Tragedy, One Indigenous Nation Built a New Mental Health Model

The Syilx/Okanagan Nation created a response team built on its culture and traditions. It’s working.

Sophie Carrigan Gray 2 Sep 2020Osoyoos Times

Sophie Gray is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with the Osoyoos Times focused on covering Indigenous communities in the region.

[Editor’s note: This article contains content about suicide, mental health and violence that may be upsetting to some readers.]

Kim Montgomery remembers the triple homicide like it was yesterday.

She had just moved back home to the Syilx/Okanagan Nation when it happened. She recalls how the 2004 shooting that killed three and severely injured two shook the Indigenous community to its core.

Montgomery’s cousin-in-law was one of the victims killed that night and she remembers the long wait for information.

“They had left the bodies up there for like a full day before anybody even knew who it was, and then once they brought the bodies down, they still didn’t know at the hospital who actually died,” she said. “They found out who was shot, but they didn’t know who died for hours and hours later.”

Few families in the Syilx/Okanagan Nation were untouched by Dustin Paul’s violent crime, but what really angered the nation was the lacklustre response by health officials.

Health Canada sent three social workers to the Penticton Indian Band to provide mental health support to the individuals affected, but their approach was culturally insensitive and badly received.

“They were non-Indigenous people, and the one person that was Indigenous worked from a different kind of framework and was very not engaging,” she recalls in a phone call from her house in the mountains of the Syilx/Okanagan territory. “It was like, you come to me, I’ll just sit here. And the community didn’t engage.”

Montgomery remembers the support workers stayed for only a day or two, because band families did not want to speak to them. She called it a “you come to me in my office” approach that did not take cultural practices and histories into account.

The half-hearted attempt sparked a fire for change in the Syilx/Okanagan Nation, which includes the Okanagan, Osoyoos, Penticton, Upper Nicola and Upper and Lower Similkameen Indian bands, Westbank First Nation and the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who is now the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, was the nation’s chief at the time.

Montgomery said Phillip had heard a talk by Ray McGuire, who had started a team of Indigenous social responders in an Indigenous community on Vancouver Island.

Phillip brought the idea back to the Syilx/Okanagan Nation and called Montgomery to help lead the change.

She helped develop training materials, building the new Okanagan Nation Response Team from scratch. With a master’s in social work from the University of British Columbia and Okanagan heritage, she was a perfect fit for the lead position on the team.

The Okanagan Nation Alliance asked each of the seven member communities to nominate two people to participate in the team on a voluntary basis. Each member would undergo 10 training sessions and learn how to support victims of trauma, mental health, grief and violence in the home.

“People sent youth, they sent Elders, they sent their councillors, they sent knowledge keepers, they sent construction crew — like it didn’t matter what profession they had, their go-to people came,” remembers Montgomery, who helped lead the training sessions.

The idea was that each volunteer, once trained in cultural histories, intergenerational trauma, non-violent communication and suicide prevention, could help their own community deal with traumas.

The first round of volunteers finished training just before the start of Paul’s trial in 2006. It would be the first of many trials and traumatic situations Montgomery and the Okanagan Nation Response Team would face in the coming years.

An Indigenous-informed approach

The second team of its kind in the province, the Okanagan Nation Response Team receives government funding from a program aimed at preventing suicide in First Nations communities.

Originally, suicide prevention and response were the team’s main focus. But its role has evolved to include mental health support, wellness checks, grief support and domestic and family violence.

Indigenous people are three times as likely to experience violent crime as non-Indigenous Canadians, while roughly one-quarter of all Indigenous Canadian women report being victims of domestic abuse. Youth and family violence are also much higher in First Nations communities across the country than among non-Indigenous people.

Intergenerational trauma and social issues like poverty and drug and alcohol use, combined with a lack of mental health support, have contributed to a crisis in many communities.

But the aftermath of the shootings showed that simply bringing in non-Indigenous mental health workers with little or no cultural knowledge is no solution, Montgomery said.

That’s why she believes the Okanagan Nation Response Team is so vital.

“One of our values, strong, sharp values, is relationships, and it’s the hub of everything we do,” she said. “So we don’t push things, we don’t move things so they go faster. We work with the family at their pace, and one of the biggest things is our people helping our people. That is a whole different way of doing work from an Indigenous perspective.”

Montgomery described her work in dealing with a critical situation involving the Osoyoos Indian Band. The process started with bringing a group of band influencers to the table.

Montgomery said she and the people from the band listed all the families touched by the incident and determined who at the table — or in the community — was the best person to reach out to each individual and family.

“I’m not going OK, I’m going to phone all these people and I’ll make sure they’re all OK, don’t worry about this, I’ve got it,” she said. “So it’s really about who knows Joe, who knows Tom, who knows Bill? OK, you take that person.”

They took a day to reach out and assess which families and individuals didn’t have the support they needed. Then they made plans to make sure those supports were provided and make plans to ensure they got it.

“That’s an example of an Indigenous approach,” Montgomery said.

Provincial and federal health systems dealing with trauma would more likely say “‘Send me a list, send me their email, my group’s coming in, if we need you, we’ll call,’” she added.

The team’s wrap-around approach, based on relationships and trust, has been very successful, she said.

Montgomery and the team have been recognized for their work nationally, and the original five-year pilot program has become a permanent source of support. The team is constantly expanding by training new volunteers so as many community members trained in trauma response as possible.

A huge part of the success is due to the wholly Indigenous model, informed from those within the communities they serve, she said. The team works with people who need support for as long as needed.

“Even the admin approach is from an Indigenous perspective,” said Montgomery. “It’s not like, ‘OK we responded, peace out.’ That’s that hit-and-run model, this is not. It’s very much an engagement-focused model and supportive model and that’s how we do work differently.”

Putting community needs first

Jennifer Lewis said working differently is critical. As the wellness manager for the Okanagan Nation Alliance, she oversees the Okanagan Nation Response Team and other programs aimed at improving health and wellness among the Syilx/Okanagan communities.

The team’s work in tackling entrenched social issues has been important, she said. And it’s just as it’s important that it’s a community initiative informed by the culture of the people being served.

“We have a right to support our nation members in a cultural manner, in a way that we decide as a people, that is needed,” Lewis said. “And that has to do with sovereignty as well.”

Sovereignty — in all its forms — is a big part of the team’s approach, she said. They use it to inform everything they do, including waiting to be asked to step in and help rather than pushing forward. Respecting boundaries is a big part of Syilx/Okanagan culture, stemming from the generations where self-sovereignty was stripped from people through residential schools, over-policing and racist government policies.

Lewis believes the Okanagan Nation Response Team is so important for the communities in part because relationships with first responders and government response teams have been so negative in the past.

“Our community has a long-standing history with the RCMP of mistrust and harm,” she said. “They have their own structures and their own policies, right? Like they have their own work hours... how are they able to adapt to community needs?”

Community needs are at the centre of the team’s approach. They’re focused on putting community protocols and practices into action to improve the health and wellness of their nation members.

Asked why the team is so vital to the community, Lewis said it’s because they know how to treat their own people.

“We know cultural protocols. We know families and family histories. We know our community,” she said. “Where we have relationships, we have more trust and willingness to ask for, and accept, support.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Health, Education

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