Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program staff, Cathie Wilson and Alexa Bisaillon in their new office on Gwa’sada-‘Nakwaxda’xw’s reserve. (Submitted photo)

Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program staff, Cathie Wilson and Alexa Bisaillon in their new office on Gwa’sada-‘Nakwaxda’xw’s reserve. (Submitted photo)

North Island First Nations offering harm reduction for severe alcoholism

The Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program aims to help chronic alcoholics recover their lives

Alcohol is being used as medication for some alcoholics on north Vancouver Island. It might seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but it’s a well-researched harm reduction strategy aimed at preventing potentially life-threatening effects of withdrawal.

The worst symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are seizures and delerium tremens — a sudden onset of psychosis, hallucinations, mood and/or behaviour changes that can last for days. They are both medical emergencies and can cause severe damage, even leading to death.

A daily dose of alcohol that’s just enough to stave off withdrawal, but not enough to get drunk on, is delivered to clients by health care professionals.The ultimate goal is for people to live fulfilling lives while managing the disorder.

“A client can go from struggling with alcohol use disorder to functioning with alcohol use disorder. They can live a happy and fulfilling life,” said nurse Alexa Bisaillon who’s running the Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program with outreach worker Cathie Wilson.

Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nations in Port Hardy started the north Island’s only managed alcohol program on late September. Indigenous people in the area with an alcohol use disorder diagnoses could be eligible, though it’s a case-by-case assessment. Alcohol use disorder is a medical diagnosis, defined as a chronic relapsing brain disorder where the person cannot control alcohol use even though it’s ruining other parts of their life.

Every day when Bisaillon and Wilson drop off the dose, they’ll spend time with the client checking in on other aspects of life. Daily in-person connections are a core aspect of the strategy that’s focused on holistic health. Transforming a condition that controls someone’s life into something that can be managed takes more than just medication, they say.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection,” said addictions and harm-reduction journalist Johann Hari. His words ring true for Wilson, who hopes that as Gwa’dzi clients get their alcohol use disorder under control, they can begin to renew relationships that have been damaged because of their addiction.

For someone with severe alcohol use disorder, finding alcohol is a powerful urge that eclipses other essentials, such as eating, drinking water, taking medication or paying rent. If a client doesn’t need to worry about where to get alcohol, they are gradually able to pay attention to the rest of their life.

An ideal outcome, Bisaillon said, is like this. “Someone has been struggling with alcohol use disorder for several years, is intook to the program and finds that happy medium dose of alcohol. They’re in the program for 10 years, and never experience withdrawal. Maybe they’re able to reconnect with their kids, with family and friends. They can hold an apartment for the first time in who knows how long. Maybe they get a part-time job. And they stay in the program and have a daily connection with us.”

It’s clearly not a quick turnaround program; Bisaillon and Wilson envision clients getting this level of support as long as they need it, potentially the rest of their lives.

Getting off alcohol doesn’t need to be the goal either, they said. “This is why detox doesn’t work for a lot of people, because you’re hit with sobriety immediately and it can be terrifying,” said Bisaillon.

“There are lots of reasons people drink, and being able to think straight for the first time in however many years can be really scary.” This is where the daily check-ins and connection to other health supports like counselling, become extra important.

Port Hardy RCMP are also on board; Corporal Chris Voller has updated policy so that if a Gwa’dzi client is in RCMP custody, they will be allowed to receive their daily dose of alcohol and a check in from Bisaillon and Wilson.

Outside of custody, the RCMP supports the program but Voller said violations of the law or public safety will not be excused.

“We will absolutely support this program where able, but will not condone those who may purposefully, or throughout their battle with addiction, make a mistake and abuse it in a manner that lends to criminality,” Voller said.

“After years in policing, I know that addicts make mistakes, and it needs to be expected. Supporting them in their journey to a healthier lifestyle is important. We will be patient and fair, while balancing the greater community’s needs with those of the individual clients.”

Voller often points out the importance of “culturally competent policing,” which in this case means being aware of the traumas that can lead to alcohol-based addictions.

“A large number of the clients we serve here in Port Hardy are residential school survivors, and/or suffered through forced community relocation, as well as the many who are secondary victims of multi-generation traumas associated to both,” he said.

To those who may balk at letting people access alcohol in police custody, Voller asks, “Would you withhold insulin from a diabetic?” Of course not, and preventing the medical emergency of severe alcohol withdrawal should be treated similarly. Withdrawal in police custody is time-consuming from a police resourcing perspective. An officer has to take the patient to the hospital and stay with them; time that could be spend doing more proactive police work, Voller said.

“If it helps the client, assists our resourcing, and strengthens relationship with key stakeholders, it would be irresponsible not to support it,” he said.

Bisaillon and Wilson were hired by Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw to start and run the program, which is being funded by the First Nations Health Authority for at least its first five years.

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca


BC HealthIndigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Aaron Stone, chairman of the Island Coastal Economic Trust, said ICET’s contribution of $250,000 towards the expansion plans at Shawnigan Lake Museum will help diversify and broaden the community’s reputation as a cultural and heritage draw. (File photo)
Shawnigan Lake Museum’s expansion plans gets financial boost

ICET contributes $250,000 towards $1.8-million project

Police looking for witnesses to robbery. (File photo)
RCMP looking for witnesses to Duncan robbery

Incident took place in Duncan on Oct. 30

North Cowichan council (pictured) held it’s first virtual council meeting back in April. Lake Cowichan council is following suit and will be posting their meetings on YouTube as well. (Screenshot)
Lake Cowichan going online with council meetings

For some, it’ll be the perfect background noise for deep sleep induction,… Continue reading

Stock photo
Late goal gives Fury edge over Quw’utsun

Local battle only game possible under sports travel ban

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lake Cowichan’s town hall is now locked. Members of the public can only enter by knocking or by phoning and making an appointment. (File photo)
$1.16-million in COVID cash granted to Lake Cowichan

Pandemic protocol locks town hall doors

Pickleball game in Vancouver on Sunday, November 8, 2020. B.C.’s public health restrictions for COVID-19 have been extended to adult team sports, indoors and outside. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
711 more COVID-19 cases detected in B.C. Friday

‘Virus is not letting up and neither can we’

Demonstrators, organized by the Public Fishery Alliance, outside the downtown Vancouver offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada July 6 demand the marking of all hatchery chinook to allow for a sustainable public fishery while wild stocks recover. (Public Fishery Alliance Facebook photo)
Angry B.C. anglers see petition tabled in House of Commons

Salmon fishers demand better access to the healthy stocks in the public fishery

(Hotel Zed/Flytographer)
B.C. hotel grants couple 18 years of free stays after making baby on Valentines Day

Hotel Zed has announced a Kelowna couple has received free Valentines Day stays for next 18 years

Farmers raise slogans during a protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the diplomatic scolding Canada’s envoy to India received on Friday for his recent comments in support of protesting Indian farmers. Tens of thousands of farmers have descended upon the borders of New Delhi to protest new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Trudeau brushes off India’s criticism for standing with farmers in anti-Modi protests

The High Commission of India in Ottawa had no comment when contacted Friday

Nurse Kath Olmstead prepares a shot as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday, July 27, 2020, in Binghamton, N.Y. U.S. biotech firm Moderna says its vaccine is showing signs of producing lasting immunity to COVID-19, and that it will have as many as many as 125 million doses available by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hans Pennink
Canada orders more COVID vaccines, refines advice on first doses as cases reach 400K

Canada recorded its 300,000th case of COVID-19 on Nov. 16

Apartments are seen lit up in downtown Vancouver as people are encouraged to stay home during the global COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer says provincewide data show the most important area B.C. must tackle in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is health inequity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Age, income among top factors affecting well-being during pandemic, B.C. survey shows

Among respondents earning $20,000 a year or less, more than 41 per cent reported concern about food insecurity

Victoria-based driving instructors are concerned for their own and the community’s safety with the continued number of residents from COVID hotspots in the Lower Mainland coming to the city to take their driving road tests. (Black Press Media file photo)
Students from COVID hotspots travel to Vancouver Island for driving tests

Union leader calls on government to institute stronger travel ban

The opening day on Mount Washington this year was Dec. 4. Screenshot
Mount Washington opens on time, COVID-19 protocols in place

“We’re super excited - it’s been six months in the planning.”

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix wears a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19, during an announcement about a new regional cancer centre, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, August 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
PHSA bought faulty respirators; spent money on catering, renovations: Dix

Such spending included ‘unnecessary, unbudgeted renovations’ to the authority’s headquarters in Vancouver

Most Read