Five Questions with Jillian Jones and Stephen Thomson

This month, Stephen Thomson, Provincial Harm Reduction Coordinator, and Jillian Jones, Provincial Mental Health Coordinator from Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC) joined us to talk about MNBC’s ongoing Alcohol Dialogue sessions.

Métis Nation British Columbia represents approximately one-third of the Aboriginal population in BC. MNBC works on behalf of the nearly 90,000 self-identified Métis people and over 19,000 Métis Citizens. Their goal is to develop and enhance opportunities for Métis people and the Métis Chartered Communities by implementing culturally relevant social and economic programs and services.

The MNBC Alcohol Dialogue sessions came from the findings of four community engagement forums on mental health and addictions held in 2018. These forums were open to anyone who was interested in participating, and brought together youth, Elders, and individuals with family and lived-experience with mental health and addiction challenges. In MNBC’s report (Conversation on Mental Health and Addictions – 2018) derived from these forums, it was noted that “a more fulsome conversation on alcohol use/misuse in Métis Chartered Communities still needs to happen”.

It is necessary to engage and hold space for Métis individuals to take part in safe, Métis-led conversations on difficult topics; specifically, to proactively engage in conversations about alcohol use; including harm reduction, moderation and heavy sessional drinking (binge drinking), and the harmful impacts and preventable deaths/injuries that can occur as a result of alcohol misuse. The MNBC Alcohol Dialogue sessions aim to hold this place and be a part of community-lead and culturally relevant learning.

Continue reading below for the Q&A!

1. Originally MNBC was planning to host three in-person community forums, but because of COVID-19, this plan has needed to shift. What have been some of the difficulties, and what have been some of the ways MNBC has successfully adapted and pivoted in wake of COVID-19?

Métis Nation British Columbia originally planned to use the CAI alcohol dialogue grant to hold targeted dialogue sessions in specific communities across the province. These dialogues were intended to be representative of distinct regions in BC, seeking to understand how perceptions of alcohol use, supports for people using alcohol, and experiences with alcohol vary from place to place while also helping to inform a provincial strategy.

Jillian Jones – Provincial Mental Health Coordinator

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we set forth to host these conversations online over Zoom. This presented another hurdle: how do we have meaningful engagement and dialogue about such a heavy topic without losing participants’ voices and while making the online venue a safe space to share personal experiences?

This challenge prompted a series of shifts. First, we hired a facilitator who was experienced with both leading dialogue about heavy subjects and using online tools and spaces to hold this work. Second, we sought to build capacity and Community around our participants.

Beginning in July, we found champions from across the province who wanted to participate and help guide the work. These champions have received training in dialogue facilitation and have been asked to help guide our objectives. From their counsel, we are proceeding with a peer group model, creating a group of about 20 people from across the province and building an online community and supports around these participants. While we aren’t reaching the same number of people, our hope is to have a meaningful impact on peoples’ lives and to genuinely improve how participants handle alcohol use.

2. MNBC articulated the need to create an opportunity to engage and hold space for Métis individuals to take part in culturally safe, Métis-led conversations around alcohol use. Why is a Métis specific community-led approach to alcohol use so essential?

For years, the Métis have been referred to as the “forgotten people” because of their consistent exclusion in the Canadian political landscape, reflected in the fact that the Métis were only considered an Aboriginal population under the Constitution in 1982. This is despite facing the same racism, social displacement and economic marginalization as First Nations and Inuit communities. There are over 90,000 Métis in British Columbia, representing 1/3rd of the Aboriginal population, and yet very little is known about the challenges faced by the Métis around all aspects of health, including alcohol use and misuse. Further compounding these issues is the tendency to group all Aboriginal data together, or to report items as First Nations, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, completely excluding the Métis from any and all mention.

Highlighting the Métis experience allows us to directly respond to repeated exclusion by researchers, government, and other stakeholders, while also helping us develop policy and approaches that are receptive to our Nation’s needs and interests.

By taking a Métis specific approach, we are able to hear the distinct needs of our people, the different challenges our Citizens face and use this to inform our response. Furthermore, we can weave our distinct culture throughout this work, creating a safe space for participants while adding the uniqueness of our people.

3. MNBC kicked off their alcohol dialogue project by administering a community-wide survey to help capture community attitudes and perceptions towards alcohol use, and in addition gauge interest in the community dialogue sessions. Did anything about the process and the results surprise you? What have been some of your biggest learnings from the survey?

It was absolutely amazing to see how many of our Métis Community members took time to complete the survey! In the first day alone, we had close to 700 respondents. What this made abundantly clear was that Métis individuals want to engage in safe, Métis-led dialogues around alcohol use – as evidenced by the sheer number of survey responses received. In total, 1003 people completed the survey.

Stephen Thomson – Provincial Harm Reduction Coordinator

Not only did we have an incredible number of respondents, but in examining readiness to engage in dialogues around alcohol use, the majority of respondents shared that they felt comfortable in having these conversations; 83.5% of our Métis respondents shared that they felt comfortable talking about alcohol use and addictions with others. This leads well into our work with hosting the Alcohol and Community Health Dialogue Forums, as we know that we have Communities that are interested and ready to engage.

Some of our learnings from the survey were incredibly positive. Overall, results of the survey showed that the majority of our Métis respondents showed support for harm reduction approaches, and also overwhelmingly rejected prevailing societal stigma. The majority of Métis survey respondents rejected stigmatized statements such as; “people struggling with alcohol use cannot be helped until they have hit rock bottom” (71.4% disagreed or strongly disagree); “people who are struggling with alcohol use are not good people” (94.0% disagreed or strongly disagreed), and; “people who struggle with alcohol use are weak” (79.5% disagreed or strongly disagreed).

Further, the majority of Métis survey respondents embraced statements such as; “people struggling with alcohol use deserve compassion” (89.5% agreed or strongly agreed), and; “people who struggle with alcohol can recover and lead full lives” (96.7% agreed or strongly agreed).

4. Some of our other funded alcohol dialogues have focused exclusively on a specific age and gender (i.e. teenage girls). MNBC originally planned to target youth specifically with one of the dialogue events, while the other dialogues would have a community-wide approach. Both age/gender specific and community-wide approaches are essential but may have different results. In your opinion, what are the benefits of both approaches, and what might be some of the differences you see in the community-wide vs. the youth dialogue?

We have worked to structure the development of these sessions in as collaborative and as Community-led an approach as possible. In doing so, we’ve been privileged to work with an incredible group of Métis champions, who have been working with us as co-hosts to plan our dialogue sessions. The group of co-hosts have been made up primarily of Métis Youth from the Métis Youth Mental Health and Wellness Initiative, who have been absolutely essential in moving this work forward.

In coming together for collaborative conversations in planning for this work with our co-hosts, we have decided that we want to host forums that represent the diversity in our communities. We believe the coming together of folks from different perspectives could contribute a level of richness to this work; an opportunity for all to learn from voices we may not have otherwise had the chance to connect with. Our hope is that these sessions will have everyone ranging from Elders to Youth, folks from different communities across BC, diverse gender representation, and more, coming together from our different walks of life to discuss a topic of shared interest; alcohol use and Community health.

These sessions will allow everyone to connect with their own wisdom around this issue, to share their stories and ideas, to learn from each other, and to explore new possibilities for health and resilience in the Métis Community. We hope that these sessions will honour the diverse voices, wisdom, and experiences of our Métis Community members; when we combine our voices, our knowledge, and our vision we can creatively build on the strengths and resilience that already exist in our communities.

5. What are you most excited about for your work?

Jillian: I am really looking forward to these dialogues and am honoured to be able to share in this work with everyone. I whole-heartedly believe that these sessions will provide a beautiful, powerful opportunity to allow for safe, Métis-led dialogue on a topic that is deeply important and is something that has profoundly impacted so many. I hope for it to be an opportunity to bring Community members together (virtually) safely, and to build a sense of Community and connection.

Further, I believe work that impacts and is for Métis Communities needs to be driven by Métis Community members. I know that Métis Community members are deeply passionate about this topic – it was shown beautifully in the sheer responsiveness to the Perceptions on Alcohol Use survey alone. The work we do needs to be drawn from the insights, expertise, and wisdom of Métis Communities. I know these sessions will provide an incredible opportunity to hear and learn from Métis voices, and allow us a way to meaningfully inform the work that Stephen and I do for MNBC.

Stephen: I’m very excited to be part of this work. I think there is a lot we can teach and learn from each other about alcohol and how it has affected us all, while also coming together in a safe and meaningful way to support each other and our Nation.

I hope to learn a lot from this work about what I can do to further the needs of our people and to start to develop Métis-specific teachings, policies and practices that can improve the lives of our people across BC. I want this to be a living, breathing piece that is guided and developed by all of us and continues to grow as we continue to connect and engage with each other.