First Nations hire outreach workers to find their own people on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

·3 min read

Haisla First Nation outreach worker James Harry had vision as he walked the streets and alleys of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside looking for his own people struggling with addiction and helping them get off the streets.

He envisioned outreach workers from other First Nations working with him. And now his vision is becoming a reality.

Outreach workers from the Squamish, Heiltsuk and Nisga'a First Nations are now making connections with their citizens living in the inner city, united under the banner of All Nations Outreach. Other First Nations are also talking to him about joining, he says.

In a neighbourhood where hope is a rare commodity, their efforts ensure that hope touches one person at a time.

"We can help, guide and support each other and really can get our people off the streets, possibly even home, and get them the help that they need," Harry said. "We need to let our people down here know that they matter. That we all deserve to heal."

Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC
Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC

I'm like an anchor

The Nisga'a Ts'amiks Vancouver Society, which delivers programs and services to 1,400 Nisga'a citizens living in Metro Vancouver, hired Lynne Clayton as its new urban outreach worker last spring.

Clayton said she was in a car accident in northern B.C. that nearly killed her. Convinced that she'd been granted a second chance at life, she committed to helping urban Nisga'a struggling with addictions in one of Vancouver's poorest neighbourhoods.

She travels the streets and alleys of the Downtown Eastside daily, greeting other Nisga'a with "Aam wilaa wilina" (how are you) when she sees them. Their reasons for landing there are the same as other Indigenous people she sees — trauma, Clayton says.

"There's a lot of historical trauma in their lives, and their parents' and grandparents' lives," she said. "They're in a storm and I'm like an anchor. I'll hang onto them until the worst part is over."

James Harry
James Harry

You're not alone

Dakota Auckland, 22, says he was like anyone else when he started using alcohol and drugs as a teen in Vancouver. But within a decade, fuelled by depression, the Haisla First Nation citizen says his addiction to crystal meth, heroin and crack overtook him.

"Waking up I'd be wanting drugs straight away," Auckland says. "It was out of control for the last five years."

He was sleeping in an alley and fishing whatever he could out of garbage cans on the Downtown Eastside. His body was covered in wounds and sores, and internal damage from dirty drugs was taking a toll. He'd overdosed several times and had been in and out of hospital.

Gordon Loverin/CBC
Gordon Loverin/CBC

Harry was on an outreach walk in an alley when he found Auckland. He said what he always does when he meets another Haisla struggling. "My name is James Harry. I'm here on behalf of the Haisla Nation, and I want you to know you're not alone."

Auckland says the words pierced his hard exterior. "I felt like crying because I felt so alone," he says.

Harry stopped to see Auckland weekly and even daily for the next 18 months. Sometimes he just visited, but he always encouraged him to heal. "James always encouraged me to go to treatment but I wasn't interested then," Auckland says.

Last spring, Auckland says he was convinced he was going to die if he used any longer, so he reached back to Harry ready to change. He first spent time in the hospital before moving to a men's mental health and recovery home in Prince Rupert, near the Haisla Nation's main community at Kitimat on B.C.'s North Coast.

He's still at the recovery home and has been drug and alcohol free for nearly eight months. He eats and sleeps regularly, and participates in support programs.

"James always said 'There's another life waiting for you if you want it,' " Auckland says. "I can't believe I'm here because I shouldn't be."