Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Giving kindness to each other—Kimmapiiyipitssini. It’s a Blackfoot word, pronounced GEE-maa-bee-bit-sin. It’s the name given by filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers to her documentary on the impacts of substance use, the overdose epidemic and the treatment provided at one nation in southern Alberta.
Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, which is co-produced and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada, will open in select Canadian theatres in November.
Tailfeathers documents the shift from abstinence-based models to harm reduction in Kainai First Nation.
She wrote and directed the film to highlight the impacts of opioids in her community, and the path towards alternative treatments. In an artist statement she writes that the film “also serves to honour the lives of those lost to this crisis. I am immensely proud of Kainai and everyone who is contributing to this monumental effort to save lives.”
In 2020, fentanyl claimed more than 2,000 lives in British Columbia and Alberta, the provinces hardest hit by the drug-poisoning crisis. A disproportionate number of those lives lost to drug poisoning were Indigenous.
Kainai First Nation was overwhelmed by this crisis.
“Every week we lost loved ones, and grief permeated every aspect of our lives,” says Tailfeathers.
“Each and every one of them had a story and legitimate reasons for developing addictions,” she says. “They were human beings with hopes, dreams and aspirations. They had people who loved them, and their deaths were preventable. That is certain.”
Kimmapiiyipitssini is a film made working with the community, rather than a film made about the community. The opening scene shows a buffalo calf with its mother. The warm voiceover of Tailfeather’s own mother, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, can be heard marvelling over the new life.
Elle-Máijá includes in the film her family’s own loss of a dear grandchild. Her grandparents share their voices, describing what is a shared experience for many—living with the pain of losing a loved one to opioids. The film is dedicated to her grandfather, Otahkoitaa Lester Tailfeathers.
Esther is a physician. Her calm voice weaves in and out of the film. She is seen supporting community members through their first Suboxone steps in treatment, prescription opioid agonist treatments for safer, gradual withdrawal, and communicating the potential of harm reduction initiatives, including needle exchange and supervised injection sites.
The film explains how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step programs have been the treatment model for decades. Indigenous communities have accepted abstinence-based treatment models as the gold standard for treating addiction, notes Elle-Máijá. Some people believe abstinence is the only way to address addictions. In one scene, Tailfeathers gently asks about AA texts. “When was that written?” The AA ‘big book’ was written in 1939.
The film demonstrates the curve of learning that conventional abstinence-based treatment models are not effective in saving lives.
“The drug-poisoning crisis has revealed that abstinence isn’t a realistic, or even a humane, expectation for those addicted to substances like fentanyl,” says Elle-Máijá.
New substances require new approaches, she says. New approaches can hold fresh solutions to old problems, too.
“When one has a severe dependence on alcohol, it can actually be life threatening to completely quit drinking without medical assistance,” says the filmmaker.
One thread through the film follows George and Leah, a couple who love each other through their struggles with homelessness and alcohol dependence. Where others pass by, turning away from homeless people on streets, here the camera captures Leah’s beauty and the strength of George’s gentle ways. They know the hurdles of long wait lists for treatment centres, but persist. Unfortunately, they also know the cycle of finishing treatment without a home to go to for continued healing.
Compassionate emergency response is key, the film demonstrates. Roxi White Quills is a young Blood tribe EMS. In her work, she recognizes friends from her childhood birthday parties. “They’ve experienced that intergenerational trauma every day of their lives,” says White Quills. The work is hard, but she centres on a first response that is warm with “empathy, and care.”
When the community decided to focus on harm reduction, they saw and felt a dramatic shift.
The Sage Clan is a grassroots outreach program in nearby Lethbridge, Alta. featured in the film. The volunteers’ mandate is to serve, assist, guard and engage. Every night they patrol to connect and offer help. Some of the volunteers are motivated by their own losses. Sylvester “Sly” Daniels brings his voice of experience.
“When I was in the darkness of doing all that dope,” Daniels says, “there were people like us [the Sage Clan]. They would come up to me, and ask me if I’m ok. That brings you a light,” Daniels shares.
When the Sage Clan meets on a street corner they lift their voices in song. It’s heartening despite the daily, hourly, pain they witness, which takes a heavy toll.
A TOTAL COLLAPSE OF OUR WAY OF LIFE
Tailfeathers’ film moves from deep sharing to the real work of responders and medical professionals responding to the opioid crisis.
In one voice over, Tailfeathers shares, “When I think of how dramatically and how rapidly things changed for my people, it takes my breath away.”
Her clear voice explains how Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, “weaponized hunger as a means to violently dominate.”
“His motivation was our land and resources. After Canada sanctioned the slaughter of the buffalo to near extinction, our people witnessed a total collapse of our way of life, followed by unprecedented starvation and death.”
The power imbalance and deception of land treaties is explained in the film.
“Our leaders were misled into thinking treaties were a peaceful resolution to the state’s brutal warfare tactics,” says the filmmaker. “At no time did our leaders agree to surrender our land.” Forbidden to leave reserves without passes, children forced into residential schools, an entire way of life was attacked on all levels.
All these changes happened within 20 years, Tailfeathers’ notes. That is the heart of ongoing intergenerational trauma, and the foundation of addictions issues.
“Their deaths make it impossible to ignore the gaping wound left by the ongoing impacts of settler-colonialism,” says Tailfeathers.
The film takes care to explain the roots of the trauma, and gives examples of community bringing hope.
Dr. Tailfeathers says “Kimmapiiyipitssini means compassion… In our way of believing, if you help people out then you are blessed to continue to do that, and so our people are supposed to give what they have or what they can to help.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.