Tough love among the Ahousaht

A native band has a radical plan for dealing with alcohol abusers. And it may be working.

Keven Drews/ Mike Deal/CP

In tiny Ahousaht, an isolated Nuu-chah-nulth community off the coast of Tofino, B.C., concepts like the Criminal Code of Canada and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are called “European law.” For many on the reserve, which has seen more than its share of tragedy, it remains a foreign justice system, one that has done little to curb a plague of addiction and all its ugly friends: despair, violence, accident, suicide.

This spring, community leaders—concerned by the poisonous impact of addictions, bootlegging and drug dealing—turned their back on modern legal remedies, and drew on the authority of their ancient laws. Hereditary chiefs and traditional law keepers went door-to-door on the Flores Island reserve in a lightning quick sweep of chronic offenders. They issued an edict: get clean or get out.

In all, 32 men and women ranging from 17 to 58 were transported 45 minutes by boat to a disused logging camp on the mainland at Sydney Inlet for eight intense weeks of cleansing, therapy and traditional teaching. Six refused treatment and were ordered to leave the community. Some threatened court action, but they have since backed down.

The RCMP stayed resolutely in the background during the roundup. Some were upset at the forced treatment, but none complained to police, says Sgt. Jeff Preston, RCMP detachment commander for Tofino-Ahousaht. “We had no role whatsoever in determining who was on the list to go,” he says. “We stood back to keep the peace, and to ensure the Charter of Rights was upheld.” This was band business, a collective message from the membership, said elected Chief John O. Frank: “We’ve had enough of your shenanigans. We’re going to take you to a place, whether you like it or not,” he said. “Or, you’re going to remove yourself from the community.”

Whether the roundup and threat of banishment exceeds the band’s authority under the Indian Act or violates band members’ constitutional rights was not a major consideration, says Frank, 60. “It certainly worked before the white man came around,” he said of banishment, “so why wouldn’t it work again?” His brother Dave Frank, Ahousaht’s 63-year-old health services manager, and one of those who helped plan the treatment, admits he doesn’t like banishment. Odds are the troublemakers would end up in cities like Port Alberni or Vancouver, where half the band lives, making trouble for relatives there, he says. Still, the health of the community is paramount, he says. “We’re faced with this Western law that protects individual rights. Our traditional law protects the community as a whole over an individual.”

Traditionally, the Nuu-chah-nulth had an escalating response to crime and chronic anti-social acts, says Dave Frank. First came attempts to help offenders change, he says. “And if that didn’t happen, then this person would be taken out in a canoe, miles offshore, and just let go without a paddle. No water or nothing.” If they drifted ashore in another’s territory, that nation would decide if the offender would be taken in, or sent away.

Such tough love holds appeal for traditionalists in Ahousaht. But, adds Dave Frank with a laugh, “Our chiefs today said we need to refine that a little bit.” Far from casting people adrift, the focus is on support. As Chief Frank put it, “We’re saying, hey, we know you can get onto a better track in life than what you’re doing. Let us help stand you up.”

Ahousaht is not alone in invoking traditional laws like the threat of banishment, a serious punishment in a society where relationships with people, land and the environment are all-important, he says. In Manitoba, both the Peguis First Nation and the Norway House Cree have threatened chronic offenders with banishment.

For Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations—and an Ahousaht hereditary chief—the assertion of traditional justice is long overdue. His recent call to repeal the Indian Act within five years draws from a well of painful personal experience. His village was so dysfunctional when it was in the grip of addictions, he remembers being shocked when he went to the city. “I didn’t understand when adults weren’t fighting out on the streets, or why people just didn’t break out in violence, because it was so common [in Ahousaht],” he told Maclean’s. “When it was bad it was brutal and it was horrific.”

Atleo, now a robust 43-year-old, grew up believing that living past age 29 would be a great accomplishment. Half of his contemporaries in the village are dead, most of them through suicide, accident or other forms of violent death. In 2005, Atleo, then a young regional chief, testified about the crisis in Ahousaht before a Senate committee studying mental health issues. In six months that year, there were 60 suicide attempts in a band of 1,800, only half of whom lived on the reserve. “People in their mid-fifties and children as young as eight are attempting and committing suicide,” he told senators.

Atleo says the community suffers “post-traumatic stress,” the legacy of the residential school system and of the Indian Act. “We’re dealing with a 100-year assault on our people. It’s just an outright assault on identity, on the fabric of family, on culture, our society, our government systems, our practice of spirituality, on our laws,” he says. “What is required, not just in my village but more broadly,” he says, “is that First Nations jurisdiction over justice be recognized.”

Ahousaht’s treatment plan took a year to develop. A budget of about $100,000 was cobbled together from various sources, including the Residential Schools Healing Project, aided by many volunteers. There was a psychologist; a doctor and nurses helped people through withdrawal. There were visits from family, and a heavy cultural component. There were sweat lodges and cleansing ceremonies. Some learned skills they’d lost or never had, like hunting ducks, or field-dressing deer. They carved masks and paddles. They made drums. They sang. They danced. They raged. They took “medicine walks” in the green cathedral of the forest. A group of Christian musicians came from Port Hardy. “Some of our people are Christians, they lean in that direction,” says Dave Frank. That was okay, too, he says.
“There’s no wrong way to pray.”

They listened to band member Milton Sam share his story—a man who has spent 6½ of his 42 years in federal and provincial prisons, for “drinking and drugging,” Sam says, and otherwise causing havoc.

Parole conditions, not band edicts, twice saw him banished from Ahousaht. He would sneak back, regardless, not having much regard for “European law,” he admits. The prison system did offer him two treatment programs. It was there he confronted his past. He was sexually assaulted as a boy of seven, he says. Acknowledging this didn’t prevent him slipping back to drink, drugs and the general chaos of his life. Then, in June 2009, after he was released from jail yet again, his family, with the support of the traditional law keepers and the health care team, presented an ultimatum. He was being sent to an isolated island nearby to sort himself out. He could go voluntarily, or be dragged there, but he was going.

He went voluntarily. There, rising before dawn, he would wade into the frigid ocean, screaming out his pain. “This whole bag of emotions and feelings I carried my whole life. That’s what I was washing away.” It has been more than a year now. He is lighter, happier and sober, he says. He volunteers at the health centre where Dave Frank works. A judge has lifted his parole conditions. All this he shared with the people at Sydney Inlet. “They were given a choice,” he says, “to go and get help or be banished. I ask myself what I would want. Would I want my community? Would I want my family? Would I want the people—or would I want to leave?”

It has been three months since all 32 members of Ahousaht reintegrated into the community. Even those who’d refused treatment backed away from a court challenge. A couple have left the community for addiction programs elsewhere, and Frank says the others—spurred on by the graduates of Sydney Inlet—will head to the camp this fall. Until then, the banishment order is on hold.

Atleo returned to his home village in early June after three residents and a pilot died in a float-plane crash. He, too, noticed a changed atmosphere despite the profound sense of loss. “It just feels like people’s chins are up a little more,” he says. “That confidence is beginning to return to people.” And Preston of the RCMP is guardedly optimistic. “In the short term I think it’s certainly helped the community. The real test will be to stay on top of it,” he says.

Chief Frank, who has a poetic turn of phrase, sees his community as a budding rose. “We’ve gone through hell but above the stem and the gall-darn thorns we’re becoming a rose,” he says. “It feels good to be able to see that.” His brother Dave uses less flowery language. He is pleased and relieved that those who were sent away were not cast adrift. In a nod to the past, they returned home by canoe. “They made their own paddles,” he says. And that made all the difference.

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