A History of Criminalization- Indigenous People Who Use Substances

Written  by:  Nat Kaminski  on behalf of ONPUD

Indigenous Australians were the first communities to see banned alcohol and criminalization of alcohol consumption in 1837 because slave owners believed that the consumption of alcohol impacted the rate and quality of the work indigenous slaves produced. The idea of the “drunk Indian” that couldn’t handle their booze was in  fact the impact of the criminalization of alcohol. Alcohol was often boot leg produced and had to be consumed rapidly in order to avoid being caught and persecuted. Sound familiar? That same law was adapted in Canada and did not change in the Indian Act until 1951

Now in Canada we continue to see the detrimental laws surrounding the use of other substances, those laws continue to target specific groups of people with long standing roots in racism. We continue to see disproportionate numbers of BIPOC folks when we consider who is at heightened risk of incarceration, child apprehensions, drug poisonings deaths & suicide in Canada. It is not by mistake but rather design that drug policies & laws continue to target BIPOC communities that are to this day experience the impacts of anti black and anti indigenous racism.  


ONPUD stands with Indigenous Communities who have been a criminalized and discriminated group from the start of colonial Canada. We also recognize the threads of history that tie our communities together as we fight for our rights to agency over our own bodies and equity in our access and upholding of our human rights. The criminalization of substances has created an unsafe environment in which we can gain access to the very things we need and have a right to consume without fear of death, detention or destruction. Our existence in community is stigmatized and we are the targets of hate and judgement.  


We consider the seven grandfather teachings. These teachings date back to the beginning of time, as they have always been a part of Native American Culture. These teachings impact our surroundings, along with providing guidance towards our actions to one another.  


"According to the story, long ago, a messenger sent to see how the Neshnabék were living, discovered that the Neshnabék were living their life in a negative way, which impacted their thoughts, decisions, and actions. Some had hate for others, displayed disrespectful actions, were afraid, told lies, and cheated. Others revealed pride or were full of shame. During his journey, the messenger came across a child. This child was chosen to be taught by the Seven Grandfathers to live a good life. He was taught the lessons of Love, Respect, Bravery, Truth, Honesty, Humility, and Wisdom. 


Before departing from the Seven Grandfathers, they told him, “Each of these teachings must be used with the rest. You cannot have Wisdom without Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, and Truth. You cannot be Honest if you are only using one of the other teachings. To leave out one teaching would be embracing the opposite of what the teaching means.” The Seven Grandfathers each instructed the child with a principle. It was then up to the child to forget them, or to put them to use.


Each one of us represents the child. We must faithfully apply the teachings of our Seven Grandfathers to our own lives. We must place our trust in the Creator. We must also never forget to be sincere in our actions, character, and words."


The story of the seven grandfather teaching retrieved from: https://nhbp-nsn.gov/seven-grandfather-teachings/

ONPUD's 7  Grandfather Teachings Manifesto

Humility – Dbaadendiziwin

Humility is represented by the wolf. Wolves live in packs and feel immense shame by being outcasts, something drug user's have felt for ages. Humility is to know that you are part of creation and ONPUD strives to make People Who Use Drugs feel their power through coming  together as  community  in order to effect change.  Humility is to live life selflessly, not selfishly  and at ONPUD we try to put community first and our team is full of selfless advocates who do whatever they can to help People Who Use Drugs live  happier, healthier lives better access to services and healthcare that are desirable. The teaching says it is important to respect your place and carry your pride with your people and praise the accomplishments of all. Find balance in within yourself and all living things. We at ONPUD believe that we have to come together as one community to battle the injustices we face as people who use drugs.

Bravery – Aakwa’ode’ewin

Bravery is represented by the bear. The mother bear is courageous faces her fears and challenges while protecting her young. ONPUD believes as People Who Use Drugs, we have had to take care of our communities while our own lives are being affected by issues related to the criminalization of drug use but that is what makes us strong and powerful. The bear shows us how to live a balanced life with rest, survival and play and at ONPUD we think this balance is something that we try to maintain as drug users on a day to day basis. However, the teaching also says to face life with courage is to know bravery and drug users must be brave in order to survive daily and we are some of the strongest people out there. The teaching reminds us to find our inner strength so we can face the difficulties of being a drug user and the courage to be our true selves in a world that doesn't accept our choice. It says defend what you believe in and what is right for your community, family, and self which is the entire  reason we created ONPUD in the first place, we were tired of seeing our community die and we decided to find a way to do what was right for our people. The legend warns to have conviction in your decisions while facing your fears to allow yourself to live your life which is an integral part of ONPUD's philosophy and workings.

Honesty – Gwekwaadziwin

Honesty is represented by the raven. Ravens accept themselves and know how to use their gift. He does not seek the power, speed or beauty of others. He uses what he has been given to survive and thrive. So must you.- The Seven Sacred Teachings of White Buffalo Calf Woman, by: David Bouchard & Dr. Joseph Martin. ONPUD understands how People Who Use Drugs in Ontario are the ones who are experts in their own lives and service provision or healthcare. We have an innate understanding how to thrive under the worst circumstances due to having to mold ourselves to society as People Who Use Drugs. We should not have to change who we are and what we do to impress others, we need to be our authentic selves to make a way for other drug users to have an easier time. The teachings say to recognize and accept who you are and as Drug Users we can then stand together to force the changes that will improve our lives. 

Wisdom – Nbwaakaawin

The beaver represents wisdom because he uses his natural gift wisely for his survival just as People Who Use Drugs use drugs for a variety of reasons but many times it's survival, from life or trauma or pain, but survival none the less. The beaver also alters his environment in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way for the benefit of his family which is what ONPUD strives to do for the Drug User Community. The story teaches to cherish knowledge is to know wisdom and ONPUD truly values the input of our community members on our projects.  Our board members and working group recognize the differences among our community members in a kind and respectful way. It is important to continuously observe the life of all things around you and that is why ONPUD believes that the stories of Drug Users are so important for the work we do and the changes we need to make. The beaver understands it needs to respect it's own limitations and those of all of it's surroundings which is so important for the work we do at ONPUD. All drug users understand the limitations we face everyday but we need to remember to be gentle with ourselves and understand and respect our own personal limitations when trying to move our agenda forward.

Truth – Debwewin

Truth is represented by the turtle as he was here during the creation of Earth and carries the teachings of life on his back. The turtle lives slowly and meticulous because he understands the importance of the journey and the destination. At ONPUD we know that our own personal journeys have brought us together to make change and the end game is important but so are all the smaller things we accomplish. The teaching says Truth is to know all of this and we feel as though our truths will help shed light on the things that need to change. Truth is to show honor and sincerity in all that you say and do which is ONPUD's best trait- the sincerity of our members. The legend says to understand your place in this life and apply that understanding in the way that you walk in order to be true to yourself and all other things. We know our place as Drug Users and now it's time for us to show the rest of society that we have made our place!

Respect – Mnaadendimowin

Respect is represented by the buffalo. The buffalo gives every part of his being to sustain the human way of living, not because he is of less value, but because he respects the balance and needs of others ONPUD believes we all have our place in this world and our needs need to be met liek everyone else's which is prevented by the stigmatizing views around drug use. To honor all creation is to have respect and therefore drug user's deserve more respect as human beings. The teachings says to share and give away what you do not need and ONPUD believes that charity is necessary to combat the injustices drug users face due to being criminalized for their choices. Treat others the way you would like to be treated and don't be hurtful to yourself or others. This part of the teaching is one of our fundamental values- empathy and compassion- for yourself and others.

Love – Zaagidwin

The eagle represents love because he has the strength to carry all the teachings. The eagle flies highest and closest to the creator and has the sight to see all the ways of being from great distances. The Eagle’s teaching of love can be found in the core of all teachings, therefore an eagle feather is considered the highest honor and a sacred gift. The teaching says to know love is to know peace and at ONPUD, we are trying to build a community of people who use drugs who can help and take care of each other through love and compassion. It is important to center our work in all of the 7 Grandfather teachings so we can walk in a good way and do good work that benefits the lives of drug users. By centering our work in all the teachings, we are better able to understand love for our community and helps us truly love our work. When we are at peace with ourselves, the balance of life, all things and also with the creator we are able to understand true love and love for the people we serve.