Robert Sugarhead’s shirt comes complete with a buttoned-up collar.
“I’m wearing a tie and trying to be professional,” the Fort Hope First Nation’s resident says, with the tie loosely around his neck, featuring a full Windsor knot and perfectly placed dimple. It’s a sure sign he takes time and care with his professional attire.
Just 88 days ago, Sugarhead didn’t bother with ties. Making sure he appeared professional took a backseat to his then top priority – feeding his prescription drug addiction.
“I use to take anything just to get a fix,” he says, recalling the days not too long ago when the drug dependency ran his life. “It was very small here at first. It was Percocet first.”
The Percocet that once did the trick couldn’t satisfy the addiction anymore.
“I turned to OxyContin when I was older … People were looking to find a bigger high and I was one of those guys.”
Sugarhead says drug use was a way to deal with boredom, and didn’t realize he was using the narcotics to help deal with pain. All his previous attempts to drop his addiction ended in relapse.
The problem became so serious that Sugarhead found himself resorting to theft to help pay for his habits.
But crime is not part of his life anymore.
Today Sugarhead is a role model, a youth outreach worker for his community’s school and one of the success stories from Fort Hope First Nation’s homegrown detox program.
“It was a good choice for me because I was heading down the wrong way,” he says.
"In Fort Hope, there was no place to deal with your problems. Now there is. This detox thing came into the community and I was on the list and I was on the bottom. By some chance I was bumped up.”
And as a youth outreach worker, his goal is to help students with their own drug dependency problems.
Fort Hope’s detox program was created after the community declared a state of emergency in 2011.
The First Nation hoped they could bring more attention to the community’s prescription drug problems by calling the state of emergency. Since then, Health Canada has provided the community with Suboxone, which helps people addicted to opiates deal with the withdrawal symptoms.
But Suboxone alone can’t cure the community of its problems. The First Nation lacked a facility that could help deal with the mental health aspects of drug addiction.
That problem led Fort Hope to create a solution in August 2011 – a detox clinic that could provide local addicts with the services they needed.
Operating inside a converted home, the clinic started with four community members per session. Demand was too much for the original four, so the clinic expanded to allow 10 people to receive treatment.
There are now plans to expand, and bring the clinic’s capacity to 20.
Elizabeth Atlookan, health manager at Fort Hope, says the program’s waiting list is huge.
The community was supportive of the clinic, but admits that Fort Hope needs more than a house-turned-detox clinic snuff out to its prescription drug use epidemic.
“A lot of members in our community are using OxyContin,” Atlookan says.
“It’s really crippled our community. We renovated this house, but we are going to outgrow it very quickly. We have seen improvements. People have gone back to work and taken care of families.”
She says many turn to drugs to deal with pain, and adds that it isn’t an uncommon problem in remote First Nation communities in the North.
When Health Canada arrived to give Suboxone, she says federal health regulations wouldn’t allow the nurses to administer the drug at the clinic.
Like many social problems, money was also a hurdle in the community’s efforts to create a solution.
“We’re talking about big expenses here,” she says.
“We’re talking probably a lot of money to really fully meet the epidemic proportion of this prescription drug abuse in the North. We’re hoping Health Canada will work with us. Right now they have put in an interim funding for a nurse and we’re going with that. Hopefully, with all the media attention we will get all the help we need.”