On a muggy Tuesday afternoon, Haisla First Nation member James Harry parks his burgundy SUV near Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and says a quiet prayer. Then he walks into the streets and alleys where he used to get high.
Harry is now five years’ sober, working with his First Nation in search of his own people in those same alleys. When he finds those struggling with addiction, his message is simple: “I’m here on behalf of the Haisla Nation. I want you to know that you’re not alone.”
One young Haisla woman responded by bursting into tears. “This person felt so alone and so lost,” Harry recalls. “She said, 'I can't believe my nation cares for me. I thought no one cared for me.’”
The 50-year-old Vancouver resident is the driving force behind Haisla Outreach, a unique Haisla-funded program aimed at getting its own urban members off the streets and off drugs. If need be, Harry even drives them back to Haisla, 18 hours away. He’s done it twice.
A disproportionate number of Indigenous people, Haisla among them, are dying in Vancouver’s opioid overdose epidemic, making Harry’s work more urgent.
Urban Indigenous people are often disconnected from their First Nations and don't receive the same services as on-reserve members. But Haisla leaders want off-reserve members to know their government still feels a responsibility to help them, even in this blighted place, 1,400 kilometres away from home.
‘I'm just lucky to be alive’
The Haisla First Nation is a matrilineal people located about 60 kilometres south of Terrace, B.C. When translated, Haisla means “Dwellers downriver.” Approximately 1,700 people are registered members of the tribe: 700 live on reserve; 1,000 elsewhere.
Harry and his siblings spent part of their childhood in Haisla, but he bounced around. “I was born in Kitimat, but I grew up in Comox, I grew up in Prince Rupert. I was a bit all over the place. I had no kind of life,” he says. “And there was violence in our home.”
Harry excelled in Indigenous basketball and soccer in school. But he also began drinking alcohol in his teens. At age 19, he tried cocaine for the first time. His habit grew from once in a while to weekly, then daily. He thought he had a handle on it, but it gradually took over his life.
Harry came to Vancouver for work, but the Downtown Eastside was like a gravitational pull for his addiction. “The amount of drugs I'd do in a night, the places I frequented, the bad people I frequented with — I'm just lucky to be alive,” he says. “If I stayed an addict, I wouldn't be on this earth today.”
He remembers a Haisla woman looking out for him during his binges, and she often scolded him to wise up and get out of there. He’d return home, but found there are areas like the Downtown Eastside everywhere. “I had my own skid row back home (in Haisla), whether I was locked in my bathroom, locked in my bedroom, my basement or in some stranger’s house,” he says.
Harry painfully recalls the moment that made him change his life. He went home after a binge, only to face the stricken looks on his children’s faces: “I can still see the hurt in their eyes. My motivation today is I don't want to see those hurt eyes anymore.”
Saving starts with one
Harry reached out to his elders and community members for support, and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. In the summer of 2017, two years into his sobriety, He moved to Vancouver with his wife, who was undergoing cancer treatment.
Harry returned to the Downtown Eastside, searching for other Haisla people. During one visit, he found his cousin’s son, who was addicted and living a rough life. The pair stayed in touch, and eventually Harry made him an offer. “I just put it out there: ‘So let's get you home.’ We got him out of the city,” he says. “Today he's alive. He's doing well.”
Six months later, a Haisla First Nation councillor who heard that story asked him, “How would you like to be an outreach worker down there (Vancouver) for our people?” He thought about advice an elder once gave him: find out why the Creator kept you here. “I believe when I was given this opportunity I found my purpose,” he says.
Harry searches the Downtown Eastside daily looking for Haisla people. He says approximately 300 Haisla live in Vancouver, but he doesn’t know how many are on the Downtown Eastside. He finds them through referral or word of mouth. Then he establishes contact and encourages them to get treatment. Some reject his help because they aren’t ready to heal, he says. Nevertheless, he stays ready to help when asked.
Vancouver’s opioid overdose crisis has cast its shadow over Harry’s work. According to a 2019 news release by the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), 193 First Nations men and women died of overdoses in B.C. in 2018, a 21 per cent increase from 2017.
Harry says two Haisla members he worked with have died of fentanyl overdoses, and the deaths weigh on him. “You question yourself if you did enough, if you're doing enough, what could you have done differently,” he says.
In its 2019 publication Overdose Data and First Nations In B.C. Preliminary Report, the FNHA notes that the genesis of addictions in Indigenous people is the dysfunction and violence caused by colonization. Harry specifically points to the effects of residential schools and the ’60’s Scoop.
“A lot of our people, they passed that hurt onto their families and it's still being passed down,” he says. “A lot of them have bad memories back home. They come down here, and some of them fall into that cycle. Unfortunately some of them lose their lives.”
While the FNHA cites the number of Indigenous deaths in the opioid crisis, there is no estimate of the number of Indigenous people saved from addiction. But Harry remembers the first Haisla person he helped leave the Downtown Eastside. “Edwin is our first success story,” he says.
The dimly lit interior of the Ovaltine Cafe near Hastings and Main is quiet on a Tuesday afternoon.
In a dark wooden booth, Haisla First Nation member Edwin Pfho sips freshly poured coffee from a white cup. His expression is pensive beneath a blue baseball cap with the word “Haisla” stitched on its front.
On July 4, Pfho celebrated two years of sobriety after spending more than 20 years as a severe alcoholic. He survived living in the streets, hospitalization and a stint in jail, and he credits Harry with saving him from his addiction. “If I hadn't have had James in my life...I'd still be drinking. I’m honoured to have him in my life,” he says.
Pfho, 52, was born in Kitimat but has lived in the Downtown Eastside for more than 20 years.
He was taken into foster care at age five and raised by a non-Indigenous family. Witnessing alcoholism during childhood foreshadowed his addiction. “My biological parents were alcoholics. My foster parents, they were alcoholics themselves too.”
Pfho says he left Kitimat after a personal dispute with two men from another family in 1997. “They told me, ‘I don't care where you go, but you're not welcome here in Kitimat,’” he says.
He knew he’d miss family and friends when he left. But losing contact with his infant daughter plunged him into inconsolable grief. “I didn't have the opportunity to watch my daughter grow up, walk her to school. That was devastating for me. She doesn't know who I am,” he says.
He landed in the Downtown Eastside, where days blurred into one another. Pfho drank whatever was on hand — booze, rubbing alcohol, mouthwash, hand sanitizer, even hair spray — passed out, awoke and drank again.
Depressed and lonely, struggling with suicidal thoughts, he was once admitted to a psychiatric facility. “My addiction was almost 24-7. I'd be wondering if I'm going to make it through the night. Am I going to wake up when I pass out?” he recalls.
Some people he drank with never woke up again, and the experience filled him with foreboding. In 2016, Pfho underwent treatment for alcoholism in a Kitimat healing centre, then moved back to Vancouver. But he relapsed two months later.
One day on the Downtown Eastside, he was approached by a Haisla man who introduced himself as James Harry, who told Edwin that he wasn’t alone. “It made me feel that there was somebody who does care,” Pfho says. “And I know I'm not just forgotten about.”
In 2017, he returned to the healing centre for treatment and has been sober since. He still lives near the Downtown Eastside, which he calls “the war zone.” He and Harry meet weekly for coffee and conversation.
“He picked me up off the ground, he helped me move in a good direction that I'm going on right now. So I look up to him,” he says. “If I'm struggling, I know he’s there to pick up the phone.”
Pfho works and volunteers, and he wants to return to school to become an outreach worker to help people escape where he once was. He plans to visit Kitimat this winter. “I remember the ocean, the mountains, the snow, the trees. It’s beautiful there,” he says. ”It'll always be my home.”
But his biggest goal for his visit is to meet the daughter he left in 1997. She is 22 years old now. “She tells people that she wants to meet me, and I want to meet her too,” he says.
I need to see for myself
Haisla elected Chief Councillor Crystal Smith travels to Vancouver from Kitimat regularly for business. Her meetings take place in downtown boardrooms. But during a visit in early June, she cleared her afternoon for something more important.
For the first time, Smith accompanied James Harry on an outreach walk. “Our people that are down here, they are our most vulnerable. But they are connected to our home; they're connected to our families — they are our people,” Smith says.
“I feel that it's our responsibility. We're elected on behalf of our entire membership to represent them and we have to do something.”
Smith and Harry begin walking down Hastings Street. Half a block down, they encounter a group of Indigenous people in front of a doorway. Harry nods his head at a woman in a dark hoodie wearing sunglasses, and tells Smith she is Haisla. Smith talks to her for a few minutes before they resume their walk.
Drug use is in the open, against walls and in doorways. But as Smith and Harry walk into the dank alley beside the boarded-up Balmoral Hotel, the narrow corridor is like an ant hill.
People are everywhere, smoking and injecting drugs. Back on Hastings, dozens of people are selling a jumble of goods on the street. Harry stops to talk to an Indigenous man, hugs him and introduces him to Smith. The man is part Haisla and partly from another First Nation.
As they walk up Hastings Street, they pass a man who Smith doesn’t notice at first. He says “Yowts” — the Haisla greeting for hello — to her. It’s Edwin Pfho, who joins them at the Ovaltine Cafe.
In the wooden booth, Smith is quiet. Her eyes moisten and she takes several seconds to answer when asked how she felt about what she saw.
“It's one thing to hear about circumstances that some of our people go through, but to actually see the extent and to be in that moment...seeing where some of our people are at is absolutely heartbreaking,” she says.
Smith is still thinking about the Haisla woman she met on Hastings and Main Street. “We talked about family connections that she has at home. She has family. We're all connected as a nation,” she says.
Haisla Outreach may be the only First Nation funded outreach program that helps its own addicted people in urban areas, she says. But the program may not be unique for long.
Haisla is part of a group of northern First Nations and Smith will be outlining the benefits of the outreach program to them soon. And Harry is getting calls from other First Nations, including Indigenous groups in other provinces, asking him to check in on their members who they know are in Vancouver.
He foresees expanding into other areas. “I see advocacy, housing, programs — whatever they need. Who knows, maybe even our own detox and our own recovery home,” he says.
The lost boy
As Smith and Harry walk through the streets and alleys, Smith often peers into the distance, doorways and corners as though she were looking for someone in particular.
Later, at the Ovaltine, she says that she was looking for a boy she remembers from an elementary school she worked at a decade ago.
She hasn’t seen him since, but has been told he’s an adult now and addicted on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. Harry confirms that it’s him, and that he is trying to help him.
“I definitely was hoping that I would see him. I don't know if he'd remember me, but just to find him, to see him again,” she says.
They don’t find him before Smith has to leave for her flight back to Kitimat. She’ll be back in Vancouver on business, and will be back looking for him again, not because she feels it’s her job. It’s her obligation.
Haisla Outreach: more info
The Haisla First Nation is funding its own urban addictions outreach program with revenue it receives from the Liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry.
Haisla Outreach operates in Vancouver, although the nation’s traditional territory lies outside of Kitimat, B.C., more than 1,400 kilometres away. Its support worker James Harry finds Haisla members who are addicted on the Downtown Eastside, and gets them into treatment or gets them home.
According to Haisla Chief Councillor Crystal Smith, the tribe couldn’t use its funding from Indigenous Services Canada to underwrite the program because those funds are restricted to their programs and services on reserve.
But the Haisla have become a major player in the LNG sector in recent years, and this changed the game.
The Haisla receive funds from project impact agreements for LNG projects in Haisla homelands. Haisla Outreach is underwritten with a portion of these funds, which don’t have the restrictions that federal funds do. According to Smith, Haisla Outreach is the first program the council funded outside of on-reserve programs.
“Participating in economic development and the LNG industry has allowed us to break those old barriers and provide for real solutions for our people that don’t have restrictions,” Smith says. “I think we need to meet their needs regardless of where they reside, and to be able to do that we need economic development to push in that direction.”