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PWRDF Indigenous Exchange trip to the Thailand- Burma Border

April 7, 2008

By Derek

Traditional teachings of Indigenous peoples on the Thai Burma Border resonate with Ontario First Nations

Following is an excerpt from a trip report by Derek Sanderson who works at the K Na Chi Hih Treatment Centre in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

From November 21- December 2, 2007, Nishnawbe Aski Nation  (NAN) participated in an exchange trip with The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) on a trip to Thailand to meet with the DARE (Drug and Alcohol Recovery and Education) Network and the Karen people living in the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border.  
The DARE Network is an organization which develops and carries out programming in the refugee camps, directed by the Karen people themselves, related to solvent abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and family violence. The DARE Network has over 80 people working in the camps.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) is a First Nation political territorial organization in northern Ontario, representing 49 First Nation communities.

The purpose of the trip was to share of information and experience between indigenous organizations in order to learn from each other’s approaches to empowering communities to overcome drug and alcohol abuse.  

The NAN representatives were Geraldine Govendor from Moose Factory, Ontario and Derek Sanderson who works at the K Na Chi Hih Treatment Centre in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  Carol Rowland, the former NAN Special Projects Director, acted as the NAN liaison on the trip.  Dr. Jose Zarate was the PWRDF lead and Pam Rogers from the DARE Network coordinated from the Thailand end.  Her primary helpers were Ko Lo Too and Lo Lo Say. 

Each of the NAN participants recommended that PWRDF continue to support these types of exchange opportunities.  The report concludes “The PWRDF is an excellent linkage organization with great capacity to bring together groups with dynamic exchange potential.”
Following is an excerpt from Derek Sanderson’s trip report. The PDF version of the full report is also available.
The situation our group (Derek Sanderson, Carol Rowland, Geraldine Govender, and Jose Zarate) will be investigating in Thailand on the Thai-Burma border consists of 150,000 refugees from Burma (also called Myanmar) that has taken shelter on the border region over the last two decades to flee violence in their country. Over one million people have been displaced from Burma into Thailand since a brutal military dictatorship took over in 1962.

This situation from my perspective could affect my path as an aboriginal First Nation of Canada struggling with providing treatment to the products of the environments of assimilation of a nation within Canada. Aboriginal people of North America have been assimilated by being placed into reservations where family violence, physical, psychological, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, suicide, solvent addiction, alcohol abuse, racism, and most noticed a loss of traditional value are social norms of almost every reservation.

Weeks before the trip began many questions began to surface from feelings, speculation and research of the situation we were going to be in. These questions were going to be answered in many different ways. The opportunity of a lifetime for me was going to create a new perspective on my path but also may dictate the future work on creating a difference on a nation level or, in this case, a model to resort to in finding key indicators to helping their immediate problems within the camps based on further documentation that can be created through further research here in Canada relating to the assimilation of First Nations people.
My abilities and skills to date would need to be put aside to create an openness to see the situation clearly, without the vast distractions of this extraordinary country of Thailand diverting me away from the answers that I seek.
Understanding the culture and understanding how the culture is utilized within their treatment processes will be a strong area that I will be concentrating on.
Throughout the preparation for this exchange many emotions were felt on what we were going to see,  what we could do to help, and what we could bring back. It was overwhelming at times. Through many prayers at sacred circles and cleansing of my spirit through traditional smudging I began to feel strength coming from many different directions but mostly from inside of myself.
Background – Thailand
The nature of the global drug trade means that Canadians should be concerned about the political and human rights situation in Burma: A military government rule of enemy territory under military occupation. It is distinguished from martial law, which is the temporary rule by domestic armed forces over disturbed areas. The practices of military government were standardized before the First World War, notably at the Hague Conferences (1899, 1907), and form a part of the laws of war.
During and after the Second World War, vast territories came under military government’s use of opium to support its economy, said a Canadian working with a program partly funded by PWRDF.
“Burma has a ‘narco government’ and the opium that travels to China, North Korea and Russia ends up as heroin in Vancouver. There is a connection between what’s happening to us and what’s happening to Burma,” said Pam Rogers, volunteer technical advisor for the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Education (DARE) Network in the Thai-Burma border. About 150,000 refugees from Burma (also called Myanmar) have taken shelter in the border region over the last two decades to flee violence in their country. Over one million people have been displaced from Burma into Thailand since a brutal military dictatorship took over in 1962.
Ms. Rogers and Ko Lo Htoo Manutsayachat, DARE program co-ordinator, were in Toronto recently to raise support for their network, which responds to drug addiction in refugee camps through a variety of programs including prevention, treatment, counseling, training and education. While in Canada, they also met with representatives of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) in Thunder Bay, Ont., to share the network’s experience in empowering refugees to overcome drug and alcohol abuse. A delegation from NAN, a grouping of First Nation communities, is scheduled to visit DARE sites in the Thai-Burma border in 2007.
“We have traditional and modern approaches to addiction which are unique to the region and to its beneficiaries,” said Mr. Ko Lo Htoo, who belongs to the Karen ethnic tribe of Burma. Among the treatments used by DARE are detoxifications through herbal medicines, auricular and herbal saunas. The network also uses healing circles and interventions through art, music and theatre.
“We have a 66 per cent success rate, which means abstinence from drugs over four years of treatment. In Canada, the success rate is 10 to 30 per cent over two years of treatment,” said Ms. Rogers.
Until DARE came along, the response to addiction in refugee camps was “not compassionate,” said Ms. Rogers, adding that drug users were often pushed back to Burma, where they were killed by the military. “No distinction is made between a dealer and user there. They shoot them dead.”
Addiction rates in the ethnic areas of Burma range from 40 to 85 per cent of the total population. For most, the path to addiction was easy: Burmese fields traditionally planted with tea were replaced by opium, and villagers mired in poverty worked in opium fields for better wages. Most, however, ended up being paid in opium, according to some studies conducted by non-governmental organizations based in Thailand.
Drug addiction has had devastating consequences for families and communities where women not only end up shouldering all the responsibilities of running a household, but are vulnerable to domestic violence. In response, DARE also has programs related to gender issues.

(Derek’s full report includes a time line that develops the roots of family Violence in First Nations Communities in Canada beginning with the Royal Proclamation in 1763.)

Conclusions and Results
Our group encountered a vast explosion of color and life and hospitality in Thailand. The cities we visited such as Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai revealed a kind people.
Traditional teachings that are implemented within our treatment process at Ka-Na-Chi-Hih and how it connects to the treatment processes within the camps have key similarities:

  • Detoxifications through herbal medicines, auricular (ear) and herbal saunas, healing circles and interventions through art, music and theatre.
  • Within the Ka-Na-Chi-Hih Specialized Solvent Abuse Treatment Centre the similarity is the implementation of teachings of the four medicines (sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco); clients learn to smudge with these medicines daily in a morning circle with our drum.  The similar connection between Karen herbal saunas is our sweat lodge that has been built and feasted on our site. The sweat lodge involves the use of cedar. The healing circles are connected strongly with our morning circle smudge is where we come together to share together, and begin the day together.
  • The Karen people also use interventions through art, music and theatre. Within Ka-Na-Chi-Hih, the four directions teaching has been implemented within our treatment program. It is a healing and practice of these four directions to keep one in balance physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, and is viewed as a base foundation within Ka-Na-Chi-Hih’s treatment process to support the client through the 17 core groups.

These are those core groups: anger management, relapse prevention, solvent abuse education, traditional medicines, emotional intelligence, self awareness, grief and loss, traditional medicines, healthy relationships, peer helping, community resources, culture week, life skills, human sexuality, sexual abuse, suicide prevention and fun and humor. These skills are presented with many levels of art, music, and theatre and facilitated on a level adjusting to the clientele cognitive levels that are assessed by the facilitators.

Traditional teachings are as relevant today as it was in the time of my ancestors. They are blueprints for human behaviour. They connect us to the teachers of the natural and supernatural worlds, celestial beings, plants, animals, earth, air, fire, water. There are lessons to be learned from both the seen and unseen worlds, to be passed down from generation to generation through songs, drumming, stories, sharing, caring, medicine wheel teachings and ceremony.
Culture is a strong foundation of healing and recovery in all parts of the world. We connected to a community beginning to feel the affects of solvent abuse, thus giving Ka-Na-Chi-Hih the chance of a lifetime to give the education and understanding before the problems worsens within these camps.
Within the camps I saw hope and land taken away from thousands of people, yet I saw happiness.  I saw crumbling families, yet I saw love.  I saw poverty, yet I saw riches.
This experience with the DARE Network was enlightening and also the start of a network that can help beat solvent abuse back home.

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