Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction
Letter on Implementation of the Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion

Summer 2021 update

Dear Ms. Charette,

First, we would like to respectfully acknowledge that the offices of the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) are located on the ancestral, unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation, a distinct Indigenous nation of the Anishinaabe Peoples. The Algonquin people have lived on this land since time immemorial. Their culture and presence have and continue to nurture this land, and for that we are truly grateful. We pay respect to all Indigenous people from all nations across Canada. We also acknowledge the Traditional Knowledge Keepers, both young and old.

Indigenous Peoples in Canada represent many nations, so our equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work with them has unique considerations and actions compared with any other EDI group because they are not an equity group per se (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identification and expression, and physical or mental ability). While there are some commonalities and interdependencies, CCSA’s EDI work has mostly focused on Indigenous communities and related activities. CCSA staff members have also done extensive training on sex- and gender-based analysis. SGBA+ considerations are now woven into our work right from the charter stage that starts CCSA projects.

Of the nine calls in the Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion, CCSA has committed to personal and organization-wide learning about racism, colonization and injustices received by Indigenous people, reconciliation, accessibility, equity and inclusion, and fostering a safe and positive environment where these difficult conversations are encouraged throughout our workplaces and in our work.

At CCSA, we have much to learn from the Traditional Knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. Their knowledge has been gained from their long histories and experiences of interactions with their natural surroundings. By comparison, western science about substance use disorders is in its infancy but not without value. It is our sincere hope that we can have a system of services that understands and privileges Indigenous experiences and Traditional Knowledge and that some Indigenous communities may one day partner with us to share their wisdom and knowledge of healing to help others.

As an organization of science and research, CCSA is by definition a centre of learning. As a learning organization, we are humbled by how much more we need to learn and understand. We hope that the information we are accumulating and the Indigenous-informed methods we are using to gather it can help improve the health of everyone living in Canada who uses substances.

For a relationship of trust to exist, we must better understand how some existing policies are systemically racist, the intergenerational trauma of colonialism, the injustices endured by Indigenous people in our systems of care and the horrific legacy of the residential school system. To do that, we must be aware of what happened and why and its ongoing effects on Indigenous people. We must share the burden they carry as they heal from the trauma and pain.

CCSA has been on a journey of learning for many years. In 2019, we brought in First People’s Group (FPG) to do more and learn more. FPG is a respected Indigenous advisory firm based in Ottawa. We began again with cultural awareness training given the many new people on our team. FPG provided training for our board, our senior leadership team, and all of our staff. In the past year, we have continued to learn.

Our goal is to increase understanding among CCSA staff of the historical and contemporary colonial legacies and practices, and their collective impact on Indigenous people and communities in Canada. CCSA is working with Indigenous advisers to organize a series of Indigenous Gatherings. They will feature presentations from Indigenous speakers and include group activities. These experiences allow our staff to reflect and then identify actions for reconciliation for themselves and the organization.

We started the gatherings this year on National Indigenous Peoples Day, with Circling Eagle Woman, Dr. Sharon Acoose, professor of Indigenous Social Work at the First Nations University of Canada. She shared her story as an Indigenous woman, her healing journey from substance use disorders, and her experiences earning her PhD and teaching at the university. Nearly 90 percent (86.7%) of our staff said this first virtual session helped them to “engage the heart” in learning about the history of colonization of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. More than half (53.3%) said it gave them a personal connection with the information that Dr. Acoose shared. CCSA staff were grateful to be part of this learning session.

In the next session, staff asked for more time for group discussion and said they hoped for practical ways to include their new knowledge into their professional roles.

CCSA will also participate in activities to recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and host a second gathering on Sept. 30.

Our Indigenous advisers have recommended resources to share with CCSA staff and contractors. These include books by Indigenous authors, films, websites and learning modules. We believe they support staff who have personally committed to learning more about racism, reconciliation, accessibility, equity and inclusion. We believe this will foster a safe, positive environment at our workplace where these conversations are encouraged and open.

CCSA has started unconscious bias training for all staff. The training raises awareness on key topic areas on implicit and explicit bias, microaggression, racism, stereotypes and privilege.

In addition, most of our staff are following the teachings in the First Nations Principles of OCAP® (ownership, control, assess and possession) through online training offered by the First Nations Information Governance Centre. We believe it is important to increase our knowledge and awareness of these principles to support culturally informed and safe approaches to data collection and healthcare research.

Our editors are now using Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples as a reference for their work.

Our Executive Office has organized a series of sessions with CCSA’s board of directors to discuss a statement that commits us to take action on anti-racism and reconciliation with First Peoples in Canada and agree on a way forward with heart, hope and connection. It is called Indigenous People and Communities: Health and Well-Being.

Beyond the internal focus on individual and organizational learning and reconciliation, another key goal is to examine and improve the work that we do to bring about systems change—the external-facing resources, services and products. Decolonization must be part of this as we shine a light on the role of Traditional Knowledge, healing and practices in the system of care. As we do that, there must be a commitment to addressing the injustices experienced by Indigenous people when they connect with the health system and substance use care, and ensuring that the care honours and privileges Indigenous experiences, knowledge and practices.

The training we have done and are doing is giving us new-found confidence to be allies; to seek out opportunities to learn, share and inspire those we work with; and to collaborate with people and organizations in Indigenous communities in Canada.

As we focus on our learnings and inspiring system change, CCSA’s Issues of Substance (IOS) conference has always strived to include the expertise of Indigenous organizations and communities. As part of our commitment to ensure the work of Indigenous experts in mental wellness is highlighted at the conference, we have invited the Assembly of First Nations, Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami to partner on Issues of Substance 2021. The conference program committee includes representatives from the Métis National Council and Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. The Indigenous Certification Board of Canada has accredited the conference program. In their letter, they acknowledge that “special care has been taken to provide Indigenous conference participants with a culturally safe and caring environment.” Culturally safe and appropriate supports will be offered to Indigenous people with lived and living experience with substance use at the conference, including a virtual Indigenous support room supported by two Indigenous counsellors (male and female) and an Elder. The conference will kick off with a keynote presentation by Eddy Robinson. A short biography of him is available on the Issues of Substance website. He will be introduced by the executive director of Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, Dr. Carol Hopkins.

Broader EDI Work

CCSA has embraced diversity in the workplace in all its forms for some time, and we are committed to achieving employment equity. Our goal is to attract, develop and retain highly talented employees from diverse backgrounds. We are committed to ensuring that all equity-seeking groups are fully represented at all levels of our organization, including women, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, visible minorities and members of the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community. We will be strengthening our efforts and practices as we learn more from people in these distinct groups.

As part of our employment equity program, CCSA will collect information about its workforce through a voluntary self-identification questionnaire. This will give us a benchmark for how diverse our organization already is, inform our diversity strategy and identify trends that will focus our forward-looking action plans, including new diversity initiatives, so we can increase staff numbers in underrepresented groups at CCSA.

Our broader EDI work is supported by a newly established Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (EDIC), reporting to the CEO. The volunteer-based committee has representation and champions from each division at CCSA. The EDIC focuses on building internal knowledge that recognizes, understands and responds to implicit and explicit bias and systemic discrimination. It includes training on EDI beyond that organized by management. The goal is to embody the CCSA’s values:

The mandate of the EDIC is to examine the organization’s internal policies and procedures to address and remedy discrimination, racism and inequity, and to provide an inclusive work environment.

The EDIC has already had an impact on practices and has updated the Project Charter template, which is the basis for all new projects at CCSA. The template now includes EDI as well as a focus on anti-racism and decolonization. EDIC is developing a land acknowledgement statement to address the local offices and the national scope of CCSA work for inclusion in all our externally facing activities and communication tools. The EDIC is also developing an internal lexicon of words and phrases that are hurtful, exclusionary or both, so staff have a clearer idea of what to avoid.

The EDIC also provided valuable input into the development of a new EDI Policy Statement, which is still in development.

The EDIC is one more mechanism and resource that CCSA can use to meet its commitments to the Call to Action.

Feedback from staff and management has been positive. They have a stated commitment to the Call to Action and want to learn more about how they can achieve those goals respectfully.

There are challenges and barriers to meeting the Call to Action, but we know that we need to do more and do better now. We also know that this will take time because the trust, the healing and the relationship building needed to help us with the change take years to develop.

Language can be a barrier. Sometimes what we say can be misinterpreted. We will make mistakes, and we will be accountable for them. We are learning.

We strive for respectful dialogue. We have become increasingly sensitive to language and its power because of our work with stigma and stigmatizing language.

Our mistakes can at times result in anger and more distrust. If what we say unintentionally causes offence as we build relationships, we want to hear from those who felt maligned, so we can learn what it was that we said and why it offended, and not repeat that mistake. We will hold ourselves accountable.

Sometimes, it is difficult to know how to approach organizations with whom we would like to collaborate. How do we move forward? What does CCSA have that could benefit an Indigenous organization? How do we determine that? Where do those conversations begin?

Through greater learning, education, Indigenous advisers and guidance, and increased awareness, we are working to do better. In particular, and as noted earlier, the OCAP training is opening our eyes to the roots of mistrust and the reluctance to share knowledge too readily.

These are the little things that may have a ripple effect. Little by little, these small individual actions add up and inspire others. In doing so, we are not asking to be applauded but that it simply becomes a way of thinking and practice — a way to reconciliation.

Wishing you continued good health,

Rita Notarandrea, M.H.Sc., C.H.E., ICD.D
Chief Executive Officer

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