Marshall Morrisseau, one of two youths to join the Canadian delegation at the United Nations in Vienna, has returned home to Brandon with new tools related to substance use and trauma.
The outreach worker for the Brandon Bear Clan attended the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime’s 63rd Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs held beginning March 2 in Vienna. While federal officials from a variety of departments attended the plenary sessions, Morrisseau attended three days of meetings with 39 youths from 32 countries.
"It was a really good opportunity to network with all these other youth from around the world and learn about their strategies and what they’re doing back in their communities to resolve this issue," Morrisseau said.
Ghada Fathi Waly, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, welcomed the young people and tasked them with developing a resolution to present to the main gathering on the third and final day.
"Around the world, 35 million people suffer from drug use disorders and need treatment. More than half a million people a year die from drug use disorders," Waly told the youth.
They would have three minutes to present a resolution to the main gathering.
"Everything is running by the minute there, you have to make every minute count," Morrisseau said.
Prior to the forum, each youth received documents about prevention and risk factors to review. The first day, a facilitator led them through that information and more. To develop the resolution, each youth had to come up with 25 ideas then, in a group, sort those into five themes. They then developed each theme into two sentences.
"It was a collective effort for everyone."
The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime first created the youth forum in 2013 with the aim of gathering young people who are "active in the field of drugs use prevention, health promotion … to allow them to exchange ideas, visions and different perspectives on how to better protect the health and well being of their peers and provide them with an opportunity to convey their joint message to the global level policymakers."
Asked if anything in particular stuck out after being exposed to ideas from around the world, Morrisseau said, "The language we use when we talk about substances."
"One thing we learned, they called it good and bad language. Basically, how they explained that is that when you do your resolution to the commission, you can’t go up there and use language that’s not acceptable," he said.
As an example, he said here in Canada, the word "empowering" is seen as a positive word.
"However, in some countries and states, if you were to say, ‘We want to empower our youth,’ they might think that you’re trying to start a revolution or a rebellion."
Morrisseau also learned that it might be harmful to say "a person uses substances" rather than "a person struggles with trauma" or "doesn’t have the right coping mechanisms." Rather than characterizing the behaviour, the focus is the root cause of the behaviour.
"Another thing that was really emphasized was that drug prevention can be a lot of things, and youth need to be the target of preventing the use of substances," Morrisseau said.
"How you can do that is by building life skills and showing youth how to properly cope and have good self-care routines and to actually be able to communicate not only with some family and friends, but with themselves about how they’re doing and how they’re feeling."
Morrisseau recalled his own personal experience in school, that he was never taught to talk about his feelings, or how to seek help.
"We need to be teaching our youth how to properly take care of themselves mentally and emotionally," he said.
Morrisseau, who has been self-isolating since his return, said that inspired him to want to do more work of this nature with youth in the Brandon area. He’d like to fill a gap he experienced in high school.
"It was hard to come back and everything’s being shut down."
Regarding his own contribution to the forum, Morrisseau said harm reduction is definitely an area where Canada leads.
"That philosophy is not necessarily accepted by a lot of countries. I had to be careful when I was introducing that concept. My professional work and personal experience around harm reduction contributed to that discussion," he said.
In a conversation about continuum of services and the law, and how the law affects people who use substances, a comparison was made with speeding. Someone asked the question: If the law says 50 kilometres an hour is the speed limit, yet a lot of people drive over the speed limit, should the law punish those individuals more harshly? A discussion followed on whether the law should be used to address substance use.
"Because in a lot of other countries, the law is used, capital punishment is used for those that use substances," Morrisseau said.
"My contribution to that, just as an example, was individuals choose to drive or to speed. That’s your choice. You don’t wake up one day, decide to be a meth addict. Bringing those philosophies in other ways I think was probably my biggest contribution."
Morrisseau is grateful for all the help he received locally to get him to Vienna, including from Brandon University’s political science and Native Studies departments by way of associate Prof. Kelly Saunders.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.