Category Archives: Substance Abuse

Kimmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy


The film Kimmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is film currently showing at Cinematheque and it should be widely viewed. It was produced by filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. It tells an important story. It is a story about life on an Indian Reserve in southern Alberta. I  drove by a couple of years ago on my way to Waterton Lakes National Park. (That also should be widely viewed).

The film tells the story of how that community has been ravaged by substance abuse and addictions and attempts to deal with that ugly fact by a new approach.  Instead of abstinence they are tying a new approach labeled as ‘Harm reduction.’ That just means they  abandon techniques that have failed over and over again and are  trying something new. It may be uncomfortable but can it possibly be worse than the robust failures of the old approach?


The significance of this film is not limited to Indian reserves; this issue is relevant around Canada. It affects poor people, the middle class and the rich. It is not the approach of Nancy Regan. Not Just ‘say No’. It would be nice if serous social problems could be solved by reciting a simple formula.


The substances include fentanyl, meth, Carfentanil or carfentanyl, heroin, and solvents. Interestingly carfentanyl has a quantitative potency approximately 10,000 times that of morphine and 100 times that of fentanyl. It seems like every couple of years something is invented that is worse than the drug of existing drug choice. No wonder we have such problems.


I know some of my friends were very depressed by what they saw. Who wouldn’t be?  Yet I would say things were not entirely hopeless. Grim but not hopeless. There was a hero in this story, physician Esther Tailfeathers, mother of the filmmaker, heroically I would say, without judgment is tackling the problems one person at a time. She tolerates the fact that her patients continue taking their drugs of choice. She has no magic. But she has quite diligence, energy, and most of all, empathy. She works daily on the front lines and offers help to addicts to kick their habits and prescribes suboxone as a substitute. Some criticize this approach by saying it merely substitutes one drug for another. Perhaps, but we have seen current techniques fail. I say, can this new approach be worse?


The harm reduction approach includes in some cases safe injection sites. Manitoba’s Department of Health when it was led by Steinbach’s own Kelvin Goertzen considered this new approach and rejected it. Alberta under the leadership of NDP premier Rachel Notely tried the new approach but it was rejected by the current United Conservative government led by Jason Kenney.

What I liked about the film was that by closely interviewing actual participants caught up in the epidemic of drug addictions on that reserve, I felt like I was there listening to the people. It was not an easy watch. How could it be?  But I felt like perhaps I could tell how they felt. Isn’t that what empathy is all about? Isn’t that important? Should we not consider their point of view?