How a group of Indigenous people in Alberta found their way out of addiction through culture

This story is part of a series called The Way Out: Addiction in Alberta. Join the discussion, or read more about the series here.

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On Thursday afternoon at the Chinook CTrain station, Robbie Daniels leads a group of people beating on their drums. 

They perform a smudging ceremony, load up carts with sandwiches, clothing and tarps, then walk around the area to deliver the items to people experiencing homelessness.

Four years ago, Daniels, who is from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, just west of Calgary, was like some of the people he’s now drumming for — lost in addiction.

“My culture really saved my life,” he said. “My culture showed me who I am. I found my spirit.”

At 13, Daniels started to experiment with alcohol, then with different drugs. Eventually, he developed a devastating dependency on crystal meth. 

“I lost most of my dignity. I lost my kids. My self respect,” he said. 

A man performs a smudging ceremony. Another man leans into the smoke.
Robbie Daniels, right, helps to perform a smudging ceremony outside the Chinook CTrain station on Thursday. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

He’d tried to leave addiction behind many times before, and it never worked.

But then he started to learn more about his culture. His mother was a residential school survivor, he said, so he grew up in a Christian household. 

He discovered prayer, drumming, singing — and everything changed. He’s now four years sober, and he’s sharing his story in hopes of helping others.

“Sometimes it’s challenging, but it can be done,” he said. “It gets better.”

WATCH | While doing outreach in the community, the group performs on the CTrain:

Sobercrew Calgary promotes healing through drumming

11 hours ago

Duration 0:29

Sobercrew Calgary is a group of people in recovery from addiction who support each other through drumming and outreach. Twice a month, they perform, hand out supplies to people experiencing homelessness and share their stories to anyone who will listen.

Daniels is one of several people behind Sobercrew Calgary, a group of mainly Indigenous people who’ve found a way out of their addiction through culture and sobriety. 

They lean on each other for support and also find ways to help others, whether it’s through drumming or a kind conversation.

Finding support

Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by the opioid crisis in Alberta. 

A December 2021 report from Alberta Health found Indigenous people made up 22 per cent of all opioid poisoning deaths from 2020 despite representing approximately six per cent of the province’s population.

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, a family doctor on the front lines of the opioid crisis on the Blood reserve in southern Alberta, says the population is dealing with trauma, pain and poverty.

“I’m so exhausted from working the frontline. Some days I don’t want to think about it because we’ve lost so many people,” she said in an interview with Alberta at Noon.

Two carts full of sandwiches and supplies.
The Sobercrew hands out sandwiches to anyone experiencing homelessness. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Every person’s needs when it comes to recovery are different, she said.

“I think it’s very important that we recognize that not everybody is going to achieve abstinence. I mean, that’s the golden place. Everybody wants to be abstinent, but not everybody can.”

For Daniels though, it worked. And a number of people in his group are finding it’s worked for them as well.

They meet twice a week in Sunalta to form a drumming circle and sing. For almost two years, they’ve also gathered food, headed out to the community and shared their stories with anyone who will listen.

Two men stand side by side with drums strapped to their chests.
Robbie Daniels, left, stands beside his brother, Travis Daniels, as they ride the CTrain. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

It’s a way of healing his own wounds, Daniels said. But it’s also about helping people.

“These people on the street, I know most of them because I was on the street with them. And they know me and I get to their level and … with no judgment at all, share my story, what helped me,” he said.

‘There is a way out’

Many others have joined Daniels in his pursuit.

Crystal Fontaine spent seven years addicted to drugs while living in Edmonton. She came to Calgary in September 2021, hoping to make a change in her life.

She went to the Sunrise Healing Lodge in northeast Calgary, which provides Indigenous-based programs to help recover from alcohol, drug and gambling addictions.

“I wanted something better for myself, I didn’t want to have to feel that shame,” she said. 

After finishing the program, her partner introduced her to the Sobercrew drumming groups. Through the sessions, she says she also found a way back to her culture.

She now joins Sobercrew when they go out into the community for their outreach programs.

“We’re not only healing ourselves with the drum and singing. We’re also healing by helping and giving back and sharing our story of where we were in that spot at one point, all of us were, and it’s really humbling to be a part of that and to be helping in that manner.”

A woman in a Sobercrew sweatshirt stands by a Calgary apartment building.
Crystal Fontaine came to Calgary in September 2021. She says it makes her heart happy to be involved in Sobercrew. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

For Bobby Tatti, another member of Sobercrew, the idea of an Indigenous-led sobriety group was appealing.

He grew disconnected from his family and his culture as a child, he said.

The experience resulted in a lot of unresolved anger and feelings of abandonment, which eventually led to addictions and run-ins with the correctional system in Edmonton. 

“Then I started to notice like, what am I doing? You know, what am I doing with my life? Like all I have to show is this rap sheet and I gotta change something, you know?”

He asked a corrections addiction counsellor for help and was also transferred to the Sunrise Healing Lodge in August 2020. Two days after leaving, he met Daniels, who taught him how to drum.

“So people out there who are suffering out there, we just want to show them that there is a way out and just to be an example for them,” he said.

Journey of healing

Back at the CTrain station, Daniels hands a sandwich to a man pushing a cart. Then he gives a tarp to another man passing by.

Sharing music is one of the goals of their outreach, he says. He never tells anyone what to do, just shares his story.

A group of people stand around a microphone singing as one man holds a drum.
The Sobercrew stands outside the Chinook CTrain station, drumming and singing. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

And when someone asks for his help, he’s more than happy to extend his hand, or a drumstick.

“The ones that are struggling to become sober. Like, make sober look fun with culture, drumming and laughter and fellowship,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to pray, you know, and I just sing. And that’s almost as equal as praying.”

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