Kainai Nation battles opioids, indifference and conventional thinking

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Nov. 18, 2021

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy
Opens Friday 19
Roxy Theatre
3.5 out of 5

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers has worked in film and TV for over a decade but it’s in the last couple of years she’s really blown up. She starred in two recent high-profile Canadian films — Blood Quantum and Night Raiders — and directed the searing drama The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. That one won the Vancouver Film Critics’ Best Canadian Picture award.

Tailfeathers’ strong run continues with Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, an in-depth, compassionate look at a drug-poisoning crisis in Kainai First Nation. The filmmaker has stakes in the situation — most notably, her mother is a family doctor working with the community’s substance-use sufferers.

More than digging into the crisis’ contributing factors (they’re clear: ongoing settler colonialism, the long-term impact of residential schools, lack of opportunities, deeply rooted racism), Tailfeathers’ documentary focuses on the southern Albertan Blackfoot community’s efforts to palliate the opioid epidemic while wrestling with unhelpful provincial and federal governments.

Some in the community want a harm-reduction approach over the conventional but ineffective abstinence model. These advocates call for Naloxone distribution, fentanyl substitutes and safe consumption sites. Meanwhile, rising addiction rates and lack of rehabilitation centers in Kainai Nation — the waiting times outside Kainai are hopelessly long — hurt efforts to deal the epidemic a real blow.

There are other rusty links in the chain of recovery. The lack of social housing, for example, makes it almost impossible for those with addictions to escape the people, places and situations that encourage drug and alcohol use. 

Tailfeathers is a sympathetic interviewer who easily gets her subjects to open up. As well, the documentary is thorough without being scattershot, and I’d be hard-pressed to find something to cut. Yet at two hours, five minutes Kímmapiiyipitssini can be a bit tiring. It’s fair to wonder if a documentary series would have been a more effective way to tell Kainai’s story. Regardless, this is necessary viewing.