Film Review - Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy (2021)

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers works on the frontline of a drug poisoning epidemic on the Kainai Reserve.

One of my friends recently asked me how they can be a better ally to Indigenous people. I told them the best things you can do is to educate yourself about the history of this country, including the atrocities of the residential school system, and listen to Indigenous peoples stories and experiences. Holding space and having empathy for those who are suffering from intergenerational trauma is so important and a great step to becoming a good ally and there’s a new documentary out from NFB that would be a great start.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is a heart breaking documentary exploring the opioid crisis in the Kainai First Nation in Southern Alberta. Actress and film maker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers returns to her home town to talk with those working on the front lines supporting community members struggling with addiction. The Blood reserve is a part of the Blackfoot confederacy and one of the largest First Nations reserves in Canada. In 2014 they were hit with the fentanyl crisis and have been working to ensure services for those in need remain in place.

“When it comes to treatment for substance use disorders, there are two main schools of thought in the addictions field, abstinence or harm reduction”. Twelve step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, have become the most widely accepted model for treating addiction and mostly supported by the greater community at large, but quitting cold turkey is not easy and could be deadly. “Harm reduction recognizes that abstinence does not work for everyone. Or that abstinence is not a realistic expectation for many drug and alcohol users”.

This documentary examines the services that are available in Kainai for drug and alcohol addiction and the challenges that people face in order to access those services like travel, long wait lists and racism experienced in medical facilities. “It’s well known that many of our people will not go to certain hospitals because of the treatment that they get…[within the health care system].. .It often takes one or two experiences by a racist or biased health professional to hurt a person and to gain their non-trust”.

One of the biggest plights of our society is the stigma around people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Those who do not struggle with addiction have a hard time understanding those who do. One of the biggest take-aways from this documentary for me is that we need to have compassion and empathy for our community members who are suffering and dealing with trauma. “All it takes is one person to care. Cause everyone out here is a person. We’re all people”.

Drug and alcohol abuse is a form of self-medicating. How can we expect anyone to recover from their addictions when they constantly come across barriers to getting the help they need. It’s even far more challenging for First Nations communities who are frequently receiving less funding for programs than any other group or organization.  

“We can’t sit back and expect things to change without doing the work”.

If you want to be a better ally to Indigenous people start by hearing our stories. Check out this documentary and “witness the change brought by community members with substance-use disorder, first responders and medical professionals as they strive for harm reduction in the Kainai First Nation in Southern Alberta”.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is screening at Vancity theatre from Nov 5 – 10. Tickets and info at and

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