After suffering from addiction and being taken away from her family, Cherokee Bent turned a new leaf, dedicating her time and energy to help others that were in similar situations as her. This dedication had earned her the Award for Innovation for Mental Health and Addictions Care. 

Originally from Lower Nicola Indian Band, Bent is now a student at Capilano University, and is an On-call Youth Consultant for Vancouver Coastal Health. 

“I do a lot of panels at the men’s detox centre in Vancouver as well as youth treatment centres,” she said. “We go to rural communities like Williams Lake, and I share my experience there.”

On October 26, Bent received a call, informing her that she had won the Council of the Federation (COF) Award for Innovation in Mental Health and Addictions Care. The award recognizes her work to break down stigma and support young people dealing with addiction challenges.

“It’s a huge honour and a big responsibility,” she said.  “In honouring my people and my ancestors, I want to be able to walk alongside our people and give back, so they can be given opportunities too.”

Bent had a traumatic past, one which had led her to this recent success she has garnered, as well as the current path she is on.

“I struggled with alcoholism when I was really young,” she explained. “I struggled a lot with drinking, I got kicked out of school, and I had a lot of suicide attempts when I was really young.”

Bent said that her case “slipped through the cracks,” without anyone looking into what was going on at home. 

“They just assumed that I was a frequent flyer, that I was just doing this for attention,” she explained. “I had a lethal overdose one night and they took me to Vancouver, ready to do surgery on me.” 

It was there in Vancouver when one of the nurses at her aid took notice of the trend with Bent’s case which began the turn in her life. 

“I finally got the proper help that I always needed,” she said. “I was always willing to get help. I was practically begging for it but in smaller communities there aren’t a lot of resources, especially back then.”

Bent went into foster care soon after, where she said the improved environment helped with her recovery. She went back to school in North Vancouver and has lived there ever since. 

“I was given a real chance to be a good kid and to be a part of society,” she said. 

“I think about Merritt a lot. A lot of the things that I’ve done have been in tribute to my hometown.”

Collaborating with Vancouver Coastal Health, Bent has designed and delivered curriculum to educate health-care workers about the importance of providing culturally safe care for young people who use substances and how to improve care for Indigenous youth from rural and remote communities.

She worked on a film titled ‘Hidden Pain’, as part of the Regional Addictions Program’s, Substance Use Simulations Series. 

Behind the scenes of ‘Hidden Pain’. Photo/Cherokee Bent

“We didn’t know of any type of simulations that focused on youth or substance use,” Amelia Birch explained. 

Working as a clinical nurse educator for the Regional Addiction Program, Birch came across Bent and saw her background as a fit for what the simulations was looking for.

“We were trying to look for someone with lived experience both in the medical system and with substance use in their life,” she explained. “Cherokee was one of the people who really helped from the very beginning of the process by co-writing the script, creating the story, acting in the video, and co facilitate screenings of the video to healthcare providers.” 

After recognizing her passion and continued efforts to advocate for youth support, Vancouver Coastal Health nominated Bent for the COF award.

“We are extremely pleased by Cherokee’s significant contribution to promoting Indigenous cultural safety in substance-use care and that she has received recognition through this award,” Birch noted. “Her partnership with our program in the development of the substance-use simulation education series and her willingness to share her lived experience with health-care providers, will positively impact the care Indigenous youth and adults will receive for generations to come. We are deeply grateful and appreciative for her knowledge, empathy and guidance as we strive to listen and learn new ways of delivering care to Indigenous community members.”

“Determined young people are making a difference in community,” said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Cherokee is a young leader doing remarkable work reducing stigma and getting more culturally safe supports for Indigenous youth. We are grateful for her work.”

Bent received the award, along with a $5,000 prize, to advance her work and continue to foster innovation in the sector.

“I feel and believe that it is important to be a voice that breaks silence,” said Bent. “I was there once. I remember how it feels to be alienated, to feel like, no matter how much you want help, it’s just not available.I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to make a difference in our community.”