‘A leader for his people’

Quinn Meawasige was in rehab trying to kick a nasty drug and drinking habit when he received a phone call from Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo.

(Quinn Meawasige, from Serpent River First Nation, carries an eagle staff leading the procession to close the Assembly of First Nation’s annual meeting in Moncton, NB. APTN/Photo)

APTN National News
Quinn Meawasige was in rehab trying to kick a drug and drinking habit when he received a phone call from Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo.

Nine months later Meawasige, 17, carried an eagle staff and led Thursday’s procession to close off the AFN’s national assembly in Moncton, NB.

Moments earlier, while standing next to Atleo, Meawasige was heralded as a shining example of the future.

“This young man has inspired me,” said Atleo, in his closing speech to the assembly. “This young man told his community where he comes from that he made a decision that he was going to seek treatment and healing because he knew he needed to prepare himself, that he would become a leader for his people.”

As Atleo spoke, the assembled chiefs gave Meawasige, who is from Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, a standing ovation.

“Quinn shows us that (the youth) are leaders right now,” said Atleo. “It takes courage, conviction and standing up to the fears that might hold us back…We still have a long way to go, (but) when we see something like this let us…recognize the incredibly courageous things that are happening in our communities every single day.”

Meawasige said it was his involvement in protests last spring against the harmonized sales tax in Ontario that triggered his desire to give up drugs and alcohol. He said he had spent five years lost in a haze of crack, cocaine, OxyContin and liquor.

“It was really one question: What does it mean to be Aboriginal?” said Meawasige. “That really stopped to make me think. ‘What does it mean?’ The more I started to think about it, the more I started to be interested in it.”

Meawasige, who said he came from a good family, finally decided to go into rehab after spending a day in court facing break and enter charges. He said he stole to support his drug habit.

“After sitting in that court room I said I need to go (into rehab),” he said.

It wasn’t easy to kick the drug habit.

“I was scared about what would happen,” he said.  “I had bad withdrawals, night sweats. It was tough.”

Last November, during his 108-day stay in a rehab centre near London, Ont., Meawasige received a surprised phone call from the national chief.

“The executive director comes running in and she says ‘Chief Atleo’s assistant just called (and said) that Chief Atleo will call you in the next half hour to an hour,'” he said. “I waited by the phone.”

During the phone conversation Atleo told Meawasige he was an inspiration.

“He said he was really proud of me. He said ‘you inspired me once again,'” said Meawasige. “He said I followed my heart.”

The two had met at a rally on Parliament Hill that year, but Meawasige said he still doesn’t know how Atleo knew to call him at the rehab centre.

“It was out of nowhere,” he said.

After dozens of congratulatory handshakes and photographs, including one with an RCMP officer in full uniform, Meawasige sat at a table with a young woman discussing political projects.

As their conversation ended, the young woman paused for a moment and said “you’re a rock star.”

Online Producer / Ottawa

Before moving to become the APTN News social media producer, Mark was the executive producer for the news in eastern Canada. Before starting with APTN in 2009, Mark worked at CBC Radio and Television in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ottawa.