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Milly Young Pine poses for a portrait at Mount Royal University Campus on Oct. 28, 2022. Young Pine, who has lost two grown sons to overdoses, is now striving to address addiction by returning to university in order to help Indigenous communities.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

One day in September, a slim woman in jeans and a blazer walked into Room B210 of Mount Royal University in Calgary. She sat down at a front-row desk, took out a pen and paper and prepared to take notes.

Though she tried not to show it, Milly Young Pine was a bundle of nerves. At 52, she was twice the age of the other students. She hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom for years. She made her living cleaning hotel rooms.

There was something else that set her apart. She had recently suffered one of the worst things a human being can experience, the death of a child – and suffered it twice.

Thousands of parents have lost sons or daughters to the opioids crisis, the relentless modern plague that has taken lives from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. Some nurse their grief in silence, blaming themselves for what happened. Others speak out.

Ms. Young Pine decided to go back to school. Leaving home and family behind, she enrolled in an open-studies program at Mount Royal, hoping to gain the skills to ease the toll the crisis was taking on her Indigenous community in southern Alberta.

It was a big leap for the soft-spoken grandmother of 11 children. Could she learn to be a student again? Beyond that, could she find the strength to endure her losses, transform her life and help her people? Poised at her front-row desk, she was not at all sure.

Mildred Young Pine was born on Nov. 3, 1969, in Cardston, Alta. Her grandfather was a spiritual guide to his Blackfoot community in the wide plains of southern Alberta. Her father, Moses Weasel Head, was a rancher and respected youth coach on the Blood reserve where she grew up.

He would take her on long walks when she was little, telling her stories about their family and heritage. In the magnificent Waterton Lakes National Park, a special place for the Blackfoot, they would trek past the foaming rapids and waterfalls of Red Rock Canyon.

Then one day everything changed. Her father fell into a sudden coma from an undetected brain tumour. Her mother took her and her two sisters to live in the city of Lethbridge, Alta., a huge culture shock for the girls. Milly’s dad died at the age of 39, when she was just 12.

At home on the reserve, she had been teased for her light skin. Now she was teased for being Indigenous. In her mostly white school, kids would sing war chants when she went by. She dyed her hair and started calling herself Milly Young, dropping the Pine.

At 15, she got pregnant and had her first child, Ryan. She dropped out of school and took jobs waitressing and bartending to get by. She gave birth to two other sons, Jeff and Kyle, before she was 21.

Ms. Young Pine watched with pride as Jeff and Kyle became top school athletes. But after Jeff suffered a knee injury that forced him to quit football, he turned to painkillers, then harder stuff. By then, the family was living back on the sprawling Blood reserve, at 1,300 square kilometres, the largest in Canada.

The opioids crisis has devastated the community. Almost every family has been touched. The Alberta government reports that, in 2020, Indigenous people in the province were seven times more likely than others to die from illicit drugs.

One November day in 2018, Ms. Young Pine got the call she had been dreading: Jeff had succumbed to an overdose, leaving behind a wife, Angel, and seven children. He was 30 years old.

Kyle, gentler and more serious than Jeff, took it hard. Ms. Young Pine came home from Red Deer, where she had been living, to be near him. He died under her own roof, another overdose victim. He was 29. His death came less than two years after Jeff’s.

Ms. Young Pine went into a “very, very dark place” when Jeff died, shutting herself away from the world. Like many mothers who have lost sons or daughters to overdoses, she played “if only” questions over and over in her mind. If only she hadn’t moved back to the reserve with the boys. If only she had been there when Jeff was struggling.

Kyle’s death made her turn to Indigenous spirituality. It gave her faith that this was not the end of the road.

With the help of her family, she began to rally. An idea began to form. What if she went back to school to get a degree? With training in social work or addiction policy, she could fight for change on the reserve, setting up programs that would help young men like her sons find another path. “If I can even save one life,” she thought, “that would mean the world to me.”

She hesitated at first. The last time she went back to school, in her early thirties, it was a washout. Busy dealing with the troubles of her sons, who were then raising families of their own, she fell behind in her studies and dropped out after only a year, heavily in debt.

Moving to Calgary for school would mean less time with her grandchildren. It would mean leaving behind her younger sister Michelle, who only last summer lost a son of her own, Cameron Weasel Head, 29, to an overdose. It would mean seeing less of her surviving son Ryan, who is raising two children by himself.

But Ryan told her to follow her dreams. Life is a river, he told her. It always keeps flowing, no matter what. It is advice she thinks of often as she struggles to adapt to her new life.

Those struggles sometimes seem overwhelming. Calgary is a big, unfamiliar city. She lives at her cousin’s house in a sprawling suburb of subdivisions and malls. She misses home.

And of course her sorrow lingers. “You are not supposed to bury your kids,” she says. “They are supposed to bury you.”

She can talk about her sons without bursting into tears now. She can even dip into the journals Kyle kept. But she still can’t listen to a rap song he made in her honour. He called it Mama.

School is tough, too. Some days she feels: This is awesome, I love learning. Other days, she asks herself: “What am I doing here?”

Then she thinks about what Ryan said. Like a river, she rolls on.

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