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Clarence Cachagee says connecting with his culture has given him the strength and pride to overcome his addictions and set new goals. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC) Clarence Cachagee’s earliest memories are of running away.

At the age of eight, he packed a suitcase and sat on the curb out front of his foster house.

Later, when he was sent to a group home, he would escape to nearby Kitchener, or further away to Toronto.

As an adult, getting away became more complicated: He stopped using his feet and started using drugs and alcohol.

"I drank to escape," he recalled. "I knew that whatever liquid was in that little brown bottle, it would make me feel OK about who I was." ‘Running to find who I was’

But when he reflects on those early years, Cachagee knows he wasn’t really running away. He was trying to get to something.

"I think I was running to find who I was, what I was connected to," he said.

When he was in his 40s, Cachagee finally found what he was looking for: He was Indigenous, from the Chapleau Cree First Nation.

In truth, he had known about his Indigenous heritage since his early 20s, when he met his birth father for the first time. But it was in his 40s that his identity began to mean something to him.

He was also in his 40s when Cachagee hit rock bottom in his life. He was homeless, deeply addicted and failing physically. Reconnecting with culture

Although he had tried detox and short-term treatment before, Cachagee decided to try again.

He signed into a long-term treatment centre in Waterloo. Then, on the advice of an elder, he travelled to an Indigenous treatment centre outside London.

There, at Native Horizons, Cachagee said he started to connect with the culture he had been alienated from as a child.

"I was starting to pray. I was starting to smudge every day. I was starting to learn teachings that I was never exposed to at all in my life. And it started making me proud," he said.

Proud enough to learn how to sing, to drum and — now — to consider himself a helper in his community.

He said the traditional knowledge has also given him a foundation for his new life, helping him to overcome his addictions and set new goals.Armed with his new-found identity, Cachagee said he’s now feels "whole."

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