Hot Docs 2021: Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy Review

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers powerful documentary Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens with a simple question: “how many have we lost to this crisis?” The crisis in question is the opioid epidemic that has been ravishing the Kainai First Nation in Alberta since 2014.

Unlike other regions that have the luxury of observing the ramifications of opioid addiction from a distance, every single person on the Blackfoot reserve has been personally impacted by the rise of drugs like fentanyl. Regardless of whether one is a family member who has lost a loved one, wrestling with addiction themselves, or a frontline worker attempting to save lives, like the filmmaker’s mother Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, everyone has a tragic story to tell. And, as the face of addiction continues to rapidly shift, the Kainai community has scrambled to find ways to combat this new threat.

This means embracing new forms of treatment that many find controversial. As Tailfeathers’ documentary notes, there are two schools of thought when it comes to addiction treatment. The first, and most common, is simple Abstinence. Breaking away from one’s vices cold turkey via tools like 12-steps program used in Alcoholics Anonymous. However, this method does not work for everyone. When it comes to certain drug addictions others recommend going with the harm reduction approach. This mean using other drugs, providing clean medical assisted facilities and general compassion to ween users off stronger narcotics.

Of course, the idea of substituting one drug for another is a tough pill to swallow for a community that has been raised to believe abstaining is the only viable method.


In charting her mother’s work to establish a new clinic that will bring the harm reduction techniques practiced in Vancouver and other parts of the country to the Kainai First Nation, Tailfeathers constructs a mesmerizing portrait of the power of empathy when healing generational wounds. As a community learns how to heal itself from the ground up, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy shows that one cannot simply stitch a wound without addressing what caused it.

In showcasing the lasting impact of colonization, residential schools, unfair government treaties and more, Tailfeathers weaves a piercing and meditative look at the legacy of trauma. She highlights how the Kainai people are often stereotyped as drunk troublemakers in the eyes of the white Mormons who live a more affluent life in the nearby town of Cardston. While some, like the mayor of Cardston, acknowledge that the hardships and addictions the Kainai people experience stem for historical injustice, they show little compassion or motivation to help right old wrongs.

Simply saying that one should pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, while ignoring that the boots have been stuck in cement for generations, does little to remedy the situation. As Tailfeathers’ film shows, it is only when one understands the systemic trauma forced upon Indigenous peoples that work can effectively be done to start the healing process on multiple levels.

This means educating first responders like EMT staff, police officers and doctors on Canada’s problematic history so they can better treat their Indigenous patients with more compassion and care. It also means removing the numerous and problematic barriers that routinely hinder those living with addiction from getting into treatment centres.


As Tailfeathers’ camera glides across the beautiful Albertan landscape, one cannot help but reflect on the decades of horrors that the Indigenous communities have, and still do, experience in Canada. Despite these atrocities, the film is filled with a sense of hope and perseverance. The individuals that Tailfeathers speaks with have all endured hardship, yet they find optimism in the smallest of compassionate acts. The road to recovery may be long, but Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy never loses faith in its subjects or their communities’ ability to rally around them.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy screens virtually at Hot Docs from April 29 to May 9. Head here for more Hot Docs 2021 content.