Piikani Nation declares state of emergency after multiple drug deaths

Click to play video: 'State of emergency declared on Piikani Nation after increased opioid-related deaths'
State of emergency declared on Piikani Nation after increased opioid-related deaths
WATCH: A state of emergency has been declared on a First Nation south of Calgary after a growing number of deaths related to opioids occurred over the holidays. Craig Momney reports. – Jan 3, 2024

A First Nation in southern Alberta has declared a state of emergency following a recent series of drug poisoning deaths.

Piikani Nation Chief Troy Knowlton and council made the declaration on Tuesday.

In a statement on Wednesday, Knowlton characterized the drug crisis that involves nations like Piikani as the “public policy challenge of the century, affecting every community from coast to coast.”

“In the last week, we have seen several deaths. These deaths will be marked with sorrow throughout the nation,” Knowlton said. “To all those affected, we are making services available in the form of grief and mental health counselling.”

Alberta RCMP confirmed three drug overdose deaths in less than a week in late December 2023. Cpl. Troy Savinkoff said the deaths were all women ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s.

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Alberta RCMP warn of fatal risks of cutting fentanyl

“That’s a lot of deaths, in a fairly small community, associated with what we believe to be fentanyl overdoses,” Savinkoff said.

Knowlton said in a tight-knit community like Piikani, the impact of drug use is felt especially painful.

Nicole Johnston, a Piikani member, said one of the latest people to die was known widely by members of the First Nation.

“Everyone knew the last person that passed away from this opioid and this last death has really hit a lot of people. It really hurt a lot of people in this community,” Johnston said.

When visiting one of the sites on Piikani that recently had an overdose death, she stopped to pay tribute.

Click to play video: 'Athabasca Tribal Council in northern Alberta declares state of emergency'
Athabasca Tribal Council in northern Alberta declares state of emergency

“I felt that presence of one of them. So I put down some tobacco and I said a little prayer, and talked to them to let them know where they really are.”

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Johnston said internal supports from the First Nation like wellness checks, Narcan kits and other supports have fallen off for people who struggle with addiction.

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She said she hopes the state of emergency will help get the drug crisis back into a better state of control.

“For one, get us back to where we were to helping these ones that are stuck in this addictions of opioids. Two, to get us the supplies and resources that are so badly needed,” Johnston said. “And I’m not talking about sending one to two people to help. We need a group of people to come and help this community to get going, at least getting a grasp on this crisis that’s happening here. We need that help.”

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The state of emergency, based on the reading of the federal Emergencies Act and to be put in place according to the Canadian Charter, includes “substantive measures” to prevent drug use, improve emergency treatment and provide additional resources to front-line agencies.

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Knowlton also said the First Nation is working with local RCMP “for diligent and augmented law enforcement measures to crack down on the source of the problem, namely gangs and drug traffickers.”

Alberta RCMP said the attention from a state of emergency is likely to help law enforcement efforts by encouraging people to come forward with information about suspected drug trafficking.

“We’ll be proactively working on project-based things, focusing on those offenders that we believe are bringing drugs in that community and hopefully keeping it out,” Savinkoff said.

“This is a team approach with partners within the communities themselves and everybody has a part to play in trying … to prevent these sort of deaths in the community.”

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Two young girls found dead in Sylvan Lake hotel room

Joe Small Leg, an elder whose traditional Piikani name translates to “Medicine Badge,” said he’d like to see better policing within the First Nation.

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“I live right in the townsite. There’s even white people coming in to drop off pills, stuff like that – nothing’s happening to them. They’re all able to come in, drop their supply off and leave. I believe it’s still happening today,” Small Leg said.

He also said chronic poverty is at the root of the drug crisis.

“When you’re in poverty everything comes: criminality, crime, alcohol, substance abuse, pills. That all comes with poverty,” Small Leg said.

“Poverty is the big problem here. If you can deal with poverty, start finding jobs, start giving them a spirit, maybe they will come out and put that stuff away.”

The Piikani chief called the drug poisoning crisis a long-term and complicated issue that requires immediate action that has begun.

“My personal sympathies go out to the families of the youth who have been taken from us. They can be assured, however, that we will offer more than sympathy. We are acting,” he said.


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