‘Our people will die’: Opioid crisis prompts state of emergency in Treaty 6 First Nations

Click to play video: 'Opioid crisis prompts state of emergency in Treaty 6 First Nations'
Opioid crisis prompts state of emergency in Treaty 6 First Nations
A group of local advocates is renewing calls for increased harm reduction services. Monday marks the global day of action known as ‘Support. Don’t Punish,’ a campaign focused on a harm reduction approach to drugs. As Erik Bay reports, the push comes as governments and organizations continue to seek solutions to the opioid crisis. – Jul 10, 2023

The Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations declared a state of emergency on Monday after their annual general meeting to address the ongoing opioid crisis.

The confederacy is asking for immediate support and additional funding from all levels of government to address this crisis.

“Families, friends and loved ones are being lost to this devastating crisis,” said Grand Chief Leonard Standingontheroad.

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The territory of Treaty 6 covers central Alberta and Saskatchewan. It spans over 300,000 kilometres.

Treaty 6 guarantees health care and dictates that the federal government must provide ongoing health care.

“If harm reduction isn’t available, our people will die,” said Standingontheroad.

The confederacy says in February there was a promise of $2 billion via the Indigenous Health Equity Fund over the next 10 years, but that communication on the funding has been poor and funding is not getting to where it needs to go yet.

The Treaty 6 First Nations said there is an 18.2-year discrepancy in the life expectancy of Indigenous individuals and that mortality rates of opioid poisoning is seven times higher amongst Indigenous individuals compared to the general population.

According to Alberta Health Services data, the life expectancy of First Nations Albertans has gone from 71 years old in 2017 to 63 years old in 2021.

The Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations said that death rates have spiked since supervised consumption sites were closed and that 71 First Nations declared an opioid crisis, but only an estimated 22 to 24 of them have received funding.

The Treaty 6 First Nations also raised concerns about a lack of recovery treatment beds and inaccessibility of the ones there are.

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Canada’s minister of mental health and addictions said the federal government will do all it can to support Treaty 6.

“We will obviously respond positively to the request, that’s what we do, whether it’s substance use and addiction program dollars or the various ways we can work with the grand chief and his communities in terms of that bottom-up response on harm reduction,” Carolyn Bennett said in Edmonton on Monday.

“This has to be patient-centred approach with their families, with their communities,” she said.

“This is a crisis, as the grand chief said, and we have to put the ideologies away and look to the evidence and work together.”

Bennett said all orders of government need to do all they can and use both harm-reduction and treatment approaches.

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“I think the concern has been the polarization between harm reduction and treatment. We need both.

“I think the people with lived and living experience — and particularly the people who have been successful in treatment and have had excellent after care and are now helping other people — they are very upset that it’s harm reduction or treatment. We need both,” Bennett stressed.

“This is really a pharmaceutical-assisted road to recovery. I think we want to stop that conversation about a competition between harm reduction and treatment. We need more treatment beds… we need more detox and withdrawal approaches. We need to do it all if we’re going to be able to save lives.

“We need to work together and build on the evidence and build on the trauma-informed care, culturally-safe care, so we can actually save lives.”

Bennett called the misunderstanding of harm reduction “deadly.”

“We need people to be able to stay alive long enough to get help. With the poisoned drug supply, people using once are dying.”

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Another record-breaking week of overdoses, ambulance trips in Alberta

The Alberta NDP expressed its support for the members of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations and said it urges a quick and immediate response. The Opposition called on Premier Danielle Smith and her government to work with Indigenous leaders on the issues at hand.

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Dan Williams, Alberta’s minister of mental health and addiction, issued a statement to Global News about the state of emergency declaration on Monday.

“Every day the deadly disease of addiction devastates families and destroys communities in Alberta and across North America, and this is especially true in First Nations communities,” he said. “To address addiction in Alberta we are partnering directly with First Nations in the spirit of reconciliation. We’re continuing to strengthen these partnerships with Treaty 6 by committing to build and fully fund a recovery community in direct partnership with Enoch Cree Nation.”

Williams also noted his government has announced the construction and funding of three more recovery communities in direct partnership with Tsuut’ina Nation, Siksika Nation and Kainai Nation.

“These are historic actions by the government of Alberta that are outside of our traditional jurisdiction but are essential to moving forward in partnership with First Nations.”

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In an interview with Global News on Tuesday, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers — who recently resigned her position as senior medical director of the Indigenous Wellness Core (IWC), a part of Alberta Health Services — said there needs to be a larger plan in place.

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Tailfeathers said she’s happy for the communities receiving much-needed treatment facilities but it’s about more than that.

“What I’m saying is the whole province doesn’t have a strategy to address Indigenous addictions and that includes in urban centres as well as in First Nations and Metis settlements as well as the Metis Nation of Alberta.

“There was no plan in place for what is needed along the continuum of care, such as prevention, such as expanding harm-reduction services to include things like STI testing. We know that we’re now on the brink of an HIV expansion,” Tailfeathers said.

She said there needs to be Indigenous voices at the table when decisions are made about health strategies and addiction support.

“The northern communities are much needing in dollars as well and they need to be part of the governance and decision-making within their communities on how to address these issues.”

As for the treatment facilities announced by the province, Tailfeathers said she’s waiting to see them become reality.

“Kainai was announced in July of 2020 and there’s no shovel in the ground,” she said. “I have seen no plans. I have seen no programming for a 75-bed unit, so right now it’s still thin air and our people are dying.”

Click to play video: 'Province announces $10M for 2 new addiction recovery communities in southern Alberta'
Province announces $10M for 2 new addiction recovery communities in southern Alberta

Williams called on the federal government to “step up and provide more support to (First) Nations facing addiction.”

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Williams noted there are a number of supervised consumption sites in Alberta.

“As of today, there are seven drug consumption sites operating in Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Edmonton (three sites) and Grande Prairie. Later this year, a new site is set to open in Edmonton.”

–With files from Global News’ Morgan Black and Phil Heidenreich

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