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Alberta First Nations declare state of emergency over drug crisis

September 7, 2023

A tribal council representing five First Nations in northeast Alberta have declared a state of emergency over an escalating mental health and addictions crisis. Athabasca Tribal Council Grand Chief Allan Adam speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on March 20, 2013. ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Globe and Mail:

A council representing five First Nations in Alberta has declared a regional state of emergency, saying the provincial and federal governments need to provide more funding to address the drug poisonings and suicides that have killed around 60 community members so far this year.

The Athabasca Tribal Council made the declaration on Thursday, building on the independent states of local emergency declared by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation and Fort McKay First Nation.

Chief Allan Adam, council board president, said the number of dead far exceeds the number killed by COVID-19 – a health crisis that was met with urgency.

“I, myself, lost a brother and two nephews within the last three months and it continues to happen,” Mr. Adam, who is also chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said at a news conference in Fort McMurray on Thursday.

“Generations of unaddressed impacts of residential school traumas and cultural oppression has created a long-standing mental health crisis and [is] feeding the addictions. These are the things that happen when there is no help available for anybody – when you have trauma that goes with and you don’t talk about it and you have to feed it.”

He said the crisis has been made worse because of simultaneous disasters, including floods and fires that have displaced members of the northern communities, on top of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Adam said governments, at all levels, responded quickly to those emergency situations, but the same can’t be said for the overdose epidemic which disproportionately affects Indigenous people.

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The council is asking for a sustainable funding agreement to support the development of a community action plan to respond to generational and cultural trauma and to establish culturally appropriate resources for mental health and addictions care. This includes funding for infrastructure to house detox, treatment and post-treatment services that covers operations and maintenance.

While no specific amount was requested, funding would also be used for community well-being and crisis response teams, the creation of a regional employment strategy and First Nations-led police, who would be equipped to respond to drug issues and focus on community safety.

Some of this work is already under way, in part from money already received from the province and federal government. But council representatives said it does not come close to what is needed. Limited access to addictions experts and physicians is intensifying the issue while communities see an increase in drug-related violence, including shootings.

“Our communities cannot wait for a slow bureaucratic response from the federal and provincial governments. It is time for change. It is time for action. We can no longer allow our communities to suffer in silence without the support they need,” Karla Buffalo, chief executive officer of the council, said at the media conference.

Zeus Eden, press secretary to federal Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu, said in a statement that Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) meets regularly with the council to discuss health and wellness supports.

“We are committed to working with all partners, including the provincial government, to support community led solutions that really work,” Mr. Eden said. More than $5.8-million has been provided through ISC to support Indigenous mental health services, including suicide prevention and trauma-informed treatment services, in the Wood Buffalo region of Alberta, he said. An additional $750,000 was provided in June for wellness supports.

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Dan Williams, Alberta Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said in a statement that the government met with the council on Wednesday to discuss the challenges it faces. Mr. Williams did not say whether any new funding would be provided by his government.

“We have been committed since day one to working with Indigenous partners to address the issue of addiction in their communities and we reaffirmed that to the Athabasca Tribal Council,” he said. “We will continue to work closely with Indigenous partners to ensure the needs of their communities are met.”

Mr. Williams pointed to the existing virtual opioid dependency program (VODP) where people are assessed by a health worker who can prescribe opioid agonist treatment medications, such as methadone and suboxone, through the closest pharmacy. He described it as a no-fee, no-wait-list, same-day service.

But that’s not the case for the northern First Nations communities that can’t access the medications easily. The council is working with Nunee Health, the area’s primary health care centre, and the RCMP to launch VODP in the fly-in community of Fort Chipewyan over the next two weeks, which will support the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations and Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation. Work will then be done to expand access to other Indigenous communities.


Alanna Smith: Follow Alanna Smith on Twitter: @alanna_smithh