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State of emergency over substance abuse in Shamattawa leads to vehicle searches, patrols of snowmobile trails

March 13, 2024

Other communities also search vehicles for drugs, alcohol

An aerial image from a drone shows homes spaced out in a snow-covered community with dense forest in the background.
Part of Shamattawa First Nation is pictured in this image captured by a drone in December 2020. The First Nation’s chief and council are trying to stop drugs and alcohol from entering the community. (Trevor Lyons/CBC )

CBC Indigenous: A northern Manitoba First Nation is cracking down further on drugs and alcohol after declaring a state of emergency over bootlegging in the community.

Leaders in Shamattawa First Nation have made a band council resolution to give local and hired security officers the power to search vehicles, people’s luggage and, if necessary, their homes, says a band council resolution posted to social media.

“Me and my husband came in and we were searched,” said Sheri Schweder, a Shamattawa resident who wasn’t happy about getting stopped March 5 after a 22-hour drive home from Winnipeg via the winter road.

They didn’t have banned substances in their vehicle, she said.

“Part of the reason I got mad was because I don’t engage in bootlegging. I never sell anything. I don’t do drugs.”

A woman with short blond hair smiles for the camera in a portrait style photo.
Sheri Schweder, a resident of Shamattawa First Nation, is unhappy that when she and her husband returned home, their car was searched. (Submitted by Sheri Schweder)

Shamattawa, which is supposed to be a dry community, is the latest First Nation to impose searches to stop the flow of illicit drugs and alcohol amid concerns about substance abuse.

Walter Wastesicoot, grand chief of the Keewatin Tribal Council, which represents 11 northern Manitoba First Nations including Shamattawa, said bootlegging and substance abuse issues get worse during the winter road season.

“People are dying, people are overdosing,” Wastesicoot said.

KTC declared a regional state of emergency last March over “system-wide failures in public safety, health and infrastructure,” he said.

Shamattawa is a remote community in northeastern Manitoba connected to the rest of the province by its airport and by winter roads.

It hired Anishinaabe Ambassadors Inc. to help train band constables and security officers to monitor outgoing and incoming traffic on the winter road to the community and search all vehicles and traveller luggage entering the First Nation, the band council resolution says.

People who don’t comply with the rules or a search request may be denied entry to the community, the resolution says. People’s homes can also be searched if directed by chief and council.

Shamattawa First Nation Chief Jordna Hill didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from CBC this week.

Words written on a piece of printed white paper are shown declaring a state of emergency over drug activity and orders to search vehicles.
This band council resolution was shared publicly on March 4 in the Kischimattawow Public Announcements (Shamattawa) Facebook group. (Facebook/Kischimattawow Public Announcements (Shamattawa) )

James Favel, president of Anishinaabe Ambassadors, said his company is supporting the Shamattawa council resolution against drugs and alcohol.

“We work under the band council resolution that allows us to do the work that we do,” Favel said. “We’re going in and we’re searching incoming traffic on the winter roads … just any point of entry. We’re also watching Ski-Doo trails.

“What typically happens is somebody will bring it to one of those points, off load it onto a Ski-Doo, and then they come in through a different route.” 

Favel said 10 staff are presently stationed in the community. He said they’ve been directed to stop all illegal drugs and alcohol from entering the community, as well as legally purchased cannabis and alcohol.

“They’re asking for a total ban right now,” Favel said.

A man with a goatee is pictured on a partially snow-covered walkway wearing a black toque and a black t-shirt underneath a black jacket.
James Favel is president of Anishinaabe Ambassadors Inc., which Shamattawa hired to help keep alcohol and drugs out of the community. (Tyson Koschik/CBC )

So far, a small amount of hard drugs, some cannabis but mostly alcohol has been seized, Favel said.

“We seize the contraband, prepare a report and pass it off to chief and council,” he said. “We’re not there to criminalize people.”

He said the ambassadors work alongside and support safety officers in First Nations who contract their services.

“Essentially what we’re trying to do is foster a sense of stakeholder mentality, provide wraparound supports. It’s not enough to just come in and go after drugs and alcohol,” Favel said. 

Drugs are either destroyed or turned over to the RCMP, Favel said.

Several small tinfoil balls rolled up in a clear plastic bag are pictured while they're being held in a person's gloved hand.
A photo shows what James Favel says is crack previously seized by Anishinaabe Ambassadors from a different First Nations community. (Submitted by James Favel)

RCMP spokesperson Tara Seel said the Mounties are aware of the contracted company and the band council resolution, but Shamattawa RCMP is not involved in searching people entering the community.

As with every community in the province, drugs are present, and the RCMP is patrolling and following up on tips, Seel said.

The Mounties have also deployed their north district crime reduction enforcement support team to help track down people involved in the illegal drug trade in Shamattawa.

“The RCMP appreciates that the winter road does provide an opportunity for wider access to remote communities, and our enforcement strategies align with the increase in that activity,” Seel said.

Other First Nations within the province are also conducting searches of vehicles entering their communities.

Angela Levasseur, the chief of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, said the community tried a complete ban on drugs and alcohol temporarily last year, but people resorted to other substances that were more harmful.

“It was a real health hazard,” Levasseur said. 

They now allow people to bring a limited amount of legally purchased alcohol and cannabis, but they still search vehicles coming into the community.

“If you go above that limit, then it’s confiscated by the FNSOs (First Nations safety officers),” Levasseur said. “Some people don’t like the law.

“One person suggested we double the limit.”

That would require amendments to the current rules.

“That’s something we may or may not do,” she said.

Signs say "notice to all visitors" and "permit required for transport of alcohol or cannabis" on a snowy landscape in front of snowmobiles.
A checkpoint is pictured in file image from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation. (CBC )

Similar to Shamattawa, people who don’t comply with searches can be fined or denied entry into the community.

“They can take the nation to court if they feel that what we’re doing is a violation of their rights and unconstitutional, and that hasn’t happened yet,” Levasseur said.

Ian Bushie, Manitoba’s municipal and northern relations minister and MLA for Keewatinook, where Shamattawa is located, is generally supportive of the First Nations’ actions.

“It’s imperative that they’re thinking outside the box, in some cases, to be able to address the safety concerns in their community and the addictions and the crisis that they’re going through today,” Bushie said in an interview with CBC earlier this week. 

“It’s something that we need to address an ongoing basis.”

Schweder understands chief and council is just trying to find ways to prevent harm to people but she worries banning drugs and alcohol will have the opposite effect.

“Forcing them to just quit cold turkey isn’t a good way to go,” she said. “They turn to other things, like, for instance, sniffing to get their high. They’ll turn to anything.

“It’s just really out of hand.”


Josh Crabb, Reporter

Josh Crabb is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He started reporting in 2005 at CKX-TV in Brandon, Man. After spending three years working in television in Red Deer, Alta., Josh returned to Manitoba in 2010 and has been covering stories across the province and in Winnipeg ever since.

With files from Rachel Ferstl