ÎYÂRHE NAKODA – Twenty-eight of Bearspaw First Nation’s roughly 2,000 members died primarily of opioid poisoning in 2022, according to Chief Darcy Dixon.
In a letter to Indigenous Service Canada (ISC) last month urging better methods of working together with ISC and Health Canada, the chief states the Nation is on track to exceed that number this year with 16 related deaths from April to June, at an average age of 44 years old.
“These are my people, most of them young who will never have the opportunity to live their lives,” wrote Dixon. “We are related to all of them. This is clearly a health and safety issue for ISC Alberta Region.”
The letter was directed to the attention of Alberta regional director Jamie Brown, who the chief said he has written to many times “about the high number of deaths and a rapidly declining life expectancy” of the Bearspaw people.
“My staff and I have tried to provide up-to-date and relevant information about this serious situation in our community,” states the letter. “We have advised you and your officials in relation to the extraordinary number of recent deaths in the Bearspaw First Nation from opioid overdoses (primarily fentanyl). Most of these deaths are our young people. This is devastating to our Nation on many levels.”
Dixon said a stronger working relationship is needed between the First Nation and ISC to address the opioid crisis in the community.
The chief’s letter reports there were 58 deaths, primarily linked to overdoses, for all of Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation in 2021, including Goodstoney and Chiniki First Nations. According to the letter, there were 72 deaths in 2020, 43 in 2019 and 35 in 2018.
Dixon underlined that Bearspaw council is without sufficient financial resources to tackle the crisis and the issue raises discussion of intergenerational trauma, the impacts of colonization and government responsibility.
The death toll has not only been emotionally, physically, culturally and spiritually devastating for the Nation, but it’s also financially draining, said the chief.
“As you are also aware, we receive no contribution funding for funerals,” he wrote, adding a majority of Bearspaw members would qualify under ISC’s conditions and the average funeral costs about $10,000.
“We receive no financial assistance for funeral costs as the responsible government party. We are lumped with the affairs of the Stoney Tribal Administration (STA), which does not represent our interests in this matter.”
Stoney Tribal Administration is the administrative arm of Stoney Nakoda Nations and is separate from its chiefs and council, comprised of three chiefs and four councillors in each band.
Dixon said this governance model and lack of support from ISC is stifling the Nation from being able to address the issue at hand and is forcing it to take funds “allocated for essential services” to afford funeral costs.
“Since your department only recognizes one policy for STA, we are being crippled once again by ISC by not being allowed to charge out to the income support clients a good portion of the funeral costs,” the letter stated. “Amendments must be made in this regard.”
In the interim, the Nation is requesting $250,000 from ISC to cover the surge in deaths and increased number of funerals.
In the letter, the chief expressed it’s “difficult to believe we are talking about a group in Canada” of the Bearspaw Nation and members’ life expectancy.
In Alberta, First Nations people represent approximately six per cent of the population, yet, in the first six months of 2020, they represented 22 per cent of all opioid poisoning deaths in the province. This was an increase from 14 per cent in 2016.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report underscores that substance use in Indigenous communities often stems from coping with trauma from residential schools and colonization, leading to lasting intergenerational health and social issues.
Mental health outcomes, particularly addiction and suicide, significantly affect shorter life expectancies. Statistics Canada reports between 2011 and 2016, addiction affected 25 per cent of Indigenous peoples, compared to 17 per cent in non-Indigenous populations. Indigenous youth also experienced six times higher suicide rates than their non-Indigenous peers.
Brooks Arcand-Paul, MLA for Edmonton-West Henday and NDP critic for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said the drug crisis is an epidemic and the province is lacking the resources to treat it.
Arcand-Paul, who is from Alexander First Nation, said more Indigenous voices are needed at the table to stop the cycle of addiction in Indigenous communities.
“The [province] needs to have every single voice at that table and they have to listen and actually implement things that they’re saying, even if they don’t agree with them,” he said. “They need to make sure that leadership are able to help their people, otherwise we’re just continuing this merry-go-round of colonial governments not listening and being paternalistic and prescribing legislation; making decisions for Indigenous people without having any concept of what Indigenous people are asking for.”
In a statement to the Outlook, ISC spokesperson Carolane Gratton voiced concern for the loss of lives by opioid overdose and suicide in Bearspaw First Nation, attributing the deaths to the lasting impacts of colonization.
Gratton said ISC officials are meeting with the Nation this week to explore mental health supports as well as the implementation of the mental wellness crisis response team, which Bearspaw secured through a successful request for proposal for 2022-24 with ISC.
“Indigenous Services Canada recognizes the need to support the healing, resurgence of culture, strength and resilience of Indigenous individuals, families and communities to combat this issue,” said Gratton. “We recognize this is a serious issue and recent budgets have continued to invest to combat rising issues in opioid use and mental health. These investments include a national network of residential treatment centers, case management supports and prevention training, access and support services for Suboxone (opioid agonist therapy), and local multidisciplinary mental wellness teams that provide culturally appropriate services.”
The mental wellness team, which works in conjunction with Nakoda Emergency Services, has helped the community mostly by responding to overdoses, but it’s not enough.
Dixon said he was “encouraged” by recent provincial announcements for treatment centres in Siksika and Tsuut’ina Nations, but also “disappointed” there was nothing for Stoney Nakoda.
Gratton acknowledged more work is needed beyond these community-based programs and funding allocations to end the opioid crisis.
“We continue to work with Bearspaw First Nation leadership, its community health director, other health professionals in the community and partners both federal and provincial to address the substance use crisis in Alberta,” she said.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.