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Treaty 6 leaders declare drug poisoning crisis a state of emergency

Treaty 6 Grand Chief Leonard Standingontheroad:’If harm reduction isn’t available, our people will die’
(Black Press file photo)

By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alberta Native News

Following a motion at its annual general meeting, the Confederacy of Treaty No. 6 Nations declared the drug poisoning crisis an official state emergency on July 10, calling for assistance from all levels of government.

Treaty Six includes nations located in north-central Alberta and Saskatchewan.

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

“If harm reduction isn’t available, our people will die. The Confederacy of Treaty No. 6 Nations is asking the federal government to intervene and offer more effective, flexible and long-lasting support.”

Harm reduction refers to policies that acknowledge people are going to use drugs and seek to provide them with a way to use them as safely as possible. This includes supervised consumption sites, opioid agonist therapy, needle exchange programs and other interventions.

The confederation notes that under Treaty No. 6’s medicine chest clause, the federal government has a responsibility to continuously provide health care.

Federal Addictions and Mental Health Minister Carolyn Bennett, who was in Edmonton on July 10 to announce funding for sexually-transmitted and blood-borne infections support, said the government will “respond positively” to the grand chief’s request.

Bennett promised to pursue a “bottom-up approach” to the crisis, working alongside Treaty 6 leadership.

“The misunderstanding of harm reduction is deadly,” she said. “We need people to be able to stay alive long enough to get help and with the poisoned drug supply, people using once are dying, people using alone and in their homes are dying. We actually need the kind of education and community support to … use every tool in our toolbox.”

In a statement to Global News, Alberta Addictions and Mental Health Minister Dan Williams said the provincial government is “partnering directly with First Nations in the spirit of reconciliation” by establishing addictions recovery facilities with the Enoch Cree Nation, Tsuut’ina Nation, Siksika Nation and Kainai Nation.

He called on the feds to “step up and provide more support to (First) Nations facing addiction.”

Williams added that there are seven 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,” he told Global.

However, the sites in Red Deer, Lethbridge and one of the sites in Edmonton are more bare-bones overdose prevention facilities, not full-fledged supervised consumption sites, as is the Edmonton site.

Earlier in the day, Bennett met with Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who served with her in cabinet when he was a Liberal MP from 2015 to 2019.

On Twitter, Sohi expressed support for Treaty Six Nations.

“We grieve with them for every community member lost,” he wrote.

“In Edmonton, we are also losing loved ones every day. These deaths are preventable, and both the federal and provincial governments have an obligation to work together to save lives.”

On July 7, APTN News reported that life expectancy for First Nations men and women have each decreased by seven years from 2015 to 2021, in part due to the drug poisoning crisis.

As of 2021, First Nation male life expectancy is 60 years, compared to 79 years for non-First Nation men, while First Nation female life expectancy is 66, compared to 84 for non-First Nation women.

That’s a gap of 19 years for men and 18 years for women.