Cochrane RCMP responded to 10 fatal drug overdoses in Mînî Thnî for the second year in a row in 2023.
The RCMP detachment, which operates the Stoney Nakoda/Kananaskis satellite location on Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation is one of 10 in Alberta with the highest rate of response to overdoses and resulting deaths from January to November 2023, according to RCMP data.
The police-reported deaths alone account for an overdose death rate of two per 1,000 people in Mînî Thnî, with a population of about 5,000. Per capita, that’s 1.7 times worse than all overdose fatalities reported in Alberta as of September.
These numbers only scratch the surface of a known drug crisis in the tight-knit community.
“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that there are more overdoses that occur than are reported to either EMS or RCMP,” said Reg Fountain, Nakoda Emergency Services director.
Calls to police to attend an overdose in Mînî Thnî are usually made if response is to a residence already on a list of “known problem homes” or if circumstances appear suspicious or criminal in nature.
EMS and fire are called when a person is not responding to administered naloxone – a fast-acting drug used to temporarily reverse the effects of opioid overdoses.
“If you think of the RCMP getting called to one-third of those response calls … that gives you an idea of the bigger picture,” Fountain said.
Cochrane RCMP, which polices Cochrane and west Rocky View County in addition to Mînî Thnî, attended to 30 suspected overdose calls in its jurisdiction in 2023 and reported no overdose deaths in Cochrane. The calls do not account for those made to AHS EMS or other local emergency services.
The province’s substance use surveillance system recorded 1,411 drug poisoning deaths from January to September last year. AHS’ Calgary zone reported a total of 540 drug poisoning deaths in that time.
Alberta RCMP responded to more than twice the number of overdoses last year than in 2022 and also reported a 24 per cent increase in the number of naloxone deployments across the province.
A warning issued by Alberta RCMP on Dec. 27 noted many overdoses that officers responded to appeared to be tied to the practice of dealers cutting fentanyl and other opioids to create a cheap, but dangerous, high.
“Fentanyl is so lethal and there’s a much higher risk of overdosing because it can be 100 times more potent than morphine. Meth can be laced with fentanyl so when a user thinks they are doing their normal amount of meth, they actually are consuming fentanyl as well, which can result in an overdose,” said Cpl. Kyle Ashe with Cochrane RCMP’s Crime Reduction Unit in an email.
“The other issue is the creation of fentanyl in homemade labs where there is no guarantee of the potency and one hit may kill you.”
Ashe said fentanyl and meth are some of the most prevalent unregulated drugs on Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation and drug trafficking is a major issue.
On Dec. 19, a pick-up truck that fled eastbound from police attempting a traffic stop on Highway 1A in Mînî Thnî led to a drug bust. The vehicle, along with the occupants, was located by officers a short time later and RCMP seized 50 grams of fentanyl and other drug-related items. The fentanyl seizure constitutes about 500 individual doses, with an estimated street value of $10,000.
On Oct. 24, a vehicle that cut off another motorist on Mînî Thnî Road was stopped by RCMP. A search of the vehicle resulted in a seizure of 80 grams of meth, representing 800 individual doses.
RCMP seized a total of 22.4 grams of fentanyl in two separate traffic stops on the Nation in September. Also seized were over 6.6 grams of meth, cocaine, as well as oxycocet, gabapentin, clonazepam, and suboxone tablets, in addition to drug trafficking-related items.
Fountain commended the work of police, in addition to a drug task force led by Chiniki Coun. Krista Hunter, Stoney Health Services harm reduction manager Lindsay Nycholat and Lisa Wynands, Stoney Tribal Administration’s human resources director and acting CEO, with assistance from firm Red Sage Consulting Ltd. to combat drug trafficking on the Nation.
The task force was formed at the direction of Stoney Tribal Council in 2021 in response to the number of overdoses and impact of illicit drugs in the community. It was also created to support anti-drug education efforts and to help those in addiction treatment therapy to return to the community. The Outlook reached out to members of the task force for an interview and will update this story if a response is received.
According to an AHS and Alberta First Nation Information Governance Centre opioid response surveillance report, in 2020, First Nations people died seven times more frequently than non-First Nations people to opioid poisonings in Alberta.
There was also a 14 per cent increase of opioid poisoning deaths in First Nations people from 2016 to 2020. Since the province moved to the current substance use surveillance system, disaggregated data on the impact of substance use on First Nations people is not included.
In July, Bearspaw Chief Darcy Dixon, one of three chiefs of Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, noted in a letter to Indigenous Services Canada seeking support to address the Nation’s drug crisis that there were 16 overdose deaths in the Bearspaw band alone from April to June 2023, based on internal numbers from local emergency services. In 2022, the chief said Bearspaw recorded 28 deaths. The letter reported 58 deaths in 2021 and 72 in 2020 for all three Nations, including Chiniki and Goodstoney.
Of the 10 fatal overdoses reported by RCMP in 2023, three were confirmed over May 3-4, prompting local emergency services to warn Nation members about a toxic drug supply. It was noted at the time that administered naloxone was ineffective in treating the overdoses, suggesting drugs were laced with other unknown substances.
“The impact this has on my fire team because of the size of the community and the fact of how close the community is … they can be responding to overdoses of people who are directly related to them, which is obviously going to have a tremendous impact on their psyche,” said Fountain.
“Uncles, aunts, people they went to school with … it has an impact on the mental health of our first responders, which is a major concern.”
Robbie Daniels, an outreach worker with non-profit Alpha House Society in Calgary, grew up in Mînî Thnî.
He said every life lost to drugs is a tear in the community’s social fabric.
“We all know each other and we grew up with each other so it really affects everyone. I’ve been there, too, and I’ve lost a lot of people along the way.”
In October, Daniels spoke at the opening of the Stoney Nakoda Adult Treatment Centre – an 18-bed facility offering a 90-day residence treatment program, in addition to a day program. Stoney Health Services also offers a harm reduction program.
Daniels called the new facility a step in the right direction but said there’s always more that can be done against a growing problem. At many facilities such as the one he works at, any wait for someone seeking support can be too long.
“We need every level of government tackling this. We’re in a crisis, we’re in a war with these drugs. It’s a tough battle and a lot of people want out but they need help. They need support. They can’t do it alone.”
By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Jan 10, 2024 at 14:25