First Nations leaders in Saskatchewan struggling to manage the opioid crisis

Jan 12, 2022

In recent months, a group of First Nations mental health and addiction treatment advocates from across Saskatchewan have urged the province to take more measures to manage the ongoing opioid crisis in the province.

“We are losing them fast and we are quite concerned,” Elder Mary Rose Naytowhow said in her interview with APTN News. “As an elder, I too bring that message across, we need to work together, bring our communities together and have the surrounding neighbours and neighbouring bands to come together.”

Recent data released by the Saskatchewan’s coroner’s service demonstrate that in 2021, there were 364 suspected and confirmed drug-related deaths, compared to 330 deaths occurring in 2020.

According to Joel McIntyre, an alcohol and drug abuse worker in English River First Nation, the community previously already experienced ongoing issues with methamphetamine, while a new surge in opioids is appearing as well.

“Because of Covid addictions went high, suicide thoughts are going high. We had just dealt with one recently, and now we’re dealing with drugs,” said McIntyre.

In addition, Bryan Leblanc, founder of HOP, a youth outreach centre outside Prince Albert that hosts after-school programs, told APTN News that young people need to connect with their culture. “Giving them options and opportunities and letting them decide. It’s challenging and it’s getting worse,” he said. “It’s definitely, the challenges that, that occur and that they face every day, um man, yeah, it takes courage, it takes strength to stand there and turn things down and stuff.”

The opioid crisis has also been on the rise in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. A new report published by the Chiefs of Ontario and the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network has demonstrated the number of First Nations individuals who died from opioid-related causes in Ontario more than doubled during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report examined patterns in hospitalizations and deaths due to opioid-related poisoning among First Nations and non-First Nations people in Ontario, showing that 116 First Nations people died due to opioid poisoning between March 2020 and March 2021, compared to 50 deaths reported in the previous year.

These findings correspond to a 132% increase compared to a 68% increase in opioid-related deaths among the rest of the population in the province.

“First Nations have been disproportionately affected by the overdose crisis,” said Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare in a news release. “The use of opioids and other substances continues to surge during the COVID-19 pandemic, producing conditions that further increase overdoses and deaths.”

The report also states that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest relative increase in opioid-related harms occurred among First Nations people living in rural areas and within First Nations communities.

“I look forward to meeting with all levels of government immediately to co-ordinate a long-term, First Nations-led strategy to address the opioid crisis affecting First Nations across Ontario,” said Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare in a news release.