By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – The chief of Piikani Nation in southern Alberta has declared a state of emergency after four opioid poisoning deaths occurred in the final week of 2023.
“These deaths will be marked with sorrow throughout the nation,” Piikani Chief Troy Knowlton said, adding that counselling resources will be made available to affected nation members.
“But it is my goal, and the goal of my council, to bring an end to or at least significantly reduce the availability of drugs and to prevent deaths among those who have had their lives ensnared by drugs.”
There were 1,411 opioid poisoning deaths in Alberta from January through September 2023, with a rate of 40.8 deaths reported per 100,000 people, higher than any other years on record, according to the Alberta substance use surveillance system.
Alberta Health Services’ south zone, where Piikani is located, recorded a record high of 184 opioid poisoning deaths in just the first nine months of 2023, compared to 144 in all of 2022, 156 in 2021 and 91 in 2020.
The south, with 76.6 deaths per 100,000 people, was by far the deadliest zone, compared to 47.1 in the Edmonton zone, 38.5 in the Calgary zone, 24.7 in central, which includes Red Deer, and 22.5 in the north, which includes Grande Prairie and Wood Buffalo.
Chief Knowlton promised to “start mediating the problem … now.”
Contrary to Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations Leonard Standingontheroad’s declaration of a public emergency in July, the Piikani chief, whose Blackfoot nation is part of Treaty 7, made no explicit mention of harm reduction as a means for addressing the drug poisoning crisis.
Chief Knowlton said in a statement that declaring a state of emergency will allow band council to direct more resources towards law enforcement and addictions treatment, referring to the drug poisoning epidemic as the “public policy challenge of the century, affecting every community from coast to coast.”
Piikani band member Nicole Johnston told Global News that one of the recent casualties was a well-known community member.
“Everyone knew the last person that passed away from this opioid and this last death has really hit a lot of people. It really hurt a lot of people in this community,” Johnston said.
Chief Knowlton said nation leadership must work with the local RCMP to engage in “diligent and augmented law enforcement measures to crack down on the source of the problem, namely gangs and drug traffickers.”
Joe Small Leg, a Piikani Elder, said he wants to see improved policing on the reserve.
“I live right in the townsite. There’s even white people coming in to drop off pills, stuff like that – nothing’s happening to them. They’re all able to come in, drop their supply off and leave. I believe it’s still happening today,” he said.
Alberta RCMP Cpl. Troy Savinkoff told Global that police will “be proactively working on project-based things, focusing on those offenders that we believe are bringing drugs in that community and hopefully keeping it out.”
“This is a team approach with partners within the communities themselves and everybody has a part to play in trying … to prevent these sort of deaths in the community.”
Although he wants to see more law enforcement action, Small Leg identified endemic poverty as the root cause of increased drug use on reserve, which will need to be addressed as part of a long-term solution to the crisis.
“When you’re in poverty everything comes: criminality, crime, alcohol, substance abuse, pills. That all comes with poverty,” he told Global reporter Adam Toy.
“Poverty is the big problem here. If you can deal with poverty, start finding jobs, start giving them a spirit, maybe they will come out and put that stuff away.”