STONEY NAKODA – Kick the drug dealers out.
A simple but powerful message a couple of Stoney Nakoda women want to convey to the Nation's Chiefs and council.
"There is a drug crisis and we just keep losing people to these drugs. We want to bring awareness that people do care and we care," Summer Twoyoungmen, 23, from Stoney Nakoda said.
"Chief and council need to do something about the problem we face."
A nation compromised of three bands, Chiniki, Bearspaw and Wesley, with approximately 4,000 to 5,000 residents – Stoney Nakoda first noticed a drug crisis several years ago.
In 2016, a state of emergency was declared in relation to the high addiction rate and overdoses on the Nation, but called off within a week by the CFO and acting Tribal Administrator at the time who said the media was "sensationalizing" the issue. But many residents felt the drug crisis was real, as crime and overdose rates in the community persisted.
In 2017, community elder Tina Fox spoke out suggesting drugs were fuelling the crime on the Nation. In a five-week span there was a homicide, a kidnapping and a person wielding a rifle in their grandmother’s home. RCMP confirmed there was a shift in the "drug culture" at the time and asked people to come forward with information.
Later that year, Morley Community Tripartite Policing Agreement (CTA) members confirmed methamphetamine remained prevalent on the Nation, pointing to the new grave markers in the cemeteries citing a higher number of unnatural deaths on the Nation due to drugs, alcohol and crime.
In 2019, more community members came forward asking Chief and council to offer a traditional healing approach to addictions on the Nation.
Now a group of women have come together to host a drug awareness walk to shed light on the addictions issue in Stoney Nakoda, send a message to Chief and council to implement bylaws and offer treatment, and to show people on the Nation that they care.
IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE
Twoyoungmen is passionate about the cause, as she is just shy of a year and a half sobriety.
"I was there not that long ago," she said.
Formerly addicted to drugs, the 23-year-old said she knows what it is like to be in that situation.
"I know what it is like to be there and I know what it is like to want out," Twoyoungmen said.
In Alberta, drug overdoses related to opioids has almost doubled in a couple of years with 1.52 deaths per day in 2016 versus 2.17 deaths per day from January to March in 2018, according to Alberta Health Services.
While opioids are present in the Nation, along with a variety of drugs, band members say their main concern is with methamphetamine and the violence and crime that follow.
Stoney Tribal Administration CEO Ryan Robb said the Chiefs came to senior administration last week with concerns about drugs in the Nation and asked for a task force to be created.
"Leadership has recognized and they are hearing this ... on the surface, people are having a walk to bring awareness and I think that is absolutely right," Robb said. "Behind the scenes, we are working on having the best information possible to have the best response possible."
Band members have also brought up concerns about drugs being more deadly since the pandemic.
While "pure" drugs were easily brought in from outside sources before with borders closed since the pandemic, people suspect the drug dealers are now mixing the drugs they have with cheaper, and deadlier, drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanyl – a trend being seen across the country.
"The dealers don't have access to the drugs itself but are mixing it – this is what is killing our people," Eve Powder, Nation member and drug awareness walk organizer, said.
Powder is invested in raising awareness and advocating for a change as she lost her daughter in 2017 to an overdose and also recently lost her niece to an overdose. Holding back tears as she talked about the deaths, Powder noted her daughter left behind two children and her niece left behind five children.
Now she wants to send a clear message to the Chiefs and council – it is time to do something.
"We want our voices heard – we want to get rid of these drug dealers and have a healthy community," Powder said, noting she has been advocating for change since her daughter's death.
"It is not easy, I have lost so many. I lost my daughter and I lost my niece, we just buried her a few weeks ago ... but I want people to know, there are people out there who care and they are not alone."
Calling on the Bearspaw, Wesley and Chiniki Chiefs and councils to put in a bylaw banning drug dealers from the Nation, the women pointed to other reserves across Alberta that have done it.
In 2018, the Blood Tribe hit a breaking point with the drug crisis citing high overdose rates and implemented a pass system for non-Nation members.
Blood Tribe Acting Sgt. Bruisedhead said it was considered a success.
"It was a permit-based system for anyone who wasn't registered band members to buy a permit and anyone who was caught without a permit was [removed] and issued a summons to court ... we were able to locate and remove several people either who were suspected or charged with trafficking drugs who weren't from here," Sgt. Bruisedhead said.
Meanwhile, last November two neighbouring central Alberta reserves, Sunchild and O'Chiese, signed Trespass and Residency bylaws to evict drug dealers and ensure safety for their residents.
"Something needs to be done, some form of action like bylaws ... the [drug] providers need to clear out and take their drugs with them. This isn't the future our ancestors hoped for us," Twoyoungmen said.
'WE KEEP LOSING OUR YOUTH'
Thinking seven generations ahead, both Twoyoungmen and Powder said it is hard to see that far as the Nation continues to lose its next generation.
"We are losing so many young people that we need to keep our reserve going, we need to teach our children and their children about the traditional ways of life and this drug is killing everyone left and right and centre," Powder said.
While Stoney Tribal Administration is in the early stages of establishing a drug task force, Robb said it is not an easy one-answer solution, as it is a multi-faceted problem.
"It is not a singular issue that makes drugs the issue, you have to look at education to employment to CFS to health – it is so multi-faceted," he said.
Elders in the community have previously pointed to residential schools and intergenerational trauma as part of the cause and asked for community-wide healing.
Introduced by the Canadian government in the 18th century, residential schools were designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. The schools are well-documented as places where physical and mental abuse occurred.
"A lot of work needs to be done ... we lost who we were and got lost in a world we really didn’t understand, so I think we need to do our own healing [and] there has to be a community-wide healing process and then we can move forward from there,” Fox told the Outlook last year.
Since the initial crisis was declared and removed four years ago, there have been several initiatives popped up including inaugural awareness walks, summer jams and balloon release ceremonies.
There has also been a number of support groups over the past couple of years including the Turning Point Community Wellness Program offering counselling, therapy and an addictions program, in addition to a Sober Living Support Group and the Chândê Giith-ni Giabi (Grief and Loss) support group – both offered through Stoney Health Services.
But it hasn't been enough.
Organizers of the walk estimate a loss of six Nation members this year, due to overdoses.
"We are so close on the reserve with one another, everyone knows each other ... I'm just hoping to open everyone's eyes," Powder said.
Echoing the calls from Amanda Goodstoney, a Stoney Nakoda resident who spoke out last year asking for the three-band leadership to find solutions, Twoyoungmen said the solution must be a holistic approach.
Nation members healing from drug addiction also need a safe place to come back to.
"We need to get rid of the drugs and do more to get treatment centres and sober-living in place ... users can go to treatment and detox, but when they come back and nothing has changed – it is not as safe," Twoyoungmen said.
"We need a place for sober people to come back to. We want to give them something."
Robb said it is too early to comment on if a healing lodge will open on the Nation, but did acknowledge any kind of treatment program the Nation looks into, will be set up to be culturally representative and respondent to clients.
"Right now, it is premature to talk [about a healing lodge], but it is a discussion point," he said.
Organizers said they are hopeful this walk starts more conversations and convinces Nation leadership to take action.
The Drug Awareness walk kicks off on Saturday, Sept. 26 at the Chiniki Gas Bar off the Trans-Canada Highway, with organizers asking everyone to meet at 9:30 a.m.
Participants will walk alongside the highway and down to the Stoney Tribal Administration building in the Morley townsite.
Organizers said they will have water stations along the way and are planning to have coffee, tea and snacks at the end with an open mic and speakers.
Everyone is welcome and encouraged to attend.
"We are hoping it gets people to stand up and let us know we can make the change that we need here in the reserve ... we need to do something before it gets worst," Twoyoungmen said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Summer Twoyoungmen.