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Walk laying spirits to rest in wake of Stoney Nakoda drug crisis

“This is something big, this is for our people and I hope that it will bring awareness to the drug crisis that we’re in – it’s ongoing and it’s an epidemic. The drug crisis itself is wiping out our people. It’s taking our youth a lot more than we could have ever expected and a lot faster, and it’s taking our older generation, too, before we even get a chance to try and heal their traumas.”

MÎNÎ THNÎ – A sacred fire was lit outside Summer Twoyoungmen’s residence in Mînî Thnî around 7 a.m. (Aug. 11) as she and about 20 other walkers prepared for the first leg of their journey to Calgary and back on foot via the Trans-Canada Highway for Ama’hnabino, or They Are Taking Me Home.

The fire will be put out only once the group returns home with the spirits of those lost to addiction, overdose, violence and suicide in the city, in an act to bring closure to the spirits of the deceased and their friends and families.

“This is something big. This is for our people and I hope that it will bring awareness to the drug crisis that we’re in – it’s ongoing and it’s an epidemic,” said Twoyoungmen, a member of the Îyârhe Nakoda (Stoney Nakoda) First Nation Chiniki band. “The drug crisis itself is wiping out our people. It’s taking our youth a lot more than we could have ever expected and a lot faster, and it’s taking our older generation, too, before we even get a chance to try and heal their traumas.”

A partnership between Twoyoungmen’s activist group Wácágâ ôkóná’gîcíyâ’bî and Sobercrew Calgary, founded by Robbie Daniels – also of Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation – the walk to raise awareness and guide spirits home is underway after about a year of planning.

The group will make its way back to Îyârhe Nakoda territory on Aug. 13, after spending Aug. 12 in the city gathered at Olympic Plaza downtown for dancing, drumming and speeches. By the end of the three-day journey, participants will have walked about 126 kilometres in total.

At the 20-kilometre mark, Daniels said the walk had been challenging. At that time, the group was walking in temperatures close to 30 Celsius.

“This is hard. We’re suffering, our feet are sore and we’re sweating buckets,” he said. “But through our suffering, we get the healing we need and the closure we need for ourselves, for our loved ones and others in our community who have been touched by these deaths.”

Many of the walkers are ex-addicts. They know how difficult it can be to stare addiction in the face and battle to overcome it.

While the trek can hardly be described as a cakewalk – in some ways, it pales in comparison to the daily struggles of their community members who continue to grapple with substance abuse.

“We’re out here walking with those we’ve lost in mind but also to give others hope and to say, ‘There’s a way out and it can be done,’” Daniels said.

Daniels’ mother, father and sister, along with Twoyoungmen’s mother, sister, niece and countless friends – died from drug-related causes – either by overdose or violence.

Daniels said he hopes the walk serves to empower those taking part and those watching the group’s efforts from afar. He said his path to recovery was forged mainly by embracing his Indigenous culture and he’d like to see others do the same.

“We need to bring native pride back to our people again,” he said.

During the walk to Calgary, the group was averaging about five kilometres an hour. Including occasional breaks at check stops set up along the way, they arrived at the city limits with their support vehicle around 9 p.m., approximately 14 hours after starting.

For Twoyoungmen, Daniels and many others participating in the walk – including from other First Nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan – this is just their latest awareness effort to help address the drug crises they’re experiencing in their communities.

There have been 4,448 deaths by drug and alcohol overdoses between 2017-21, according to the Alberta government, making it a top 10 leading cause of death in the province.

A June 2021 report released by the Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre and the provincial government states: "Across all measured indicators related to opioid use, First Nations people in Alberta have disproportionally higher rates compared to their non-First Nation counterparts.

"First Nations people represent approximately six per cent of the Alberta population," the report continues. "Yet they represent 22 per cent of all opioid poisoning deaths from in the first six months of 2020."

Twoyoungmen said addressing an issue of that magnitude alone as part of an activist group has been challenging. In the case of Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, she feels there could be less talk and more action if Stoney Tribal Administration was more involved in their efforts in the reserve’s communities of Mînî Thnî, Eden Valley and Big Horn.

“It seems like we spend too much time talking about it, rather than doing something about it,” she said. “The issue just continues to sit there hanging over the reserve. People pick away at it, but it hasn’t been enough to actually make a difference.”

While grassroots groups such as Wácágâ ôkóná’gîcíyâ’bî grow larger by the day, they still haven’t been “loud enough” to combat the reserve’s drug crisis on their own, according to Twoyoungmen.

Two years ago, she started a petition calling for Îyârhe Nakoda Nation’s chiefs and tribal council to establish a bylaw, or a set of bylaws, that would ban drug dealers from the reserve.

Despite her efforts, she said she was denied the opportunity to meet with Stoney Tribal chiefs and council. She went ahead collecting signatures anyway, about 400 and counting.

Last October, a notice was released by Nakoda Emergency Management stating “at the direction of the chiefs and tribal council,” RCMP, Stoney Health Services, Nakoda Emergency Management and Stoney Tribal were working together with the administration’s legal team to create “new bylaws that will strengthen [the] ability to protect the Nation by dealing with drug dealers, trespassers and others who should not be [on the] Nation.”

It also stated a task force had been formed to “further develop and implement programs to help [Îyârhe Nakoda] people with treatments and resources.”

As an interested party, Twoyoungmen said she hasn’t seen or heard of any new bylaws being created since the announcement and hasn’t noticed a slow in drug-related deaths. Access to illegal substances is still too easy, she added.

“It’s everywhere, it’s right outside your doorstep. A lot of our youth have big dreams and big lives ahead of them and are getting sucked into this lifestyle because it’s right there in front of them," she said.

With two young children of her own, Twoyoungmen’s endgame is to create a safer community for their generation and all those that come after.

Several First Nations, including O'Chiese, Sunchild, Samson Cree and Enoch Cree in Alberta, have enacted similar bylaws with success in evicting and banning drug traffickers from their reserves and thus reducing access to illegal substances. 

Twoyoungmen said she will continue to advocate for the same measures to be taken in Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation. 

“If we can get rid of the drug dealers, then we can move forward with our treatment programs and our treatment centre can actually be more effective,” said Twoyoungmen. “But if we just keep running these programs for addicts while not addressing the issue of access with drug dealers right next store, it's going to be very hard to break the cycle."

– With files from Jordan Small