Elaine Fox knows everyone in Onion Lake Cree Nation. That means the elder knows how methamphetamine is altering the fabric of her community like never before.
“It’s broken family relationships,” she said.
The 66-year-old said meth and gangs control the lives of many young people in Onion Lake, a First Nation that straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.
“Most of them come from dysfunctional families — families that have never dealt with residential school traumas,” said Fox.
“I know the traumas that they go through — sexual abuse and all of those things. Incest. I know all of it.” She called the drug use “self-medication,” a way to dull the emotional pain.
Methamphetamine is cheap, accessible and sweeping through the Prairies at record rates, with First Nations bearing the brunt of the impact. In both Alberta and Saskatchewan, more people died in 2021 with meth in their system than in the previous five years.
Since 2016, 55 per cent of Saskatchewan drug-caused deaths involving meth were First Nations, Métis and Inuit, according to data provided by the Coroner’s Service.
The conversation around meth resurfaced after a stabbing rampage in James Smith Cree Nation on Sept. 4 that became one of the country’s largest mass killings. One man is accused of killing 11 people, including his own brother, who police say helped plan the attacks.
The brothers were selling drugs in the community, but RCMP won’t say what kind. In the days after the massacre, local leaders called for better addictions treatment options, highlighting concerns about meth.
Last week, another First Nation in Saskatchewan called for better addictions and policing resources. Buffalo River Dene Nation, about 540 kilometres north of Saskatoon, reinstated a state of emergency from June due to gang and drug violence, much of it fuelled by meth.
The announcement came after a woman in meth psychosis randomly attacked an elder sleeping at home in late September, said Buffalo River Chief Norma Catarat. She said the attacker broke in, dragged the elder out of bed by her hair and beat her.
“Elders are sitting around at night with a gun loaded so their wives can sleep because their grandkids are affiliated with gangs,” said Catarat last week.
As an elder herself in Onion Lake, Elaine Fox says she isn’t scared, and has committed to providing spiritual guidance to anyone who wants it, including people who are using drugs or involved with gangs.
“I have so much love because…they’re grown-ups and I taught them in nursery and kindergarten,” she said. “Their families, I’m related to. I want to help them.”
The type of support Fox is providing is part of new addictions treatment programs on and around First Nations, created with renewed urgency to release meth’s grip on these communities.
Hard to build trust, says RCMP
Onion Lake established a state of emergency in early 2020 due to gang and drug violence. At the time, the First Nation saw three gang-related murders in two months, according to leadership.
“[Meth] replaced alcohol as a drug of choice for most of the young people here,” said RCMP Staff Sgt. Jeff Carter at the Onion Lake detachment in a recent interview.
Carter, a band member of Onion Lake himself, said existing gangs quickly moved meth into the community of about 4,000 people a few years ago.
“Every single family in this community has somebody that’s been affected by meth or affected by our gang issue,” said Carter.
Those close connections are also deterring people from providing police with accurate, usable information about how drugs are moving in and out of the community.
To arrest someone for trafficking drugs, for example, police need reasonable grounds to believe they’re committing a crime. Carter says previous murders can be haunting reminders of what can happen if gang members get upset.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do to convince people to give us that information, because it’s very high-risk to their personal health,” said Carter.
“It’s tough to build [trust] in any community. Then you do that in a community where everybody is family and related, it’s even tougher to break that barrier. But it’s something that has to get done here in order to create change.”
Carter said he’s frustrated watching meth distract students in Onion Lake from achieving their educational goals.
“We’ve got a ton of young people in this community with a lot of opportunities,” he said. “Meth is getting in the way of that.”
COVID-19 isolation contributing to meth use
While meth is being produced in the Prairies, an RCMP officer in Alberta said a lot of it is imported.
“The information suggests it’s less costly and less risky to have it imported from Mexico using traditional trafficking routes that have been established for cocaine, for ecstasy and for cannabis,” said the officer, who works with the Alberta RCMP’s Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement and Response team. CBC is not identifying him for his safety.
In September, the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT) reported 144 kilograms of meth was taken off the streets in a recent investigation — more meth than in the past four years combined.
The officer said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic helped cause an increase in meth use.
“If a person needed resources or assistance for whatever was a concern to them, they weren’t often able to get it,” he said.
“Because of the isolation, a lot of treatment went to video or remote access. Self-medication could have conceivably been the reason why methamphetamine use has gone up.”
‘We felt that this was a step in the right direction’
Onion Lake has a rehabilitation centre, which provides a seven-week in-patient program for substance abuse. To really break the cycle, though, leaders are getting creative.
A set of trailers that have sat in a remote area of the First Nation since late 2019 — and were employed as isolation units at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — will soon be used for their original purpose: safe houses for people displaced by gangs and drugs.
“Leadership’s desire is not to throw away people. It’s trying to help them in terms of their issues and their challenges with addiction,” said Onion Lake director of operations Philip Chief.
“Meth addiction has just been rampant all over our First Nation communities, and we felt that this was a step in the right direction.”
The deal is if someone stays in a trailer, they have to get help with what brought them there, like addiction or gang membership.
Maintaining the trailer, ensuring there is around-the-clock security and having three full-time counsellors nearby will cost just under $1 million a year, said Chief — all paid for with revenues from the community’s thermal energy and oil production.
He said he hopes this can start before winter.
“The thing that happened in James Smith triggered a lot of rushing and preparing for situations for our people. We can’t allow that to happen,” said Chief.
He said his community sends some members to addiction programs outside Onion Lake, but with counsellors on hand, the trailers could keep people close to home.
He said it’s about resolving these problems “internally,” rather than sending people off “somewhere else, where they’re not connected to their culture and their identity.”
‘I never thought I would make it this far’
One support program available is in Lloydminster, Alta. about a 30-minute drive south of Onion Lake.
That’s where Tiara Dillon was playing with her son Trent on a recent autumn morning. She kissed the 10-month-old baby on the cheek, and he responded with a big smile.
“If it wasn’t for my baby, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said.
Dillon is in court-ordered treatment at Residents in Recovery, a long-term rehabilitation program for substance abuse. The majority of clients there are fighting a meth addiction.
The 29-year-old mother came here directly from prison in November 2021, while in her third trimester. She’s facing an armed robbery charge. While she awaits her trial in the spring of 2023, Dillon attends daily sober-living programs.
Almost a year into the program, the mother of seven now has custody of five of her children. She says the other two will live with her once she has a bigger house.
“I’m just happy to be sober and to have them in my life again. I never thought I would make it this far,” she said.
Dillon is from Onion Lake Cree Nation, but says her drug use started while she was living in Saskatoon in 2018, where she was using cocaine almost daily. When that stopped getting her high enough, she switched to meth. The drug completely changed her.
“I was a careless person. The more I had it in my pocket, the more I got dangerous. Not dangerous like hurting people, but not being myself,” said Dillon.
She said her family in Onion Lake pushed her away.
“Every time I tried to borrow money off them, there was no message. No ‘I love you,'” she said.
Back-to-back services are ‘common sense:’ addictions counsellor
Dillon credits the long-term care aspect of Residents in Recovery with her success and giving her a future.
“I actually want to get going to school and show my kids the mom they need.”
Tyler Lorenz, the centre’s executive director and founder, said back-to-back programs are an essential part of treatment that works.
Lorenz said his team can help someone find a detox program. Once that person has stopped using drugs for seven days, they can enter a pre-treatment, sober-living program. Then, his team helps that person find an in-patient treatment program elsewhere.
Once that’s done, he offers post-treatment programs and housing, which lasts for up to one year. There are options for families, too.
It’s paid for through social assistance programs, government funding agreements and grants and, for some services, by the client themselves.
“It seems so common sense,” said Lorenz. “Everybody is looking at evidence-based programs. Well, the evidence suggests that you need to eliminate all the barriers to allow people the opportunity to get clean and sober.”
Bringing First Nations teachings into recovery programs
With a wait list of 135 people to get into Residents in Recovery, Lorenz would like to see more long-term, specialized treatment options, especially in First Nations communities. He calls the current options “dismal.”
Of the 15 treatment centres located in First Nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the longest in-patient programs are 16 weeks. The Athabasca Health Authority is included in this list, but staff say they don’t have a treatment centre.
“There’s still this focus on traditional treatment methods where we send somebody to detox, they go there for seven days, they go home or go back to work while they wait for a treatment bed, which they do for 28 days. Then they’re cured and they’re all good,” said Lorenz. “It’s never worked.”
He said the relapse rates “are just through the roof.”
Because half of the clients at Residents in Recovery are Indigenous, Lorenz recently hired Elaine Fox to bring in cultural support.
“She’s just a beautiful lady. We love her and she’s fit right in,” Lorenz said.
Fox said she always asks those in recovery how they want to spend time with her — perhaps through talking, prayer or ceremonies. She already has relationships with clients’ family members in Onion Lake. That alone helps them open up, she said.
“Some of them have never been introduced to ceremonies. I brought three of them down to a horse dance ceremony here in the community, and they really enjoyed it.”
Fox believes Onion Lake can become a healthier place to live. She has tried for years to help people get off drugs or out of gangs. Her work has ostracized her from some family members, but she says it’s worth it. Especially at the recovery centre.
“I feel that I can do a lot of things,” she said. “Finally, it seems that I’m using the teachings that I grew up with.”