Southern Alberta first responders say collaboration key to combat opioid crisis

Smaller communities near the Blood Reserve are bracing for the fallout from the opioid crisis. Arrests and overdoses on the First Nation have become common, but in neighbouring Cardston, the first signs of the crisis are making their appearance.

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers says she's seen escalation and spread of opioid misuse in the province since 2014

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers says no one is immune to the impacts of the opioid crisis. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers has been working on the frontline of the opioid crisis on the southern Alberta Blood Reserve since it hit in 2014.

She said when the crisis, and fentanyl, first bared its teeth on the reserve, she didn't anticipate the fallout.

"I would have said, you know, two or three years ago, 'OK, we're going to deal with this and it'll be gone and we'll be fine,'" she said. "But all I've seen is escalation in spread and scale of the opioid use — and misuse — in communities."

'I don't think anybody is safe'

Tailfeathers also works in the emergency room in the neighbouring town of Cardston, and said she's been seeing the impacts of the opioid crisis on the reserve spilling into the town. 

"I would say 98-99 per cent of the people being brought into the emergency room are from my reserve," she said. 

But, Tailfeathers believes that ratio is bound to change. She said it's naive to think addiction is selective.

"Communities that think they're safe from it ... no. I don't think anybody is safe from it." she said. "The dealers are moving to the smaller communities and they're targeting the areas where no police is watching them."   

Police collaboration

RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters said they are watching, and police know fentanyl and other opioids are being dealt on the streets of Cardston and similar communities. 

Earlier this month Cardston RCMP and Blood Tribe police made two arrests in one of their first fentanyl busts in Cardston, charging two people with trafficking.

"Cardston hasn't been anymore affected than anywhere else, they've actually had relatively minor occurrences of fentanyl compared to other communities in the province but that doesn't mean it isn't a concern," he said.

"We know that it's there. We know that it's everywhere in the province, and we're working on that issue because we know it's a huge health and safety concern." 

Peters said should the problem escalate, officers are ready.

"I think we're pretty well prepared now everywhere, Cardston being no different," he said. "All of our officers in the entire province are equipped with Naloxone kits, which is the ... antidote for opioid overdoses."

Peters said no officers in Cardston have had to use their Naloxone kits yet.

Act. Insp Farica Syrette said local police forces have been working together to ebb the flow of opioids into Southern Alberta communities. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Blood Tribe Police spokeswoman, Act. Insp. Farica Syrette, said the joint arrests in Cardston are two of many that came after Feb. 24, when the Blood Reserve, and surrounding communities like Lethbridge, experienced an exponential increase in opioid overdoses.

Syrette said since then they've increased their visibility and enforcement, and communication between policing partners. She said that communication has been a key factor in combating the crisis and she hopes it stays a focus moving forward.

"It's been super important for us to work with out policing partners," she said. "To make sure that we're sharing information so we can battle our crisis on the reserve, but also making sure we can assist in battling the bigger crisis in the province and even the country."

Peters said the arrest of the two alleged dealers in Cardston is a good example of that team work in action. 

"We train together, we respond together, going across borders and working with neighbouring police services is no concern for us whatsoever," he said. 

Tailfeathers said following the Feb. 24 increase in overdoses, a collaborative meeting was also held between local police forces from Cardston, Fort MacLeod, Lethbridge and the Blood Tribe.

"They have been working very hard to collaborate on cutting down on the supply coming into this area and because of that we've had some really good results, and multiple busts of big and small dealers," she said. "Which is a relief because we're seeing a lot fewer overdoses."

'We know they're here, I just don't see it'

Cardston community police officer Brad Larsen said he hasn't seen evidence of the opioid crisis in the town first-hand. No needle debris, no suspected opioid overdoses.

Larsen said the visible problem he deals with each day is the ingestion or inhalation of non-potables, like hairspray and hand sanitizers.

"To say opioids are not in Cardston would be ignorant," he said. "We know they're here, I just don't see it."

He said despite not having run into opioid use or overdoses on Cardston streets yet, he's also equipped with, and trained to use Naloxone.

Cardston Community Peace Officer, Brad Larsen, said it's hard to say what tools are needed to equip himself to fight the opioid crisis without having experienced it yet. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

He said it's hard to say if he feels fully prepared to deal with opioids on Cardston streets. 

"The tools that I'm given are life saving tools, i.e. Narcan [Naloxone], masks that prevent me from coming in contact with airborne opioids," he said. "So, to say I'm well-equipped or ill-equipped — I couldn't say. Because what are the exact tools to truly deal with the crisis?"

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Lucie most recently headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson