Prescription drug abuse in northern First Nations is a health emergency that chiefs and doctors say Health Canada refuses to take seriously.

Doctor Claudette Chase, the co-medical director with the Sioux Lookout First Nation Health Authority, said Health Canada is developing a policy for treating addicts, but she wishes that policy was in place "yesterday."


Doctor Claudette Chase, the co-medical director with the Sioux Lookout Health Authority, says Health Canada needs to pick up the pace when it comes to providing help to First Nations communities that are struggling with narcotic drug abuse.

"It would be nice to see Health Canada jump in with both feet and say ‘Oh my God this is an epidemic, how are we going to fight it,’" Chase said.

Some First Nations say up to 80 per cent of their population is hooked on prescription painkillers.

And they're even more worried since authorities moved to restrict one of the most powerful narcotics — OxyContin.

State of emergency

Prescription drugs are so pervasive in Cat Lake First Nation, even an 11-year-old interviewed by CBC News casually referred to them as "Oxys."

"I see people doing drugs, needles and Oxys, any time of day," the youngster said. "They usually do it at their house. I think it's weird, kind of."

Cat Lake Deputy Chief Dora Leadbeater said it's been painful to see her community slide into the grip of addiction.

"You know, sometimes, when people call you, you don't really know what to do [or] how to help, especially when it's a child who's telling all this," she said.

Cat Lake declared a state of emergency in January when it said about 400 of its 600 residents were hooked on Oxys.

Last month, Ontario took OxyContin off pharmacy shelves, but it’s still available in the First Nation, on the black market.

The government is helping to fund a treatment program in Cat Lake, but Health Canada continues to restrict its nurses from helping more directly with addictions in First Nations.

More needs to be done

Leadbeater said more needs to be done.

"I try to teach the kids … that this isn't what the Creator put us here for," Leadbeater said. "I try to tell everybody about our way."

It’s a way of life that Leadbeater said will soon become lost if people don’t get the help they need.


When Cat Lake First Nation resident Samuel Wesley tried to beat his addiction OxyContin, he tried to turn to his traditional roots and went out hunting.

When Cat Lake First Nation resident Samuel Wesley tried to beat his addiction OxyContin, he turned to his traditional roots and went out hunting.

He shot a moose, but the flu-like symptoms of Oxy-withdrawal made it a struggle for him to bring the animal out of the bush.

"You lose your power, you lose your strength," he said "I couldn't even pick up a moose head."

Wesley went back to the drug once he returned home.

Rebuilding self-sufficiency

OxyContin is still available on the community’s black market, but it's getting more expensive — up to $1,000 a pill.

Wesley said he’s been taking the black market pain killers for about a year, but decided to quit after seeing his children taken into foster care. He said he was starting to get too desperate to find the money to feed his habit.

"You start taking chances you don't want to take," Wesley said. "One day I thought I should go rob this guy, I don't want to do that, I don't want to be that."

The First Nation hopes its treatment program will help people like Wesley overcome their addictions. Part of the program involves recovering addicts building their own shelter in the bush and hunting for their own food to rebuild self-sufficiency.

Wesley said he thinks the treatment method could help.

"Out there it's just survival," he said. "No one is going to take care of you if you don't take care of yourself."

So far, three of the hundreds of known addicts in the community have signed up for the first intake of the program at the end of April. Fifteen more are on a waiting list to get help.