A First Nation in Northern Ontario wants to break its methadone habit, but government policies are keeping it hooked on a harm reduction strategy that may be more curse than cure, according to the chief.

Roger Wesley said 125 people in Constance Lake First Nation, near Hearst, Ont. are taking methadone to help with their addiction to prescription drugs such as oxycontin.

"The methadone program, they’re very trapped," Wesley said, citing examples of people who have been taking the substitution drug for seven years.

Ontario Addiction Treatment Centre opened a methadone clinic in Constance Lake in 2006. At the time, the First Nation was reporting up to an 80 per cent addiction rate to prescription painkillers.

‘We’re not being helped’

But Wesley isn’t convinced methadone is the best solution. He said 400 of the 900 people in Constance Lake are still hooked on some kind of drug – most of them parents.


Chiefs and community leaders pose for a photo after a community feast marking the beginning of the prescription drug abuse conference in Neskantaga First Nation. (Jody Porter/CBC News)

"So now we've got opiate children [and] methadone children and they're starting to come into the classroom now," Wesley said. "We're starting to see a lot of behavioural issues, so do we have to turn our school into a special needs school?"

He’s looking for help from Health Canada, the agency responsible for health care on reserve, to assess the methadone clinic in Constance Lake.

 "This is what's so frustrating, the status quo thing [from Health Canada] is ‘oh, we're helping you'; no we're not being helped," Wesley said. "We're being continued in a program we don't believe in."

‘It’s a bad drug’

Other First Nations are finding some success with a different substitute drug called suboxone.

Perry Towegeshig, from Long Lake 58 First Nation, west of Constance Lake, said he used suboxone to kick his oxycontin habit, and was clean within a year.

"If you want to stay high, you might as well just go onto methadone," Towegeshig said. "But if you want to overcome your addiction jump onto suboxone."

Towegeshig spoke at a First Nation prescription drug abuse conference on Nov. 6 where he told community leaders they should avoid methadone treatment for their members.

"The suboxone program is a good thing; don’t introduce methadone into your community. It’s a bad drug," he said.

Health Canada accepting proposals

Suboxone is more expensive than methadone and is only being made available to some First Nations on a trial basis. Under Health Canada rules, communities like Constance Lake First Nation that have access to a methadone clinic, don’t qualify.

But Health Canada officials at the conference said they would consider a proposal from Constance Lake.

Chief Roger Wesley said he’s heard that offer before and it doesn’t bring him much comfort.

He said his staff is so overwhelmed dealing with the addiction crisis, they’d need assistance even writing the proposal.

"We need help," Wesley yelled across the meeting room at Health Canada’s regional director. "I don't care how it comes, as long as my worker who is busting her butt 24/7 dealing with emotions you guys can't even think of, [gets help]."