Isolation often takes the blame as the source of many problems on remote reserves. But North Caribou Lake Chief Pierre Morriseau has decidedly mixed feelings about that.

His Oji-Cree community, 320 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, Ont., is definitely remote. During the winter, an ice road connects it to other communities in the lake-soaked terrain of northwestern Ontario. The rest of the year, it's fly-in only.

north caribou lake, ON

But the Musselwhite gold mine nearby flies many of the local residents in and out every two weeks. On paper, that means jobs, decent pay and training.

So even though official statistics show only 10 per cent of the population has graduated from high school, the band only relies on government money for 30 per cent of its revenue.

"There's lots of people working. It gives people some hope," said Mike Jeremiah, who is home for a couple of weeks before heading back to the mine for another two-week stint.

But in practice, much of that money these days is spent on financing a prescription drug addiction that has affected up to half of the community's adults.

End of a way of life

They are addicted mainly to opioids such as OxyContin and Percocet. The prices are far higher than in urban areas, selling for about $150 for just one of the weakest pills, and up to $800 for the most powerful pills.

Petty crime is rising. Children are missing school because their parents can't get up in the morning. The sparse nursing staff at the health centre is overwhelmed.

"They (addicts) broke into my house a couple times," said Linda Kanate, whose son is an addict. "They have to have it."

For Morriseau, the world of globalization, money and people leaving the reserve on a regular basis have led to the end of a way of life.

"I have very mixed feelings about the mining," Morriseau said during a break from meetings in the band office.

He was speaking to reporters, Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett and Stan Beardy, the grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which advocates on behalf of many first Nations in northern Ontario.

Both Beardy and Bennett have been raising the alarm about the scourge of prescription drug addiction in remote First Nations communities.

Beardy had intended to showcase North Caribou Lake as an example of how benefits from natural resources can help a band beat the odds.

But even he was taken aback by the chief's sense of siege.

Mining — at what expense?

Morriseau said the band is now dependent on mining for its livelihood, turning its back on the traditional ways of hunting, fishing and living off the land, he said.

"I'd rather be out there," he said. "I have that calling always. It's in my heart, that the land is calling me. But I'm not able to go."

Morriseau stepped away from a meeting with a mining company to deliver a long list of concerns to Bennett.  Among them is the assertion there is a serious shortage of nurses in the community. Across the Sioux Lookout region, Nishnawbe Aski Nation reports six out of every 10 nursing positions remains vacant.

Chief Morriseau said it's particularly evident in a week like this past one, where a lot of people in the community have come down with bad colds. Some elders have become seriously ill, and the school has been closed to avoid spreading it further. Several people have been airlifted out of North Caribou Lake for medical reasons.

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Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy (CBC)

Carolyn Bennett toured the nursing station in the community.

Reporters weren't allowed, under Health Canada regulations, but Bennett said she was told about a situation where four people were flown out of the community in one week after expressing suicidal thoughts. She estimated the cost of that to be about $60,000 — money she said would be better spent on mental and physical health programs in the community to prevent the despair that leads to suicides.

The nursing staff can barely keep up with the virus, let alone focus on helping people deal with addictions.

Several reserves across the region are dealing with an "epidemic" of addiction to prescription painkillers, Beardy said.

At the same time, the area's First Nations are also campaigning hard to grab a bigger piece of the natural resource extraction that is ramping up around the so-called Ring of Fire.

But no one will be able to benefit unless the First Nations communities are healthy first, Beardy added.

Corrections

  • A photo in an earlier version of this story was mislabelled as "North Caribou Lake Chief Pierre Morriseau." It was in fact an image of Chief Rodney McKay of Bearskin Lake First Nation.
    Sep 12, 2013 10:17 PM ET
With files from Jody Porter