The Nishnawbe Aski Nation is demanding a response from the Ontario and federal governments to its call for help to address what it calls the opioid epidemic in its territory — as well as the potential mass involuntary opioid withdrawal resulting from delisting OxyContin.

NAN leaders held a news conference in Toronto Wednesday to bring the issue to light.

They said they recognize the benefits of de-listing OxyContin, since the drug has caused widespread addiction in many remote communities, however the leaders noted governments have shown a lack of foresight in working with NAN to develop a strategy.

That strategy would be built to help residents cope with painful drug withdrawal symptoms. NAN said it is still waiting for a response to community based proposals it made previously, including money for implementing drug treatment and prevention programs, and for addressing the root causes of prescription drug abuse.

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NAN Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin

A public 'catastrophe'

"We have a public catastrophe on our hands, and no one is stepping up to take responsibility to help our people" said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin.

"Our communities have minimal access to medical services to help cope with severe withdrawal symptoms.  Our people have a right to timely and effective health care."

NAN said Health Canada told a reporter earlier this month that there will be primary care on the ground to help manage any possible problems that could arise from the withdrawal of Oxycontin, however that plan has yet to be conveyed to NAN.

According to NAN health officials, there are no resident doctors in its communities, and nursing stations have a 40 per cent nursing staff shortage.

They said primary care will be overwhelmed by the thousands who could be seeking health care when opiate supplies change in the coming weeks.

Doris Grinspun, executive director of the Registered Nurses Association, also attended the news conference.

"Nurses are deeply concerned about the people whose suffering will only increase if they cannot get proper access to treatment," Grinspun said.

"I Implore (Ontario Health Minister) Deb Matthews and her federal counterpart to do everything in their power to ensure First Nations people get the help they need and deserve."