First Nation in B.C. declares state of emergency over 'unrelenting' impact of drugs and alcohol
6 Ehattesaht young people have died from a membership of over 500
On the phone from his Vancouver Island home, Chief Simon John says he has no script to speak from.
But he has plenty of frustration.
The chief of Ehattesaht First Nation, along with the Nation's council, declared a state of emergency in the community Thursday.
A statement cites the "unrelenting" impact of drugs and alcohol on Ehattesaht, along with "the intergenerational effects of residential schools and the oppression of the systems that the federal and provincial governments have created."
The declaration's text states it aims to "generate the immediate and dedicated response the Nation requires from the federal and provincial governments to alleviate the suffering that [is] being felt in the Ehattesaht family."
"We have lots of different governments that actually own who we are as a people … The thing is that those things can't even collaborate on one thing to actually generate an outcome," John said.
"It's frustrating for sure."
John explains that solutions put forward by various government agencies have not helped Ehattesaht.
He wants answers that are relevant for the people there, whose band office is in Zeballos, a small, remote community on a rugged inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
"We're very isolated and we're very west coast people, basically," John said.
6 young people have died
Ehattesaht is one of 14 Nuu-chah-nulth nations on Vancouver Island, with more than 500 registered members. Zeballos has a population of about 120.
The ongoing toxic drug crisis has led to deaths, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
The chief and council statement highlights there have been six young people from the Nation who've died since then. John says they ranged from their early 20s to their early 30s.
"They're actually my nieces and my nephews, basically," he said. He said one woman died in the community while the others were outside of the community when they died.
The overdose crisis has claimed more than 11,000 lives in B.C. since the declaration of a public health emergency in 2016.
The top doctor at the First Nations Health Authority has said Indigenous people are dying from toxic drugs at five times the rate of the general population.
'It's really hard to actually stomach'
John, a residential school survivor himself, says the problems his Nation is trying to solve go beyond drugs and alcohol. They include intergenerational trauma, the impact of residential schools, displacement from community and government inaction.
"We can create housing, but at the same time that's taken 15 years so far for the government to actually sit down with us and start talking about it meaningfully," he said, offering an example. "It's really hard to actually stomach."
The problems are not new.
"Living with this throughout my life has been a challenge, certainly," he said. "But at the same point, I think there is an opportunity for change."
Province commits to working with Ehattesaht
Murray Rankin, the minister of indigenous relations and reconciliation, said in a statement he was committed to working with the Ehattesaht on a community-led response, especially on housing and overdose deaths.
"My heart goes out to the community of Ehattesaht First Nation for the loss of so many youths," Rankin said. "Every life lost to toxic drugs is one too many."
Rankin says the First Nations Health Authority is in touch with the community, and negotiations began about a year ago on an incremental reconciliation agreement "that supports Ehattesaht's vision and community priorities."
"In that context, we are currently working with Ehattesaht to identify priorities to support healing and wellness both on and off reserve for the nation's members," he said.
In the statement, the minister also says Island Health is involved with the Ehattesaht and co-ordinating staff to respond.
With files from The Canadian Press