5 First Nations in northern Alberta declare state of emergency after spate of drug deaths

A First Nations group in northern Alberta has declared a state of emergency and launched a task force after overdose, suicides and the results of self harm have killed 60 community members so far this year.

About 60 deaths from overdose, suicide and self-harm so far this year, says Athabasca Tribal Council

 Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam speaks to reporters.
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam said community members are being retraumatized by drug violence. (Athabasca Tribal Council)

A First Nations group in northern Alberta has declared a state of emergency and launched a task force to tackle an escalating mental health and addictions crisis that they say has caused the deaths of dozens of community members. 

The Athabasca Tribal Council, which represents five First Nations in northern Alberta, says 60 community members have died this year from overdose, suicides and the results of self-harm, and is calling on all levels of government for financial support.

"With the trillions of dollars you've taken from our resources and from our lands, you give some of that back to help our people," said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam on Thursday.

"If not, get out of here."

On Thursday, the ATC called for an initial $20 million to tackle the issue.

"But that's not even the tip of the iceberg" of what is needed, Adam said.

Emphasizing the need for community-led strategies, leaders proposed provincial and federal partnerships to build local, culturally sensitive, detox and recovery centres.

‘If you cannot assist, leave’: Chief Allan Adam delivers stark plea for mental health supports

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Five First Nations communities in northern Alberta have declared a regional state of emergency due to an ongoing mental health and addictions crisis.

The ATC said community members don't want to travel hundreds of kilometres away for help, as residential schools once forced them to do, leaving them even more vulnerable. 

"We're seeing a significant rise in violence and illegal activities by people coming from outside our region and preying upon those experiencing crisis who are desperate for some relief," said Karla Buffalo, CEO of the Athabasca Tribal Council. 

Meanwhile, said Adam, drug-related violence just adds to the trauma.

"People are scared because drug dealers are shooting at each other, and they're doing it right in broad daylight when kids are around."

In April, toxic drugs killed 182 people in Alberta, the most deaths in a month since 2016, according to provincial statistics.

The Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations declared its own state of emergency in July backed by figures showing Indigenous people are seven times more likely to die of opioid toxicity than non-Indigenous Albertans.

Plans by the ATC to declare an emergency in June were sidelined by encroaching wildfires that forced chiefs to focus on protecting and evacuating communities.

On Thursday, Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey told governments to step up to address the mental health and addiction crisis rooted in unhealed trauma from colonization, residential schools and the suppression of cultural practices.

Many community members continue to struggle, he said, due to the lack of local, cultural, relevant and safe resources.

"So I challenge you and encourage you as a collective, let's work together … for them to see that there is help here."

First Nations leaders sit in a row at a table.
The Athabasca Tribal Council addresses questions from concerned community members. (Submitted by Athabasca Tribal Council)

The ATC task force includes community members, health-care professionals, emergency management officials and RCMP.

Adams said leaders have met with Indigenous Services Canada and thanked the provincial government and Sandy Bowman, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, for their support.

In a statement to CBC News, Zeus Eden, press secretary, Office of the Minister of Indigenous Services, said the federal government shares the concerns of the ATC and is committed to working with all partners to support community-led solutions.

Eden said the minister has met with Adam, and that Indigenous Services Canada officials meet regularly with the ATC and other partners to discuss mental health and wellness supports.

He said that an ISC crisis response team has been deployed in the area since April and the ISC has provided more than $5.8 million to support Indigenous mental health services in the Wood Buffalo region of Alberta.

"We will continue to work with the Athabasca Tribal Council and all communities in the Wood Buffalo area to offer services that are culturally-appropriate and self-determined," said Eden.

In an emailed statement, the provincial government expressed its sympathy to families, friends and communities who have lost loved ones to addiction.

"We have been committed since day one to working with Indigenous partners to address the issue of addiction in their communities, and we reaffirmed that to the Athabasca Tribal Council yesterday when meeting with them to discuss the challenges they face," wrote Dan Williams, the minister of mental health and addiction.


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca