Young father fatally overdoses as street drug sweeps Shamattawa, Bunibonibee First Nations

The death of a young father of seven children is thought to be among the latest consequences brought by a potentially deadly street drug that's been circulating on two northern Manitoba First Nations.

RCMP issued warning Sunday about tablets circulating on northern Manitoba First Nations

Chief Eric Redhead says his community of Shamattawa First Nation has been hit hard by overdoses believed to be linked to fentanyl in recent days. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The death of a young father of seven children is thought to be among the latest consequences brought by a potentially deadly street drug that's been circulating in two northern Manitoba First Nations.

The 36-year-old Bunibonibee Cree Nation man died last Thursday after being found unconscious, Chief Richard Hart said on Sunday. An autopsy hasn't been done yet, but Hart said it's believed the death was linked to a type of small, pale green tablet known locally as "green beans."

RCMP issued a warning on Sunday about the drug, which they said resembles oxycodone tablets and may contain fentanyl. Mounties said they believe the tablets were responsible for several overdoses over the last three days.

Hart said he's been aware of the drug in Bunibonibee for about two months, but just in the last six weeks — and the last week in particular — incidents linked to the pills have spiked.

In a roughly 36-hour period that included the young father's death, about a dozen people were rushed to the community's nursing station with symptoms of fentanyl overdose. Several were medevaced out of the community, also known as Oxford House, which is about 575 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. 

The tablets have also made their way farther north into Shamattawa First Nation, Chief Eric Redhead said Sunday. While no deaths have been reported there yet, the isolated community about 745 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg has seen an "alarming" rise of fentanyl overdoses at its nursing station — four in about as many days, he said.

Since the initial sadness and anger that swept across Bunibonibee as news spread of the friendly, well-liked young father's death, Hart said people in the community are shifting their feelings toward action.

RCMP are warning people in two northern Manitoba communities about pills like these, which resemble oxycodone tablets and may contain fentanyl. Mounties say the pills may not be exactly as shown in the photo. (Submitted by Manitoba RCMP)

"The initial reaction from a lot of community members is one of anger that a person has died at the hands of some drug dealer who wants to make money," he said.

"But it's kind of turned into [people asking], 'What can we do as a community to stop this crisis that we're facing?'"

Elusive solutions

Both leaders say the solutions aren't as simple as they might seem.

In the wake of the death in Bunibonibee, Hart said he's been flooded with calls and messages from community members urging him to crack down on people known to be involved in the drug trade.

To do that, there needs to be enough evidence to get police involved — or for community leaders to pass a band council resolution temporarily banning a person from Bunibonibee, which Hart said they've done about four times for people charged with drug offences.

Even with the recent rash of overdoses, many still aren't willing to name names, he said.

"It's a tough thing to deal with, because you can't take tough action on somebody based on rumours," he said.

"That's the frustrating part about this whole thing … I don't know how you can have one death, and you can have a couple of near deaths, and people still don't want to say where they got their drugs from."

Redhead said it's not hard to figure out how drugs are getting into communities like Shamattawa and Bunibonibee, since both fly-in communities have one main point of entry: airports.

But he said adequate checks aren't being done before people board planes bound for his First Nation.

"We know where the drugs are coming from," he said. "It's a matter of enforcing searches."

Even in cases where police do get involved and arrest someone, taking one dealer off the street or seizing one stash can only do so much, Hart said.

"It just seems [like] you stop one, then another dealer pops up."

Moving forward

For now, the leaders say they're focused on doing what they can to prevent further tragedy as the drug continues to sweep across their communities. 

That includes improving access to naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses. 

Though both communities' nursing stations are now stocked, Hart said he's ordered more to equip Bunibonibee's first responders with. Both he and Redhead said they would like to get their hands on enough to make it readily available to people in the community.

"Members don't have access to the [naloxone] kits, at least not as they should — or I should say, as people in the city do," Redhead said.

With most of the overdoses among people in their 20s and early 30s, Hart said people in Bunibonibee are looking at ways to stop young people from being drawn to drugs to begin with.

"There's always the part about getting tough with drug dealers. But also at the same time, we also have to offer more programs, more services, more employment for people to help them make more productive use of their time," he said.

"Those are all things that we are trying to do as a community. And [by] working together, we'll get through this crisis."