Manitoba

MLA calls on province to help Island Lake members struggling with meth addiction after summer fire evacuations

Manitoba Liberal MLA Judy Klassen says many people in her home communities in Island Lake are dealing with addiction to meth after becoming hooked when wildfires forced them to evacuate to Winnipeg last summer.

Group walking from St. Theresa Point to Winnipeg to raise awareness of crisis

A forest fire burns near Wasagamack First Nation in August 2017. Liberal MLA Judy Klassen says some Island Lake members are dealing with addiction to meth after becoming hooked on the drug when wildfires forced them to evacuate to Winnipeg last summer. (Judy Klassen/Facebook)

Manitoba Liberal MLA Judy Klassen says many people in Manitoba's Island Lake communities, where she is originally from, are dealing with addiction to meth after becoming hooked on the drug when wildfires forced them to evacuate to Winnipeg last summer.

During question period on Wednesday, she called on the provincial government to take action to help.

"There were people that would be coming to the hotels where our people were, and the shelters, and just offering free drugs," Klassen said in an interview.

"And so because of that there were obviously people that tried it and became addicted, and so that just totally exacerbated the problem back home, and now there's a really big market for meth in our communities."

Around 6,300 people were flown to Winnipeg and Brandon from the First Nations of Wasagamack, St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill after wildfires broke out in the summer of 2017.

Klassen mentioned that one woman, a 32-year-old mother of two named Maureen Wood, is currently walking the roughly 500-kilometre distance from St. Theresa Point — where Klassen is from — to Winnipeg. One of Wood's family members, Klassen said, is one of those people who became addicted to meth after coming to Winnipeg.

"There's so many different stories and it's just all equally tragic," Klassen said.

Wood and her two young children started out walking by themselves, with two vans following behind, but now Klassen said the group has grown to nearly 30 people.

Klassen called for sniffer dogs at airports to screen flights into the communities to cut off the supply of drugs, and asked Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen if he would meet with the group when they arrive in Winnipeg.

Goertzen did not reply in question period to Klassen's proposal regarding drug-sniffing dogs, but said he would be willing to meet with the group when they arrived.

"This really isn't a partisan issue, because I know, and I think we all know, Manitobans have been touched in many ways," Goertzen said.

Goertzen said his department is reviewing a report from the consulting firm Virgo Planning and Evaluation, which was hired to find ways to better co-ordinate mental health and addictions services in Manitoba.

Klassen said she plans to join the group walking to Winnipeg after the legislative sitting on Thursday.

'We're not equipped': Wasagamack chief

Wasagamack Chief Alex McDougall says the isolation of the Island Lake communities contributes to the problem.

"We're not equipped to handle or even find a way to start addressing this issue," he said.

"I'd like to say that we're not very much different from any other community, but I think the isolation and the lack of recreational activities, even facilities ... aren't there, and that contributes to a lot of the addiction issues that we have in our community." 

I don't know how much benefit we'll get from one dog, but anything that can be used to deter that activity is definitely a benefit.- Wasagamack Chief Alex McDougall

He said more opportunities, and more education and awareness, might be a better first step than drug-sniffing dogs, though he would take any help that's available. 

"I don't know how much benefit we'll get from one dog, but anything that can be used to deter that activity is definitely a benefit," he said.

"For prevention we've asked for all sorts of resources, we've used whatever resource we have to try to combat that trafficking at our local airports here at the Island Lake area," said McDougall.

"It's not a matter of wanting to intervene and intercept the trafficking, it's not getting the support from either the provincial or federal governments for us to do that." 

He cited a lack of trained police in his community as part of the problem.

While meth is a problem everywhere, McDougall agreed that the evacuation to Winnipeg contributed to the problem in his community.

"We were exposed to a lot of things when we were evacuated from our communities. And it's something that I think happens when an isolated community and isolated members from the community go to an urban centre and realize there's all these opportunities, whether they're positive or negative, they don't actually realize what they're getting themselves into," McDougall said. 

"That's why I'm advocating on this education and awareness," he said, adding he supports the walkers and their message.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cameron MacLean is a journalist for CBC Manitoba living in Winnipeg, where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience reporting in the city and across Manitoba, covering a wide range of topics, including courts, politics, housing, arts, health and breaking news. Email story tips to cameron.maclean@cbc.ca.

now