'Please hear our cries': Youth on Manitoba First Nation plead for end to drug, alcohol abuse

"Please hear our cries and stop the abuse." It's just one sentence in an open letter to the parents and leaders of the Birdtail Sioux First Nation in western Manitoba.

Youth on Birdtail Sioux First Nation ask parents, leaders to stop drinking, gambling, fighting

Harold Blacksmith reads a letter penned by youth on Birdtail Sioux First Nation pleading for an end to drug and alcohol addictions. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"Please hear our cries and stop the abuse." 

It's just one sentence in an open letter to the parents and leaders of the Birdtail Sioux First Nation in western Manitoba. The full-page letter, which at the bottom says "from the youth" of the community," was posted in the community's band office late last week.

Youth people in a small western Manitoba first nation have a message for their parents and leaders. Stop drinking, taking drugs, gambling and fighting. The cry is in an open letter that leaders are saying is a wakeup call. 1:38

"Right now, we see too many of our adults drinking and doing drugs. They are gambling and playing bingo, too much, and we feel like you are ignoring us," read the letter, which was addressed to all parents and community leaders. "We see too many fights, where our parents and loved ones are getting hurt physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually." 

It has drawn the attention of many in the small, isolated First Nation, located about 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg near the Saskatchewan border. 
The youth of Birdtail Sioux First Nation want to see an end to family violence and other problems in their community. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

It was written by a 17-year-old girl in the community, leaders said. A copy landed on the desk of addictions co-ordinator Harold Blacksmith late last week. 

"This speaks volumes right now," Blacksmith told CBC News on Thursday. "We need to start to do something about it."

The letter is a wake-up call said Blacksmith; one that comes at the end of what has been a traumatic year for people in the small community of about 500 people. Two people who died are being treated as homicides. A third person died in a rollover just kilometres away from the community in November. 

Aggressive plan in works 

Blacksmith said those tragedies now have Birdtail Sioux leaders working on an even more aggressive plan to tackle drug and alcohol addictions, which have only been made worse by this year's traumatic events. 

The eventual plan is to involve every agency that works both inside and outside the community. How exactly they will tackle the problem is still being discussed. 

The Birdtail Sioux First Nation has a population of about 500 on-reserve and is located 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The latest trend Blacksmith said he's seeing among those that visit his office is addictions to prescription drugs. All of the community's health officials and band constable are now carrying the anti-overdose drug naloxone.

More people are asking to leave the community to seek outside help with addictions problems, which often comes with a four-to-six-week wait, he said. 

"We need to be more tactful and speak about these traumas the way that it should be said," he said. "This is our community. It's a community issue. We can't finger point at one specific area."

"We can all correct this problem." 

Blacksmith said it was good to see that the young people want a hand in fixing the problem. Birdtail Sioux chief Ken Chalmers echoed that sentiment. 

Many in Birdtail Sioux First Nation have been affected by drug and alcohol abuse, community leaders said. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)
"When we see this type of letter ... we welcome it from our youth," he said. "It's them talking to us."

Chalmers said not only are people dealing with recent traumas, but many in the older generation are still reeling from the affects of residential schools. Many, including Chalmer's mother, were sent to a residential school in Birtle, Man. Few share their experiences but still live with the pain.

But, he said it's time to move on.

"They [youth] don't want this problem in our communities anymore," he said. "The onus is on us ... to live up to the expectation of the youth." 

Chalmers said a turning point for him was seeing his own family members fall victim to addiction. He said babies in the community are even being born addicts, and it all cries for a solution. 

Elders worry 

Blacksmith said the community's problems have elders worried, with some even asking who the next victim will be. Joe Bunn, an elder who has lived there his entire life, said the drug and alcohol abuse has continued unabated. 

Joe Bunn said he's seen his fair share of addictions issues on Birdtail Sioux First Nation. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)
"They have been getting worse. We're having a lot more tragedies," Bunn said. "We're still holding onto the past. We have to let that go and start a new year."

"I see a lot of it," he said, adding that he's been through some of the same problems being faced today. 

"They want to quit but they are hanging onto something that is very hurtful inside of them."

More cultural education wanted 

Bunn said his hope is to see today's youth bypass drug and alcohol addictions entirely and learn more about their culture. It's a sentiment echoed in the letter.

"We are the future and we want to stand up and be proud of who we are," it read. "Give us an identity from which to grow and be strong."

"It would be helpful to teach us some job and living skills, so that we can be successful in life." 

Chalmers said new economic opportunities, like a new off-reserve gaming centre, are in the works. He hopes to one day achieve a 95 per cent employment rate in Birdtail Sioux.

"We need help from our parents and other community leaders to inspire and empower us to achieve all that we can," said the young people's letter. "It is our wish to see a time when family violence and other serious problems in our communities will end."

The letter was left at the Birdtail Sioux First Nation band office on behalf of all of the community's youth. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)