Effects of local drug crisis evident in Kamsack, Sask.

It's hard to miss the effects of what's being called a drug crisis around Kamsack, Sask.

It's hard to miss the effects of what's being called a drug crisis around Kamsack, Sask.

A Cote First Nation woman dealing with drug issues seeks to turn her life around.

7 years ago
Duration 0:50
Hillary Cote says she has been injecting drugs for over a year but she wants to get clean.

If the first step to recovery is admitting there's a problem, three First Nations around Kamsack, in east-central Saskatchewan, have reached that point.

​Leaders of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the Key, Cote and Keeseekoose First Nations sounded the alarm this week about a crisis in their communities.

More than 100 drug-related deaths over past year

They say a mix of narcotics, street drugs and methadone have led to more than 100 deaths over the past year in three reserves near Kamsack, a town of 1,800 that's close to the border with Manitoba.

"I've been to over 400 funerals in my life time within our three communities," said FSIN Senator Ted Quewezance. "Our communities —​ their funeral budget, it's blown in the first quarter of every year."

Third Avenue in Kamsack is home to two pharmacies, and many people who wait to receive prescription drugs or methadone — a standard treatment for weaning people off narcotics — arrive there every day. 

People walking along that street this week opened up about their experiences with addiction. Each of the people CBC spoke with said Kamsack and the communities around it have an addiction problem. 

"People are lined up at the drugstore here like, eight o'clock in the morning. They wait an hour for the doors to open," said Hillary Cote, who's from Cote First Nation.

She admits to struggling with an addiction to injection drugs herself. She recently turned 20 and she says it's a life she wants to escape. 

"It's not something you want to be doing for the rest of your life," she said. "I've only been doing it for a year but I want to get clean now because this is not the life I want."

Cote said she's tried to quit cold turkey before, but it's difficult because so many people she knows are taking drugs, and they're always around.

'It's affected everybody'

"It's affected me a lot of ways," Loretta Quewezance said when asked how drug use has affected her. "I've had cousins and aunties that died from it. Everything. Everybody. It's affected everybody."

She and her partner stopped outside of a pharmacy before receiving her methadone treatment. She has a complicated relationship with the drug, which is reportedly prescribed to more than 200 other people in the area. She told us she's been on methadone "going on 12 years". 

Methadone is normally prescribed as a painkiller and as a treatment for opioid dependence.

My life revolves around that bottle. I don't think I could get off of it even if I wanted to- Loretta Quewezance

"I got on the methadone so I could keep my kid," Loretta Quewezance said. "People look at the bad in it, but you've got to look at the good it's done for the community. A lot of women and even men wouldn't have their kids."

She said her life is better with methadone, but it's not been an easy 12 years. 

"My life revolves around that bottle," she said. "I don't think I could get off of it even if I wanted to."

Loretta Quewezance said she wants to get off someday, and feels 12 years is too long, but she's worried she'd fall back into her "old ways" of drug addiction if she didn't have it.

Her father died from abusing drugs, something she thinks about every day, she said.

She would like to see changes in the area, suggesting more help from community leaders could help.

Food bank might help

If there was a  local food bank, it might stop people from selling drugs to get by, she said.

CBC asked her whether she believes there's a way to solve the drug problem in Kamsack.

"I think there would be a way," she said, with a chuckle. "But you can't because there'd be people dropping dead everywhere."

According to a draft of a 2011 consultant's report, a total of 263 people from the three neighbouring First Nations were involved in the methadone program.

'We told them it's not about new monies'

Ted Quewezance is an FSIN Senator and one of the leaders who spoke out this week to tell people about the crisis in Key, Cote and Keeseekoose communities. 

He's frustrated that his calls for help to the provincial and federal government have led to sharing information about how money is being spent on health in the area.

"We told them it's not about new monies," he said. "It's re-profiling what's within the health region. And that's the issue here."

Ted Quewezance says the crisis requires looking at new ways of treating people for their addictions, and for what has led them to become addicted.

CBC has requested information from the government about how much it costs for a person to take methadone each day for a year.

 Whatever the cost, that money could be better put to use helping people to recover from any chemical dependence,Ted Quewezance said.

'Everybody points at those people and blames them'

"They're reaching out, they want help. And everybody points at those people and blames them for everything. Why? Those are sick people. It's like alcoholics. When you're sick, you're sick, and Health Canada just can't see it" he said. 

Ted Quewezance said he's concerned that seeing local doctors is not "culturally safe" for First Nations band members. He says medical approaches have to change.

He spoke with CBC from the Saulteaux Healing and Wellness Centre in Cote First Nation.

The building is undergoing a facelift to become a 19-bed inpatient addiction treatment facility with an opening date set in April.

Abuse, trauma must be treated, too

Its treatment director, Yvonne Howse, says violence, abuse, and trauma related to a history of residential schools affect many people in the area.

That's something that needs to be treated alongside the 'tremendous' number of addictions in the area, Howse said.

"I think methadone helps some people," she said. "But it seems to be everybody is going on methadone ... Giving methadone to an addict is just giving people another addiction."

Howse says the wellness centre will treat people for all aspects of their addiction, and it will provide follow-up care for people after they're finished with inpatient treatment. She hopes treatment from her facility will help some people, but says it won't help everyone.

Wellness centre offers hope

Hillary Cote says she's made the decision and she hopes to become a patient at the Saulteaux Healing and Wellness Centre in her home community. She says she wants to have her two-year-old son back, and she thinks treatment there can help her do that.

"I don't like it, and I miss the old me. So that's what I want to do is recover, and find the old person I was before," she said.


Tory Gillis


Tory Gillis began work as a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan in 2012. You can hear her deliver the afternoon news on weekdays on CBC Radio One in Saskatchewan. She has also worked as a reporter, and as an associate producer on CBC Saskatchewan's radio shows, The Morning Edition, Bluesky and The Afternoon Edition.