To stop an 'epidemic' of opioid overdoses, this Ontario First Nation is targeting drug smugglers
Band members say it's the biggest challenge their community is facing
Drugs are "popping up like chicken pox" across Walpole Island First Nation, a community south of Sarnia, Ont., that declared a state of emergency in July to help stop a spike in overdoses.
Band Coun. Cody Miskokomon made the comparison between the virus and the community's drug problem, and says it is devastating families, including his own.
"Having to bury a little cousin ... really, really touched me in that area," said Miskokomon, whose cousin Jess overdosed on opioids in 2018.
Our people are consuming poison.- Chief Charles Sampson
"She was in her early 20s, life of the family, very high-spirited, you know. You'd always get a laugh out of her.... The drug took her away."
Miskokomon said losing young people is hurting the broader community, taking away from their culture, heritage and future.
"That's a pain and that needs to be healed," he said.
On July 16, Bkejwanong territory was placed under a state of emergency in response to a growing number of drug overdoses and deaths over the last year and a half — with opiates like fentanyl as the leading cause.
"Our people are consuming poison," Chief Charles Sampson said. "If we don't take action — responsible action — more deaths are going to occur."
That action has translated into stronger law enforcement measures throughout the community, including a checkpoint at its border.
Police not always called
Walpole Island Police Chief Chad Jacobs says one person has died of an overdose this year and 12 overdoses have been reported to police so far in 2021, but that in reality, the number is much higher.
Jacobs explained that on social media, officials hear of four or five overdoses every weekend, where neither police nor ambulances are called.
He believes the reason for this is more and more users are relying on Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
"I've been told by a user that they use a buddy system," Jacobs said. "If a couple of them are gonna use [fentanyl], there's always one that doesn't so that he can give them the Narcan in the event they go down."
Chief Sampson said the community is seeing an increase of breaking and entering, as users steal to finance their habit.
Officers on the territory say they are stretched thin, which is why the Ontario Provincial Police has been called in to help. They're worried about drug-smuggling operations, which Chief Sampson suspects are in "full swing" in this border community.
"They have established footholds here on the reserve, and it has spread to include almost, from last count, 28 to 30 outlets for illicit drugs here on Walpole Island," Sampson said, describing drug houses where narcotics are sold.
But in order to bust them, police need to acquire proper evidence, work that Sampson says is underway now.
Does the checkpoint work?
A checkpoint at the border of Walpole Island First Nation was set up in August to deter drugs from coming in.
WATCH | People have mixed reactions to the checkpoint:
The traffic stop is run by security guards rather than police officers, which means they can ask for names and check IDs, but are not authorized to inspect vehicles. It's a decision the local police service felt was best in order to free officers up to investigate.
"If we're gonna fight this drug problem, we need our officers on the road," Jacobs said.
"We have to get out and start targeting some of the drug houses, the traffic coming and going, and talking to some of the people in the community to try and get the information we need to get into the drug houses and shut them down. And we wouldn't be able to do that if we're sitting at the checkpoint."
While some band members are glad to see the checkpoints, others question their purpose.
"I think it's a waste of money," said Terry Sands, a band member who has lived on Walpole Island for 71 years.
"They're just young kids," he said, of the checkpoint guards.
Police Chief Jacobs says the checkpoint might be slowing down the amount of drugs coming into the community, but he doesn't "think it's preventing the drugs from coming in." He believes some community members are bringing drugs in.
Impact of trauma
Community leaders cite the trauma many felt this past year when unmarked graves were uncovered near former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan as one reason drug use may be high.
Orange shirts, which have become a symbol of remembrance for children who died in residential schools, hang in front of houses, are attached to trees and line the streets of Walpole Island First Nation.
"Drugs are a gateway for [people] to just have peace of mind, I would guess," said band member Lynette Isaac.
Her adopted sister Shelley, of Oneida Nation of the Thames, suffered a fentanyl overdose in Toronto and was recently taken off life support.
Isaac says she leaves behind a seven-year-old son.
"I'm grateful for her life. Grateful for the amazing, cute little nephew that she gave me and my sisters. I'll be raising him until, well, forever," said Isaac.
'A hurricane, a perfect storm'
Drug use has been an issue for years, but Miskokomon believes it's gotten worse since the pandemic started.
"We have a hurricane, a perfect storm when it comes to this drug epidemic," he said.
He sees a number of factors playing a role, including inadequate policing and not enough jobs, compounded by young people who feel stifled by the pandemic, which has shut many activities down.
"The children have nothing to do," he said. "So right now, the social gatherings and whatnot — they're meeting at the drug houses."
For Bill Sands, who has lived on Walpole his whole life, the drug epidemic is the biggest problem the community is facing.
He said action should have come sooner, but it's not too late to address this very "visible" problem.
"It has to be taken care of," he said. "I have children here and I have grandchildren. And everyone's afraid. You know, you go around to the parks, there's needles, there's things like that in our parks.... That's not right."
The need to heal
Chief Sampson wants to assure the community that strong action is being taken, but he said it will mean some members will have to leave.
"We are going to close these drug houses down and we are going to take stiff action on them, which will also result in the banishment of individuals from our territory," he said.
Beyond that, there's also a need for healing and treatment services.
Jacobs explained that officers in the community are speaking with users, offering help, trying to direct them into treatment, but that ultimately, it's up to the individual to take that step.
Miskokomon said he'd like to see more rehabilitation supports for those in the community in need of help.
"The drugs came in here and they cut us, so now we have to find out what we're going to use to close that wound," he said.
''What types of stitching are we going to use to close that wound, so that it stops bleeding and we can finally heal?"