First Nations should reconsider banishment, says Indigenous physician

First Nations can make political decisions to remove members from their communities, but an Indigenous physician says that First Nations should take a harm-reduction approach to dealing with drug use.

Doctor cautions communities to focus on harm reduction rather than barring drug dealers

Dr. Marcia Anderson says the war on drugs and other punitive approaches to end drug use have been ineffective. (Submitted by Melissa Brown)

First Nations can make political decisions to remove members from their communities, but an Indigenous physician says that might not be the best approach.

"I think it's not going to work," Marcia Anderson said regarding whether First Nations should banish members suspected of selling drugs. 

"I think it's going to increase stigma [around drug users] and result in unintended harm." 

Earlier this week, Pine Creek First Nation made headlines after banishing one of their community members for suspected drug dealing.

Anderson, a physician and head of the University of Manitoba's Indigenous health and healing program, says she recognizes First Nations have the political authority to banish members suspected of drug dealing, and that it can be politically attractive to Indigenous leaders.

However, Anderson says, communities would be better served taking a harm-reduction approach to drugs. 

Find ways to reduce demand for drugs

The "war on drugs" and other punitive measures have been completely ineffective, she says, and have added to Indigenous people being disproportionately over-represented in the criminal justice system.

"I would really encourage communities and the broader public to think about ways that we could reduce the demand for drugs," Anderson said. "And then work on harm reduction for people who are … using drugs instead of trying to focus on these criminal justice-based approaches."

Anderson suggests a lack of resources — many First Nations have under-funded schools and health services, and often don't have the resources to deal with drug addictions — combined with a history of poverty and personal trauma results in many people in First Nations communities seeing drugs as a natural escape.

"Instead of trying to work at actually fixing the way that kids grow up, that inequity streams them into things like drug abuse and addictions,"  Anderson said.

Iceland's approach is working

She points to countries such as Iceland that have dramatically reduced the use of intoxicants by teenagers in a span of eight years, using a programmed approach.

"[In Iceland] From [1998] to 2012, the rate of 15 and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the past month went from 42.5 per cent to five per cent," Anderson said.

"Some of the ways that they did that were flooding opportunities for recreation — for organized sports, music, dance, things like that — that were accessible even for people on low incomes."

Iceland has also seen success by adopting curfews for youth, she says.

For communities that lack resources, Anderson would like to see people from community leadership, public health systems and philanthropists fill the gap in funding by advocating for First Nations.

"I think for communities where there is currently not a lot going on or a lot available, that's where they can start building that up and focusing on it."

Grand chief backs banishment

Jerry Daniels, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization in Manitoba, is hoping that communities such as Pine Creek can be supported in their decision to banish drug dealers.

"Their objective is to bring down the amount of drugs that are going into our communities. [Drugs are] taking a toll on our communities in a lot of different ways," Daniels said. "It's the children that suffer the most."

The person who was banished from Pine Creek was only suspected of drug dealing, and not criminally charged.

"I think that it's going to be up to the community on how they proceed. There's a challenges when you don't have a charge that's been laid," Daniels said.
Jerry Daniels, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization of Manitoba, says he supports communities that decide to bar drug dealers, but hopes more can be done to deal with the problem before that remedy is necessary. (Southern Chiefs' Organization)

"But then, if you have a number of people that are certain of it, then the community has to make that decision."

Daniels also said that there is a wider conversation happening among leaders about how to move forward with people suspected of selling drugs in their communities.

"Our chiefs are operating in a state of crisis constantly. If you're a leader in the community and you're dealing with all of these different issues, you have to address it and you have to let people know that you're serious — this is the way to do it," Daniels said.

Pine Creek is not the first community to banish members. Daniels noted that Fisher River First Nation, as well as many northern Manitoba First Nations don't take kindly to drug dealing.

Although he supports banishment, he also recognizes that more needs to be done to address drug use in First Nations communities.

"We need to focus on mental health in our communities. We need to focus on supporting our families and creating opportunities. There's a lot of different things that we can do," Daniels said.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.