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Grandmothers wage ‘war on drugs’ in central Alberta Indigenous community

Cree grandmothers in Maskwacis are fighting to make the central Alberta community safer after what they say are hundreds of drug-related deaths in their community.

On Thursday, the grandmothers – kokums – led a ‘war on drugs walk’ through the Maskwacis townsite, joined by a crowd that included, parents, children, RCMP officers, Redrum Motorcycle Club bikers, and front-line workers.

The women said they had to take action in the wake of all the community members who have died since the onset of the pandemic due to unnatural causes including overdoses, suicide and homicide. 

In the past three weeks, they say, four young mothers died from toxic drugs on Montana First Nation — the smallest of the four First Nations that make up Maskwacis, 100 kilometres south of Edmonton.

“We’re losing our young women who are supposed to be the future kokums but they’re leaving us too soon and they’re leaving their children and we need to stand up,” said Ethel Currie-Reindeer, one of the organizers of Thursday’s event.

In April, toxic drugs killed 182 people in Alberta, the most deaths in any month since 2016, according to statistics from the province.

The Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations declared a state of emergency in July due to the opioid crisis. The confederacy said Indigenous people in Alberta are dying from overdoses at higher rates than non-Indigenous Albertans. Leaders called for more harm reduction services.

“I’m a mother and the Grim Reaper knocks on my door because I’m affected by this,” Montana First Nation kokum Joan Currie told dozens gathered at Howard Buffalo Memorial Centre in Maskwacis following the walk.

“We’ve got to give our people hope and inspiration that there’s a better way,” Currie said.

Leaders encouraged substance-users to seek support from local therapists and the mobile mental health team.

“We’re not here to judge anybody but let us try to find a way to help you,” said Montana First Nation councillor Chase McDougall.

A woman in a Treaty 6 sweatshirt and a skirt walks along holding an umbrella.
Ethel Curry Reindeer helped organize the event. (Manuel Carrillos Avalos/CBC)

Addressing his community, Ermineskin Chief Randy Ermineskin had more tragic news to deliver – a mother who had overdosed was being taken off life support. 

Ermineskin praised members for their show of courage. He pledged to build on their work by hosting a town hall before his term ends in September.

“A treatment centre is vital and critical for our area so our parents can be near their children as they are healing and dealing with their addictions,” Ermineskin said.

A recovery community in every health zone

The provincial government has committed to building 11 recovery communities throughout Alberta including the First Nations of Kainai, Enoch, Tsuutʼina and Siksika, with some locations yet to be announced. But the government won’t say if the Maskwacis-area is one of the chosen locations.

“Once complete, every health zone in Alberta will have at least one recovery community offering holistic, long-term live-in treatment at no cost,” Hunter Baril, press secretary for Mental Health and Addiction Minister Dan Williams, wrote in a emailed statement.

Baril said opioid users can call or text 211 to get same-day virtual treatment from addiction medicine physicians.

After Thursday’s walk, Currie-Reindeer said she had only just learned that drug dealers lived in some of the houses along the route.

“They needed to see that,” she said. “We’re tired and something needs to be done and we’re not going to stand down.”

Ermineskin councillor Cheryl Montour Littlechild said community members took back what was “rightfully theirs”  – the ability to walk without fear.

“The unity was just something else,” said Littlechild. “It was a beautiful feeling. You could hear laughter, you could hear singing, it was really nice.”

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