In the community of Moses Lake, which is part of the Kainai Nation in southern Alberta, Christmas lights adorn the trim of the local homeless shelter as a snowstorm rages outside.
Inside, an NHL game between the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders plays on the shelter's television as some of the viewers here discuss the recent COVID-19 outbreak among players on the Calgary Flames.
"How many is it up to now? Thirty?"
Among those at the shelter tonight, there's a common sentiment — one of gratitude. A local non-profit group, Changing Horses, gifted winter boots and socks to those attending the shelter, items that will be critical this winter as temperatures plunge.
But sadness also hangs over the gathering here tonight.
"This place, this shelter, I like it here, but I kind of got traumatized," said Leah Crazy Bull, who everyone calls Bubble. "It really broke my heart."
About two weeks ago, someone passed away at the shelter from a drug overdose. Propped up on the Christmas tree in the corner of the room is a photo of the young man, which Crazy Bull holds up.
"This Christmas is not a great year for me. I lost him, and he was a nice boy," she said. "I've known him for years."
The death weighs heavily on the shoulders of everyone in the shelter. It seems like every week, someone else in the community passes away from an opioid overdose.
"I've lost a lot of my family," said Thomas Badman. "I'm hearing a lot [about opioid overdoses]. It's coming around here, and I don't know where it's coming from.
"I don't know how they're going to stop it."
Spike in overdoses
Earlier this month, the Kainai Nation, also known as the Blood Tribe, sent an alert to its members warning of a particularly poisonous batch of opioids making its way through the community, leading to a spike of overdoses.
Recent data is not yet available, but according to the Blood Tribe, 117 opioid poisonings were reported on the reserve between January and August 2021.
Alayna Many Guns, the Blood Tribe opioid response co-ordinator, said one of the goals for the coming months is to build a data framework to understand the full picture in the community.
"What we're finding is that the opioids are mixed with other substances that make it unpure or unknown," Many Guns said. "So, we call it a bad batch."
That leads to opioid poisonings, and the community goes through spikes of deaths. Last week, the community saw three deaths, while in the week prior it saw two.
This year was Alberta's deadliest ever for deaths by drug poisoning. The first 10 months of 2021 saw a total of 1,372.
Opioid deaths and overdoses are spiking across the country, largely owing to fentanyl.
British Columbia also logged its deadliest year on record, and a federal special advisory committee on opioid overdoses said that on average across Canada, 19 people died and 16 were hospitalized due to opioid-related overdoses every day in the first half of 2021.
But Alberta's Indigenous population is being hit particularly hard by the crisis.
The roots of addiction
According to data released by the provincial government on Dec. 22, First Nations people represented 22 per cent of all opioid poisoning deaths in 2020, despite the fact that they only make up around six per cent of the population.
That's an increase of 14 per cent from 2016.
A particular set of factors is exacerbating the crisis in the Blood Tribe.
"We know that the roots of addiction are in trauma, and in poverty," said Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, a family physician on the Blood Tribe reserve.
The Kainai Nation is the largest reserve in Canada. There were two residential schools in the area — St. Paul's Residential School, which closed in 1975, and St. Mary's Indian Residential School, which closed in 1988.
"I believe that we need to look at trauma and its impact on populations," Tailfeathers said.
"We know for sure that residential school was high in adverse childhood events, everything from physical abuse to abandonment to sexual abuse. All of those traumas have resulted in people trying to self-medicate."
Highlighting lived experience
When a bad batch of opioids is reported, the task force team on the reserve sends out communications on social media and ensures that naloxone is fully stocked at public locations.
The community has also implemented a day treatment program and a safe house in Standoff, Alta.
"There are a lot of lives being saved, and there are a lot of good things happening," Many Guns said.
Both Many Guns and Tailfeathers said it was important to recognize those with lived experience who have fought a battle with addiction and come out the other end.
One of those individuals is Melissa Many Fingers, who was addicted to drugs for nearly half her life.
"I overdosed more times than I could count. I hit rock bottom so many times," Many Fingers said. "But I tried my best to hang onto that tiny bit of hope that there would be something better out there for me."
Feeling like there was no way out, Many Fingers said she didn't want to quit using drugs. But she stuck with detox, and got clean.
Today, Many Fingers is a peer support worker for the Bringing the Spirit Home detox centre in Standoff. She's also a volunteer with the SAGE Clan, a group that specializes in helping the homeless and those who suffer from addiction in Lethbridge.
"I've been through hell and back," she said. "[The] Creator kept me here for a reason, and that's to help people now. To share my story, to let them know not to let go of that hope."
Support and what needs to be done
Community members from the Blood Tribe are not necessarily just living on the reserve.
Timothy Slaney, director of the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society and a former employee of ARCHES — Lethbridge's former supervised consumption site — has written in a sworn affidavit that approximately 70 per cent of substance users accessing harm reduction services in the community were Indigenous.
According to provincial data on drug poisoning deaths, Lethbridge's death rate was 119.8 per 100,000 person years in October 2021, nearly triple the provincial average of 40.7 per 100,000 person years.
But the provincial government cut off funding for ARCHES in 2020. Tailfeathers believes that in order to keep drug users safe, there needs to be safe supply available to the community.
"Number one, people should not use alone. I mean, the number one thing about harm reduction is we need to keep people alive."
Earlier this month, Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions, said the government would set up a special committee on safe drug supply, with results due by the end of April.
The journey ahead won't be easy.
Many Fingers said the situation on the streets, which she sees weekly through her work with the SAGE Clan, more than constitutes a state of emergency.
"Addiction is our modern-day war. And you're the warrior. So keep fighting, and don't give up hope," she said. "No matter how hopeless it seems, don't give up."
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