By Shari Narine
The night before the province announced $20,000 for the Blood Tribe Opioid Awareness Project, there were eight overdoses on the southern Alberta First Nation, six within an hour.
Those ODs came despite the opening of a safe consumption site in early March in Stand Off. Alberta Health Services activated that site in response to a brutal Feb. 23 weekend which saw 14 ODs in the Blood Tribe community and 50 ODS in Lethbridge (some of which were Blood Tribe members), all believed to be related to carfentanil.
Only two people have actively used in that safe consumption site, said Blood Tribe doctor Esther Tailfeathers.
“One of the biggest problems we have across the province, and especially in Indigenous populations, is stigma,” said Tailfeathers, who served on the Minister’s Opioid Emergency Response Commission, which delivered its 26 recommendations in late February.
“People are not using those resources that are being provided because they’re shamed and other community members are stigmatizing the use of the safe consumption site,” she said, noting that stigma is also an issue in rural populations and in city suburbs.
Gayle Chase, who has coordinated the tribe’s drug harm reduction project since April 2015, agrees that stigma is an issue.
“We’ve been really working to destigmatize everything around addictions,” she said.
Tailfeathers anticipates the Blood Tribe’s new funding will be used to educate people about harm reduction and de-stigmatizing users. Chase said she would also like to see some of the funding used to communicate the success stories in the community.
Chase’s project works in the community to let members know they have choices and tune them into support groups they can attend.
“We really try to connect with them and create a relationship,” she said.
Both Chase and Tailfeathers agree that recent spikes in ODs are no longer the norm.
In 2015, fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths caused the Blood Tribe to declare a state of emergency. At that time ODs were happening in groups, said Tailfeathers. Now they are sporadic.
“We’re still having overdoses, not to the extent that we were before. I think we’ve at least achieved saving some lives,” she said.
The distribution of naloxone kits and teaching how to use them; people being aware to call 9-1-1 immediately; drug users being more aware of what they’re using; and programs helping to keep drug users clean for longer periods of time; have all led to a decrease in ODs and death numbers.
Also having an impact are opiate replacement therapy programs.
Tailfeathers is particularly proud of action taken by the Kainai high school, which has implemented a program of trauma-informed care for their students, as most of the youth start using opiates due to trauma.
But what may also be driving down local OD and fatality numbers is a band council decision to see drug users, who are dealing, evicted from their homes, causing them to relocate to Calgary and Lethbridge.
Many live on the streets or in shelters, they still use, and are now among the OD statistics for those cities, said Tailfeathers.
While she understands council’s decision to come down hard on local drug dealers, she said “evicting people from their homes only sends them into a much more dire situation.”
In the works on the reserve is an expansion of treatment resources, longer treatment stays and opiate appropriate treatments.
Chase is also in the process of having a home renovated in Stand Off so it can be used as a drop-in centre or safe place for family members, who have a user in their homes. The home will be able to accommodate 10 to 15 people and eventually, she would like to see support groups and children and youth activities run from there.
“We’re trying to also address the upstream determinants like poverty, housing and trauma and we also have to address the use of opiates at the prescribing level,” said Tailfeathers.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but I think we’ve done a lot of work as a community,” she said.
“The deaths … have really, really decreased, but there are still the ODs, but I believe we did our small part in actually educating the people,” said Chase, who believes that connecting directly with users has helped bring about the decrease in deaths.
Chase is waiting to see what impact legalized marijuana will have on users. She says some users have switched from opioids to cocaine and now there is talk that weed may factor in as users get their high.
On April 5, the province handed out $1.4 million in funding for 29 projects to raise awareness of the opioid crisis through video, art, social media, workshops and community events.