Kanai First Nation, one of Canada’s largest, takes action to keep out drugs such as fentanyl as community grapples with overdoses: ‘This is about saving lives’

Fentanyl has ravaged the Kanai reserve in recent years.

Fentanyl has ravaged the Kanai reserve in recent years.

One of Canada’s largest First Nations communities has passed a bylaw forbidding non-members from entering the reserve without a permit, in hopes of gaining control over a street drug that has ravaged the community.

The past few years have seen fentanyl – an opioid 50 times stronger than heroin – tighten its grip on the reserve, said Rick Tailfeathers, a spokesperson for the Kainai First Nation located in southern Alberta. “We’ve lost a lot of people in the past two years. And it’s totally preventable.”

Home to some 13,000 people, the First Nation declared a state of emergency in March 2015. Distraught leaders said 20 people had died and another 60 overdoses had been treated in the six months prior.

Police on the reserve sprung into action, launching a tip line to report traffickers and forming a special unit aimed at curbing the sale of the pills. Two years later, the drug continues its hold on some in the community, said Tailfeathers. “It’s all over Vancouver, Alberta, but somehow it got to our reserve first.”

In April of 2016 – one year after fentanyl-linked drugs began to take a deadly toll on the Kainai First Nation – the province of British Colombia echoed the First Nation’s concern, declaring the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency. Across the province, the number of overdoses had soared from 80 in 1990 to 922 in 2016.

In Kainai First Nation’s home province of Alberta, authorities said the number of fentanyl-linked overdoses had risen 110% within the span of two years, with 343 people dying from the drug in 2016.

Officials in Kainai First Nation first proposed the trespassing bylaw late last year as a means of trying to keep the drug out of the community, said Tailfeathers. “There’s been a problem with drug dealers coming on the reserve and selling drugs.

After a period of consultation, the bylaw was passed by council earlier this month and went into effect this week. Along with instituting a permit system for non-members who want to enter the reserve – in some cases charging as much as C$500 annually for companies owned by non-members – the bylaw authorises police on the reserve to remove all others and potentially charge them with trespassing. The fees for the permits are meant to help offset the cost of the program, said the council.

The aim is not to punish or control visitors, said Tailfeathers, but instead help police better identify those who do not have permission to be on the reserve, also known as the Blood Tribe First Nation. The bylaw won’t affect those travelling on the provincial highways that cross the reserve or those attending public events such as pow-wows or hockey games on the reserve.

“It’s always been known that the Blood Tribe has governance over our land, but we’ve really never exercised it,” he said. “And this is one of the ways that we’re exercising our governance on the reserve.”

Reaction has been mixed so far, he said, with a few arguing that the bylaw infringes on people’s rights. “There’s some people that have been pretty alarmed that the tribe has made this bylaw. But for the most part, the tribal members are supporting it.”

Some worry that the bylaw will do little to stem the flow of drugs. “It’s not going to stop it; it’s still going to be here,” a tribe member, Tammy Black Plume, told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. “They’re just going to find another way, they’re just going to have other people do it from the reserve.”

Still, Tailfeathers said most in the community understand the need for drastic action. “This is about saving lives,” he said. “There’s a lot of illicit drugs being sold. Some of them are killing the members of our tribe and just really causing a lot of despair.”