Wednesday, April 1, 2015 on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta. Theweather was fine and clear. Whatought to have been an unexceptionalspring day was not a good day.
Instead, it became a day thatreminded Wayna Beebe, Roberta CalfRobe, Vivian White Quills and PamBlood—all workers in employment orsocial services on the reserve—thattheir people are living in a state ofemergency. Literally. On March 3, thetribe’s chief and council had declareda local state of emergency. Thethreat is coming from the inside, theoutside, the past and the present. Andit’s attacking the future.
The Blood Reserve is the largestin Canada and stretches roughlydiagonally from close to WatertonPark in the southwest to Lethbridgein the northeast. Closer to Lethbridgeit smooths out to the flatness ofthe prairies. Towards Watertonand Cardston, the landscape isoutrageously picturesque—certainlyamong the planet’s finest and mostdramatic—with the rolling foothillsand mountain vistas.
The purity and beauty of thelandscape is a vision of such naturalgrandeur that it lulls you intothinking the Blood Reserve is a placeof grace and mercy. But for manyliving on the reserve, life is far fromgraceful and merciful.
The month’s income assistance benefits cheques came out on April 1 and by the end of theday, Beebe, Calf Robe, White Quillsand Blood, along with colleagues inthe tribe’s health and social servicesdepartments, were dealing with fiveoverdoses. In one day. The BloodReserve’s state of emergency can besummed up in one word: fentanyl.
This synthetic opiate analgesic—anartificial oxycodone also known asgreenies—is up to 100 times morepowerful than morphine and 20
times more powerful than heroin.
The drug has numerous narcotizingeffects: a normal dose dulls severepain; too high a dose cuts off oxygento the heart and and brain.
Lee Boyd, the tribe’s chief ofpolice, says drug activity is tied toany regular income band membersreceive, from social security to GSTrebates.
In less than a year on the reserve,the number of deaths due to fentanyloverdose is closing in on 20. Dozensif not hundreds have survived anoverdose. (The fentanyl crisis goesbeyond the Blood Reserve; AlbertaHealth Services reports 120 Albertansdied from fentanyl-relatedoverdoses in 2014.)
In the middle of this crisis, the
Blood Tribe’s leadership—social
workers, band leaders, doctors,
teachers, concerned citizens—
realized that among the many social
determinants of health feeding the
problem was one the community
could try to change: employment.
The common building of Lethbridge College’s residential complex is a bright and airyspace, and when I was there in mid-April the spring sun shone throughopen windows and doors. About twodozen youths enrolled in the BloodTribe Agricultural Training Initiativewere spread out around varioustables, eating, drinking pop or coffee,horsing around and reading notes.
They had a class in irrigation laterthat afternoon, but had gathered firstfor a presentation.
I chatted with the students asthey finished their lunches. Oneyoung man, Lucas, said he was inthe program because he wanted tofarm on the reserve (which leasesmost of its very productive land tonon-aboriginal farmers, a practicethat sees millions of dollars leavethe reserve every year). A youngwoman, Jazlynn, who sported abrush cut under a baseball cap, saidthat her goal was to work in theirrigation department on the reserve.
“I’m studying water utility in the
program,” she said. “It’s really good.”
“I’m not sure what I want to do,”
said another student, Dwight, who
looked to be in his mid-30s. “All I
know is I don’t want to go back up to
the oilsands to work.”
Others—Henny, Kevin, Ronald,
Lynn, Clay—have similar stories.
They see the program as a way forthem to work, possibly make a livingand break out cycles of poverty,unemployment, low education, poor