Hay River, N.W.T., looks for ways to tackle deadly opioid crisis

'As long as we ignore what's going on, then we don't have to deal with it. And sometimes, we ignore it because we don't know what to do about it,' said Roy Fabian, a Dene elder from the Kátł'odeeche First Nation near Hay River, N.W.T. (Natalie Pressman/CBC - image credit)
'As long as we ignore what's going on, then we don't have to deal with it. And sometimes, we ignore it because we don't know what to do about it,' said Roy Fabian, a Dene elder from the Kátł'odeeche First Nation near Hay River, N.W.T. (Natalie Pressman/CBC - image credit)

Residents of Hay River, N.W.T., are answering fear with action in learning to manage an emerging drug crisis.

The town of about 3,200 people sits on the south shore of Great Slave Lake and is known as the "hub of the North" for its connection to southern highways and routes to transport goods further north.

In the last year, N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola has issued three public health warnings alerting residents of fentanyl and carfentanil in the territory's drug supply.

And last week, Kandola escalated her warnings and travelled to Hay River to hold a news conference. She said there that based on preliminary evidence, five of the territory's six opioid-related deaths last year in the N.W.T. involved either fentanyl or carfentanil. All six deaths were in Hay River.

She warned of the dangers of opioids and urged anyone using drugs to not use alone, and to have at least two naloxone kits on hand in order to temporarily reverse the effects of substances, if needed.

"When you talk to people who have been here a long time, they'll tell you the same thing — Hay River has never been this bad," said Monica Pirous, director of child, family and community wellness with the town's health and social services authority.

Pirous said existing social problems, mixed with the stress of COVID-19 and the trauma of last spring's unprecedented flood, is contributing to the town's drug crisis.

"People use drugs because they're hurting," she said.

New support programs

As concerns over drug poisonings grow, so do community resources for support.

Pirous and her team have begun a "families for hope" program, to support family members of those who use substances. The weekly program has so far held only one session.

"We had all this information lined up, ready to roll out, and what we found is that what people really needed was a safe space to grieve," Pirous said. "Moving forward we have this curriculum that's been developed but we also recognize that this program needs to have an organic nature."

Natalie Pressman/CBC
Natalie Pressman/CBC

Pirous's team also runs clinics at the Hay River shelter to facilitate reflection on why users turn to drugs, as well as offer programming for new and expecting mothers who struggle with addiction.

Though they've yet to form a formal partnership, Pirous said she's also keen to work with a group of elders in the community who've unified to come up with solutions.

Pirous told a story of Beatrice Lepine, one of the elders in the group, calling her office to say "the grandmothers want to know what these drugs look like."

"What are the symptoms of an overdose? What's in crack cocaine? What does fentanyl look like — these are really practical questions," Pirous said.

"If you're not immersed in those habits of using, you don't know what certain drugs smell like when they're being lit on fire."

She called the elders a "powerhouse" in the community, and said if her team is able to help them feel more informed on the crisis, that will help them support the community members.

Don't minimize the problem, says Dene elder

Roy Fabian, a Dene elder living on Hay River's neighbouring Kátł'odeeche First Nation reserve, is also part of the elder's group.

He said he thinks the number is higher than the six drug-related deaths the territory's coroner has counted, and he's heard the same from others.

"For a while, they were almost on a weekly basis, sometimes one, two people were dying from addiction," he said.

"It's really scary."

At last week's news conference, N.W.T. chief coroner Garth Eggenberger acknowledged the potential discrepancy and said it could have to do with how his office determines cause of death.

For example, he said, someone consuming drugs might die from a heart attack. Community members might see that as a drug-related death, while the coroner's office would determine the cause of death to be a heart attack.

Natalie Pressman/CBC
Natalie Pressman/CBC

Fabian said it's important to not minimize the scope of the crisis in the community.

"As long as we ignore what's going on, then we don't have to deal with it. And sometimes, we ignore it because we don't know what to do about it."

He said that's where the elders come in.

"At one time in Dene culture, it was the elders that dealt with the issues," he said.

Fabian is himself a former addict, and has undergone two years of training with Poundmaker's Lodge to become a treatment counsellor and facilitator. He said the elders have the knowledge and experience to help residents, but they haven't yet determined how best to do that.

The group has held one meeting so far. Fabian said it was a kind of sharing circle where participants talked about their own healing journeys.

"I think it went the way it was supposed to go, you know, with no expectations."

He said the idea is to help community members to take care of themselves so they don't feel the urge to use.

'Can't arrest our way out of the drug problem,' RCMP says

Const. Josh Seaward is an RCMP officer at the Hay River detachment. He said it's clear the drugs are coming to Hay River from southern parts of Canada, but from where exactly, and how much, he couldn't say.

He said the force is ramping up training on skills for drug-related investigations. That includes handling confidential informants as well as recognizing and intercepting drug transportation vehicles.

"But what's important for people to remember is that we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem," he said. "It can't just be an enforcement solution."

Seaward pointed to a recent drug trafficking arrest and cash seizure of over $133,000 as an indication of the town's "healthy demand" for drugs.

He said as long as the demand exists, Hay River's drug problem is likely to endure regardless of enforcement efforts.

"We're at the end of the line, you call us when it's gotten to a certain point."

He said he doesn't have any information on the substances travelling to other parts of the territory, but said "I certainly know they're coming here."

Seaward said the demand comes from a section of the population that needs help, and that the RCMP is ready to support partnering social agencies however they can.