Quebec First Nation can expel drug dealers under new rules aimed at curbing abuse

A First Nations community in northern Quebec has taken a novel approach to cracking down on drugs: banishing dealers from its territory. 

Last week, the Atikamekw community of Obedjiwan, located about 600 kilometres north of Montreal, expelled a suspected cocaine dealer who was from outside the community using provisions under the Indian Act, which the band says allows a First Nation to determine who can live on its territory. 

Under new regulations introduced Jan. 1, three people from Obedjiwan who are band members could also be forced to leave the community if they are found guilty of drug-related offences in provincial court.  

Residents approved a proposal to ban drug dealers from the reserve for five years in a referendum last November. 

A resounding 81 per cent of people who cast a ballot voted in favour of the idea, amid concerns children as young eight were buying drugs.

"People wanted action in this direction, and why? Because they saw things were getting worse in our community," Philippe Dubé, the band councillor responsible for public safety, told Radio-Canada.

Immediate effect

Marie-Anne Mequish, who works at the local high school, said she has already noticed a change since the new regulation was introduced two months ago. 

She said there was an urgent need for action, explaining that students were being targeted by dealers outside the school.

Eric Cutnam, a member of the local police force who spends a lot of time in the community's schools, said he has also noticed a change.

"There were a lot of young people who were not attending school [that is, not registered] who were lurking around the schools," he said. "To be very honest, there are even today with the regulation, but there has been a decrease, for sure."

He believes the new regulation is more dissuasive than a prison sentence for many in the community, who rarely leave the isolated territory more than 300 kilometres north of La Tuque, Que.

"People say, 'I'll have a probation order, or I'll go inside the walls for a month and then I'll be lodged, fed, and then I'll come out and go on with what I was doing," Cutnam said.

"But with the five-year rule, it's clear and straightforward."

Other communities take similar approach

Obedjiwan, a community of roughly 2,000 people located on the north shore of Gouin Reservoir in the Mauricie region, isn't the first Indigenous community to try such an approach.

Other First Nations, including several in Saskatchewan, have recently experimented with banishment, a form of sanction that was once common among some Indigenous groups. 

The chief of Saskatchewan's Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said last fall he would support formal banishment guidelines on First Nations across the province.

"If it means getting rid of drug dealers, sure," Bobby Cameron said. "If it means not losing any more youth to alcohol and drugs, you bet I [would]."