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Island First Nation declares emergency over drug and alcohol crisis

The Ehattesaht First Nation in Zeballos says six young people have died
People gather at Centennial Square marking the sixth anniversary of B.C. declaring overdose deaths a public health emergency in Victoria, Thursday, April 14, 2022. A First Nation on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island has declared a state of emergency over what its leadership describes as the “unrelating impact of drugs and alcohol” on its members, particularly children and youth.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

A First Nation in Zeballos has declared a state of emergency over what its leadership describes as the “unrelating impact of drugs and alcohol” on its members, particularly children and youth.

A statement from the Ehattesaht First Nation says six young people have died from drug overdoses in the small village over the past few months.

It says the nation’s chief and council are calling on officials from the British Columbia and federal governments to sit down with them to help find the resources necessary to create a “survival plan.”

RELATED: First Nations women overrepresented among B.C. toxic drug deaths: doctor

The nation’s council has been trying to develop a comprehensive plan, it says, but they’ve had little success in breaking through “institutional barriers to find programs that can meet the desperate needs of the people.”

Chief Simon John says the nation gets a call or letter every few weeks related to land-use issues and other government priorities, but it “can’t seem to get the attention of the social service ministries.”

He says Ehattesaht has reached the end of its ability to cope with the crisis with the “Band-Aids” it patches together.

Ehattesaht is one of 14 Nuu-chah-nulth nations on Vancouver Island, with more than 500 registered members.

John says his community is “treading water, exhausted” as it grapples with the intergenerational effects of residential schools and systems of colonial oppression.

“I know there are good words from government, but we are still being handed from one ministry or department to another,” he says. “Every day I sit with families heartbroken with worry and its unacceptable.”

The nation is asking the governments of B.C. and Canada to be “creative and flexible and meet a small and isolated (community’s) needs in its own way.”

In the meantime, it says Ehattesaht will try to stabilize the crisis by focusing on outreach to its most vulnerable members.

“We need help,” John says, adding a quarter of the nation’s members are underhoused, on the streets, or are children in care.

The nation cannot heal its land without putting people first, the statement says.

“Reconciliation is a very hard work for many people to understand. For us, it has to be about our people now. We need the services and the supports along with the control over our lands, so our people are working and our communities are healthy.”

The overdose crisis has claimed more than 11,000 lives in B.C. since the declaration of a public health emergency in 2016.

The top doctor at the First Nations Health Authority has said Indigenous people are dying from toxic drugs at five times the rate of the general population.

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