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New report shows the disproportionate impact of drug poisoning on First Nations

Drug paraphernalia can be seen in Lethbridge in this undated file photo, Drug paraphernalia can be seen in Lethbridge in this undated file photo,
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First Nations people continue dying of drug poisoning at a disproportionate rate compared to the non-First Nations population, according to the latest surveillance report from the Alberta government and the Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre.

Despite making up just 3.6 per cent of the population in Alberta, First Nations people represent 20 per cent of all apparent unintentional opioid poisoning deaths in the province from 2016 to 2022, the May 2024 report found.

That percentage has increased from 14 per cent of all unintentional opioid poisoning deaths in 2016 to 24 per cent in 2022.

For First Nations people, the rate of apparent unintentional opioid poisoning per 100,000 people reached a height of 224 in 2021, compared to 26 for the non-First Nations population, before declining to 205 in 2022, compared to 24 for the non-First Nations population.

This eight percent decline in the opioid poisoning rate among the First Nations population, the report noted, is still within the survey’s margin of error, and occurs within the context of a 366 per cent increase overall from 2016 to 2022. By contrast, the rate increased 113 per cent for non-First Nations people in the same time frame.

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, a family physician at the Blood Tribe Medical Clinic on the Kainai reserve in Standoff, Alta., told Alberta Native News that the report shows the UCP government’s approach to the drug poisoning crisis is a failure.

In 2019, the UCP’s first year in power, there was an "immediate spike in mortality" for First Nations people who experienced drug poisoning, Dr. Tailfeathers noted, with the rate per 100,000 people increasing to 70 from 62, while the rate decreased for non-First Nations people to 11 from 16.

From 2019 to 2021, the opioid poisoning mortality rate skyrocketed for First Nations people to 224 from 70—a 219 per cent increase—whereas for non-First Nations people it increased to 26 from 11—a 136 per cent increase.

"There should be somebody saying, 'what are we doing wrong here?' And there is nobody saying that," said Tailfeathers.

In 2022, 41 per cent of unintentional opioid overdose deaths among First Nations people were in Edmonton and 23 per cent were in Calgary. For non-First Nations people, 36 per cent occurred in Edmonton and 37 per cent in Calgary.

Eight per cent of accidental opioid poisoning deaths among First Nations people occurred in Lethbridge, with another eight per cent occurring elsewhere in Alberta Health Services’ South Zone, which includes Blood Tribe. For non-First Nations people, those figures were four per cent and one per cent, respectively.

Fentanyl’s prominence as the substance causing overdoses among First Nations has increased over the six years examined in the report.

In 2016, 44 per cent of accidental opioid overdoses among First Nations people were caused by fentanyl, compared to 66 per cent for the non-First Nations population. By 2022, that figure was 96 per cent for First Nations and 94 per cent for non-First Nations.

Meanwhile, the provincial government remains committed to its recovery-focused approach to addressing the drug poisoning crisis while Premier Danielle Smith spreads misinformation about harm reduction measures, such as safe supply.

Dr. Tailfeathers notes that safe supply already exists for pharmaceutical opioids and has been proven to reduce overdoses substantially, but the premier doesn’t appear interested in engaging with experts on this subject, with fatal consequences for First Nations people.

"This government not only doesn't care that the mortality rate is rising, but they're very negligent in the health care and delivery of care to Indigenous people," Tailfeathers said. "If I was a chief or a group of chiefs, I would probably look at a class action suit against this government, because Indigenous people are dying in great numbers and nobody is alarmed by it."

In a statement to APTN News, Hunter Baril, press secretary for Addiction and Mental Health Minister Dan Williams, blamed the federal government for the disproportionately high rate of drug poisoning among First Nations people.

"Unfortunately, the federal government has ignored their responsibility of providing care for First Nations, which has left a gap in their ability to access cultural-based treatment and recovery," Baril wrote. "Recognizing this, our government is investing more than $180 million to support the building of five recovery communities in partnership with Indigenous communities."

The government has recovery communities slated for the Blood Tribe, Enoch Cree Nation, Siksika and Tsuut’ina lands. It’s unclear where the fifth community Baril referenced is located.

The Blood Tribe facility, according to the Government of Alberta website, is under construction. But Tailfeathers, who lives nearby, says that’s incorrect.

"There's nothing. There's not even a shovel in the ground. There's been no infrastructure development. It’s like a promise with nothing but an empty field," she said.

Even when the recovery centre is built, it will take additional time and funds to hire and train local staff, and develop programming.

"There's not been any consultation or engagement with the community on what they want to see as part of their treatment center or part of the treatment program," Tailfeathers added. 

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