First Nation in BC declares state of emergency over ‘relentless’ effects of drugs and alcohol

The Ehattesaht First Nation on Vancouver Island's northwest coast has declared a state of emergency after several drug-related deaths.  ( - photo credit)

The Ehattesaht First Nation on Vancouver Island’s northwest coast has declared a state of emergency after several drug-related deaths. ( – photo credit)

On the phone from his Vancouver Island home, Chief Simon John says he has no script to speak from.

But he’s very frustrated.

The Ehattesaht First Nation chief joined the nation’s council on Thursday to declare a state of emergency in the community.

A statement cited the “relentless” influence of drugs and alcohol on Ehattesaht, along with “the intergenerational impact of boarding schools and the oppression of the systems that federal and provincial governments have created.”

The text of the statement says it aims to “elicit the immediate and committed response the nation needs from federal and provincial governments to alleviate the suffering this is causing.” [is] felt in the Ehattesaht family.”

“We have many different governments that actually own who we are as a people… The thing is, these things can’t even work together on one thing to actually produce an outcome,” John said.

“It’s definitely frustrating.”

John explains that solutions proposed by various government agencies have not helped Ehattesaht.

He wants answers that are relevant to the people there, whose band office is in Zeballos, a small, remote community on a rugged bay on Vancouver Island’s west coast.

“We’re very isolated and we’re very West Coast people at heart,” John said.

6 teenagers died

Ehattesaht is one of 14 Nuu-chah-nulth nations on Vancouver Island with more than 500 registered members. Zeballos has about 120 inhabitants.

The ongoing drug crisis has resulted in deaths, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

The statement by the chief and council highlights that six young people from across the nation have died since then. John says they ranged from their early 20s to their early 30s.

“They’re actually basically my nieces and my nephews,” he said. He said one woman died in the community while the others were outside the community when they died.

The drug overdose crisis has claimed more than 11,000 lives in BC since the public health emergency was declared in 2016.

The First Nations Health Authority’s chief medical officer said tribal peoples are five times more likely to die from toxic drugs than the general population.

“It’s really hard to take”

John, himself a boarding school survivor, says the problems his nation is trying to solve go beyond drugs and alcohol. These include intergenerational trauma, the impact of boarding schools, community displacement and government inaction.

“We can create housing, but at the same time it’s taken 15 years for the government to actually sit down with us and start talking about it in a meaningful way,” he said, giving an example. “It’s really hard to take.”

The problems are not new.

“Living with it my whole life has certainly been a challenge,” he said. “But at the same time, I think there’s an opportunity for change.”

The province is committed to working with Ehattesaht

Murray Rankin, the Minister for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said in a statement he was committed to working with the Ehattesaht on a community-led response, particularly on housing and overdose deaths.

“My heart goes out to the Ehattesaht First Nation community for the loss of so many youth,” Rankin said. “Every life lost to toxic drugs is one too many.”

Rankin says the First Nations Health Authority is in touch with the community and that negotiations for a phased reconciliation agreement began about a year ago “that supports Ehattesaht’s vision and community priorities.”

“In that regard, we are currently working with Ehattesaht to identify priorities in support of healing and well-being both inside and outside the reserve for the nation’s members,” he said.

In the statement, the minister also says Island Health is working with the Ehattesaht and coordinating staff to respond.


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