Elder Watson Kaquitts aims to bring traditional and cultural teachings of the Stoney Nakoda people to a virtual info session about the opioid crisis Feb. 16.
Kaquitts, who has lost two sons to opioid overdose, has spent years speaking out about the crisis plaguing First Nations families in his community.
"We've lost quite a few people, including my two sons, and that was why I was trying to do something about it," he said. "That's why I try to gather people to come to these meetings because not one person can fix this, we all have to try and do something about it."
According to a June 2021 report from the Government of Alberta and the Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre, First Nations people represent approximately six per cent of the Alberta population, yet they represented 22 per cent of all opioid poisoning deaths in the first six months of 2020 — up from 14 per cent in 2016.
Kaquitt's son, Devalon Powderface, died in 2016 at the age of 40 and more recently, his son Orville Powderface died in 2019 at the age of 46.
Kaquitts said that according to medical examiners, both had traces of fentanyl in their system at the time of their deaths.
"After that, I started thinking about how am I going to help my community and do what I can to save lives — even one person."
Having previously served as a councillor with Stoney Tribal Administration in 1992, the elder said council was aware of a drug problem on the reserve at that time.
"We started to notice that more and more people were getting into it because the doctors would just give it to them," he said. "Later, probably after 1995, we started to talk about how we can stop the doctors from giving opioids to people."
Now, he said, people don't need to see a doctor to get the drugs. They're trafficked on the street or made at home.
The session on Feb. 16 will be a continuation of ongoing discussions and research about the opioid crisis that Kaquitts started prior to COVID-19.
As a residential school survivor, the elder said it would be ignorant to bring up drug and alcohol abuse without mentioning the generational trauma many Indigenous people have endured at the hands of the residential school system.
"People blame residential schools for the way our people live now, with drugs and that, and that's a ripple effect from residential schools," said Kaquitts, who has grappled with his own alcohol abuse in the past.
Money, too, plays a factor. According to Kaquitts, there was an influx of deaths around the time Stoney Nakoda received royalty payment distributions in September.
Others, he added, point the finger at chief and council.
"When something like this happens we look for something to blame or somebody to blame," said Kaquitts. "I think it could be all of the above."
By engaging all levels of the community in conversation, especially Stoney Nakoda's younger generations, the elder is hopeful they can find a path forward that involves reconnecting Stoney people with their culture, and he will be bringing some elder teachings to the virtual info session.
"When we were growing up, when we were boys, we were told that all different kinds of trees grow together — all different colours, white, brown, black; different trees like spruce, Douglas Fir and pine — and they don't hate each other," said Kaquitts. "They help each other when the wind is blowing really hard and they lean on each other so the wind doesn't knock them down."
The elder and others have made a point of visiting the homes of those who have lost a loved one to drugs or alcohol just to sit, talk, cry and pray with them.
"We're doing whatever we can to try to help our community cope with this," he said.
Stoney Nakoda member Eve Powder lost her 29-year-old daughter, Christa-Lee, to a methamphetamine overdose in December 2017, and has also made it part of her life's mission since to raise awareness about the ongoing crisis.
She puts on an annual drug overdose awareness walk in honour of her daughter each September, along with a balloon release in August.
"At the last balloon release ceremony, I said that people need to come out, people need to step forward," said Powder. "I know they're scared, but there's a lot of people out there — including myself — who are willing to help get drugs off the reserve that's killing our people, especially our younger generations."
Trevor Tailfeathers, Stoney Health Services' Mînî Thnî support (formerly crisis support) coordinator said they often find that members of the reserve are too intimidated to seek help with their addiction.
"We're here to help point them in the right direction," said Tailfeathers. "We have the resources and the capacity so that once an individual walks through our door, we have can push them in the right direction — whether it's an addiction, a child custody dispute, a divorce or spousal dispute, a need for temporary housing or food resources.
"We make it very accessible for the population to access the resources that are out there because, to be quite honest, most people don't know that help exists, nor how to access it. We have the ability to help we just need people to walk through the door."
The opening of an RCMP community office five-minutes from Morley in 2019 has made some difference in keeping drugs off the reserve said Tailfeathers, as the response time from Cochrane RCMP created a quality of service that was lacking up until that point based on distance alone.
Late last year, Stoney Tribal Administration also created a drug overdose task force at the appointment of chief and council to help combat the trafficking of illegal drugs in the community.
The task force is led by chair Lisa Wynands and the Eagle will be discussing the opioid crisis with her and Stoney Health Services executive director Aaron Khan in an upcoming article which will include figures around the number of related deaths that have impacted Stoney Nakoda in recent years.
All Stoney Nakoda community members are welcome and encouraged to join the Mînî Thnî support team info session hosted by elder Watson Kaquitts Feb. 16. Details can be found on the event's Facebook page.