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North Island First Nations declare state of emergency after 11 deaths in 2 months

The Gwa’Sala-Nakwaxda’xw First Nation (GNN) on the North Island is mourning the loss of 11 people in the first two months of the year and have declared a state of emergency over the losses.

The Nation says many of those who died were youth, and many of the deaths involved drugs or alcohol.

Paddy Walkus, a councillor and hereditary chief for Gwa’Sala-Nakwaxda’xw First Nation, says there is extreme fear in the community due to the number of deaths.

“There is extreme fear. I’ve been so hesitant to pick up my phone. We just share one death has happened, and through the day there’s reports that there’s another death,” Walkus said. “I know people are reeling, there’s a lot of distress and despair amongst young people.”

Walkus says his daughter was one of the 11 people who died in the past few months. She died on Feb. 10 at the age of 46.

“My daughter, in the case with her, she had attempted to make some ways to address her issues with alcohol,” Walkus said.

“It takes six weeks to six months to get into any kind of treatment, so she basically gave up and actually died from from the alcohol,” he said.

“One is too many. Eleven you can’t even compare the pain and agony to the families,” said Walkus.

The other deaths were young people in their 20s and one boy was 16 years old.

Walkus says it’s tragic to have so many deaths at once when the community had done so much work to cut down alcohol abuse.

State of emergency

The Nation’s chief administrative officer says the Gwa’Sala-Nakwaxda’xw First Nation has a population of about 600 people.

On Thursday, it issued a state of emergency over the recent deaths.

In the state of emergency, the Nation calls on the RCMP to do more to enforce bylaws and council resolutions to address drugs in the community.

“The RCMP have been reluctant to work with GNN in enforcing GNN bylaws and council resolutions to restrict or remove drug dealers to try and prevent dealers from bringing deadly drugs into the community,” the emergency declaration says.

“Council calls on the RCMP to fully commit to working with GNN to enforce GNN bylaws and resolutions and to help protect the community from drug dealers and suppliers of alcohol.”

RCMP says it is committed to working to address the issue.

“We remain committed to working with the communities and our partner agencies to develop and implement long term strategies to address the use of illicit drugs, and hold those that traffic drugs accountable,” RCMP said in an email statement.

“In efforts to disrupt the illegal drug trade in the community, Port Hardy RCMP has prioritized enforcement of illegal drug activity and has successfully arrested charged individuals in the last year.”

The statement says additional policing resources have been deployed to the community.

Additionally, Jennifer Whiteside, Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, says the loss the Nation is facing is “devastating.”

“The toxic drug and mental health crises continue to have a disproportionate impact on First Nation communities in B.C., in part due to the ongoing and intergenerational trauma associated with colonialism and racism,” Whiteside said in an email statement Friday.

“We are committed to working alongside the Nations to help them through this difficult time and build a better future for their youth and members.”

Patricia Corbett-Labatt, Mayor of neighbouring Port Hardy, says the community is on edge due to the high number of deaths.

“I was at a meeting with a number of people the other day, and we heard three ambulances go by,” she said. “And the conversation stopped every time because we all thought, ‘What does that mean?’ And it’s scary. It’s a tough way to live.”

She says the community needs 24/7 support, more support for youth, cultural and safe supports, and culturally safe supportive housing.

CHEK News reached out to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and was told they may have a response by Monday.

-With files from CHEK’s Dean Stoltz

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