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Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni unveils toxic drug strategy

Port Alberni needs detox and recovery facility, say advocates

Just one week after the BC Coroners Service announced that 2023 was the worst year for fatal toxic drug poisonings in the province’s history, Port Alberni’s Tseshaht First Nation brought their community together to talk about solutions.

Frontline workers, government representatives, First Nations members and people with lived experience gathered at Maht Mahs Gym on Tseshaht First Nation territory on Wednesday, Jan. 31 as the nation presented their strategy for responding to the crisis of toxic poisoned drugs. One of their priority actions includes the construction of a local detox and recovery facility.

The strategy came out of a few engagement sessions last year, where Tseshaht invited stakeholders and community leaders to discuss the issue. All of their feedback was put together into one comprehensive strategy, said Tseshaht elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts).

“The reason we did this, as Tseshaht, is we all know we’re in a crisis,” said Watts. “We didn’t have a very clear path on how we’re going to get there and address it.”

On Wednesday, Jan. 24, the BC Coroners Service released a report that said 2,511 people died in 2023 as a result of the unregulated drug crisis, a record-breaking number. According to the same report, 37 people died in the Alberni-Clayoquot region in 2023 from toxic drug overdoses, also a new record.

READ MORE: 2023 was the worst year for fatal toxic drug poisonings in B.C. history

The document that Tseshaht First Nation has created in response to the crisis provides “a very clear, strategic approach,” said Watts, but it also provides a document that can be brought forward to the provincial and federal governments to ask for support.

Port Alberni is in a “unique situation” said Watts, in that there are already so many groups working together on the crisis.

“There’s other parts of the province and across the country where you wouldn’t see a meeting like this happen,” he said.

The strategy is built around four pillars: people, places, programs and prevention. It is guided by a “Two-Eyed Seeing” approach that integrates both traditional Indigenous and modern Western knowledge systems in a way that respects and balances both cultural perspectives.

One of the biggest priority actions in the strategy is advocating for a fully funded detox and recovery facility in the Alberni Valley that is timely and barrier-free—both of which are “critical” points, said Ron Merk, the co-chair of Port Alberni’s Community Action Team.

“Dealing with substance disorders is something that needs immediate attention,” he said.

Les Doiron, the vice-president of Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, agreed. He recalled his nephew Charles approaching him two years ago and asking to be admitted to a detox facility. Doiron started making calls, but couldn’t find anything available for his nephew. By the next day, his nephew was dead.

“There’s nothing you can do, unless you’re really, really lucky,” said Doiron. “Unless you’ve got that winning lotto ticket in your hand, there isn’t a place you’re going to walk into.”

Other priorities in the strategy include housing support, prevention programs for youth, cultural training for first responders and community education. Merk says that putting all of the priorities together is a critical piece of the puzzle.

“The complexities of the crisis make it so that it’s not possible to solve this by just doing one, or two, or even half a dozen things,” he said. “It has to be all together.”

Several people took the opportunity on Wednesday to share their own stories of friends and family members struggling with addiction.

“[Charles] brought so much laughter, joy and love to everyone that came in his path,” said Doiron, recalling his nephew. “Those people that are down there, they’re someone’s kid. They’re people.”

Alice Sam, a support worker with Kuu-us Crisis Line, talked about frontline workers struggling with their own mental health in response to the crisis.

“We have the privilege of living our lives with our families, our homes, our houses, our aunts and uncles and our grandpas and our grandmas,” she said. “Our homeless don’t have that privilege.”

Now that the strategy is complete, Watts says the goal is to get as much support for it as possible, then lobby higher levels of government to provide the resources to start the work. Tseshaht First Nation has provided a draft resolution for local governments to pass supporting the strategy, and they also have a draft letter of support and a declaration of commitment for community members to sign.

“This isn’t just an Indigenous issue,” said Watts. “This isn’t just a Port Alberni issue. This is a human issue, and it deserves all of our thoughts and our minds coming together.”

The draft strategy document can be found on Tseshaht’s website at under the “Programs and Services” tab.

Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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