What a crystal meth crisis in an Indigenous community says about mental health and climate change

A wildfire that ravaged the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in 2015 destroyed homes and torched the forest around the small community located three hours north of Saskatoon. More than 1,000 residents were forced to evacuate for weeks to emergency centres in larger, unfamiliar cities.

Upon his return back to the community to assess the damage, it was clear to then-chief Edward Henderson that moving forward would be difficult.

“It’s going to be a lot of mental toll on our people,” Henderson said at the time.

Four years later, that has manifested in what local health director Clifford Bird described this week as a crystal meth addiction crisis affecting 600 Montreal Lake members, around half of the population.

The situation not only highlights the rise in reported meth use and deaths across Canada, but it also points to the lasting psychological impacts that a rise in extreme weather can have on people living in a changing climate, especially for Indigenous communities.

Bird said the evacuation and displacement experienced by his community was the catalyst for the new meth addictions, which only continued to get worse once people returned home.

“Prior to 2015, we had a very minimal crystal methamphetamine problem, and in fact, it was flying below everybody’s radar so it wasn’t really a concern,” Bird told Global News over the phone from the Montreal Lake medical centre.

He said that many people were first introduced to the drug while living temporarily in larger cities, such as Regina and Prince Albert.

“That’s where a lot of that started. But now, it’s such a good high, that’s what we’re hearing. It’s one of the best highs people have experienced. It’s cheap,” Bird said. “For a little bit of money, they can remain high for an extended period of time.”

Bird said the community has long dealt with alcohol addiction.

“It’s been the scourge of the nation. And we still have an alcohol problem,” he said. “However, crystal meth brings with it a lot more negative physical and sociological damages that alcohol didn’t necessarily bring with it, immediately anyway.

“It’s actually dwarfed what alcohol is doing at this time.”

Bird also said that these addiction issues are tied to many years of trauma going back to the legacy of the abuses within the residential school system.

Three years ago, shortly after the evacuation, Bird led a crisis response team in the community.

“In the first year, we had over 220 suicide attempts. The number 1 cause was adverse childhood experience,” Bird said. “We recognize that it’s no different from (the reasons for using) crystal meth.”

He said that the community is implementing a suicide crisis hotline and addictions treatment programs.

The situation in Montreal Lake mirrors what members of First Nations communities in Island Lake, in the neighbouring province of Manitoba, experienced after an evacuation in 2017. Like in Montreal Lake, they were forced to evacuate due to a raging wildfire.

A year later, Island Lake woman Maureen Wood led a walk from northern Manitoba to Ottawa to raise awareness about the rising rates of meth use and addiction within Island Lake following the evacuation to cities such as Winnipeg. The group also called on the provincial and federal governments to boost resources for treatment.

Before they got evacuated from the fire, they didn’t know crystal meth, they didn’t know cocaine, they didn’t know the harder drugs,” Wood told Global News. “Even until this day, after the walk, it’s still bad.”

For Mae Katt, a member of the Temagami First Nation who is a nurse practitioner based in Thunder Bay, Ont., the evacuation and displacement of a community can expose pre-existing addictions rooted in intergenerational trauma. And that context is important, she said.

“I think what the evacuation has shown you is that you have this vulnerable population that is so susceptible to drugs,” Katt told Global News. “I think there’s lots of historical trauma that happens to all these communities. And the fact that they got their hands on crystal meth has created what they call the crystal meth epidemic.”

Katt said that the situation in Montreal Lake parallels the experience of some people from another First Nations community in northwestern Ontario that was evacuated in 2011 due to fires.

The evacuees were sent to Ottawa. When they went to Ottawa, they all went into opioid withdrawal,” Katt said. “They had located them across the street from a liquor store in a college dorm. That was the first time that anybody in the city understood that there was addiction in these northern remote communities, although their chiefs had been saying it for years.”

That spurred Katt and her team to travel to the community to administer Suboxone, an opioid replacement therapy, for those who wanted it. Since then, Katt has expanded that Suboxone program to 22 communities across northern Ontario.

“The evacuation, what it has done is shown that there’s a problem,” Katt said.

A qualitative study published earlier this year found that wildfire evacuations have distinct impacts on Indigenous communities and recommends that culturally appropriate accommodations be provided in the event of a mandatory evacuation.

University of Alberta researchers interviewed members of the Mishkeegogamang Ojibway First Nation, about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, who were forced to leave their homes in 2011 due to wildfires.

“Within an evacuation, often it’s RCMP who would go to the door to tell people to leave so one of the residents essentially said that that seemed like it would be similar to the residential school experience,” lead researcher Tara McGee told CBC. “There was also a strong desire of people to want to stay home within (Mishkeegogamang) and within the traditional territory to be able to carry out their usual activities.”

In the event of an evacuation of Indigenous communities, the report recommends relocation to places within the traditional territory, if possible, or to other Indigenous communities.

Though there are notable differences when it comes to the displacement of non-Indigenous communities, there is a growing body of research that shows a link between rising rates of mental health issues and substance addiction among those who experience extreme weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires.

The wildfires in and around Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016 resulted in the evacuation of around 90,000 people, one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history. Thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed, and the community continues to struggle to rebuild.

Vincent Agyapong, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Alberta, has been studying the mental health of residents of Fort McMurray who were forced to flee.

His research, published last year and based on hundreds of surveys of people who access a local clinic, showed a striking spike in rates of depression, drug and alcohol use and other mental health concerns in the months following the wildfire and evacuation.

“Twelve per cent of the population that was surveyed indicated that their alcohol use had increased, so they self-identified that they were drinking much more than prior to the wildfire,” Agyapong told Global News. “And you have about 2.9 per cent of the population indicating that their drug use had increased after the wildfire.”

years after Fort McMurray wildfire, rebuild continues

The research also found a correlation with the impacts of the wildfire and diagnoses for major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Agyapong added that though he does not have exact baseline figures for drug and alcohol use prior to the fires, self-reported information is usually an underestimate of the true scope.

Agyapong pointed out that there was an initial boost of resources for Fort McMurray residents, including additional mental health and addictions counsellors. And support found through family and friends is an important solution in the long term. 

“We know that the mental health effects continue,” he said. “People continue to be significantly impacted.”

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