“A seven-year-old tried to commit suicide in our community two months ago,” said Philip Chief, director of operations, Onion Lake Cree Nation (OLCN). “There are a lot of young people that see no hope.”
OLCN has three townships spanning 188,000 acres and is home to about 4,000 people.
“Over half are under the age of 30 and over half are not employed,” said Chief in a phone interview Jan. 27.
With no hope in sight, young people are turning to drugs, gangs and crime.
“This meth is like smallpox back in the day,” said Chief. “It’s destroying families. It’s just destroying everyone. That’s why Onion Lake took a stand. We are doing whatever it takes.”
State of emergency measures working
Jan. 24, OLCN declared a state of emergency setting up check stops and blockading roads after a rash of drug and gang-related activity that led to increased violence in the community.
“We have a lot of RCMP presence within the community,” said Chief. “On top of that we went from seven security on staff to 36 and we went from two running (security) units to now having nine running units.”
In addition, two drug houses known for gang activity have been taken down.
“The leadership was present at each of these evictions, making sure that they understand ‘Onion Lake means business.’”
So far the measures seem to be working.
“There is a sense of comfort now and you can see, at the local restaurants where there is a lot of talk, that this is something good for the community.”
Keeping the community functioning as normal as possible is crucial and scheduled sporting events haven’t been cancelled.
“Alberta Minor Hockey Association was a bit concerned for their teams coming into our community,” said Chief. “I spoke to the commissioner for the Alberta minor hockey association and reassured them that Onion Lake is taking all necessary steps and measures and mitigating this current situation.”
The Alberta hockey minor hockey teams played over the weekend in Onion Lake without incident.
“They have enjoyed the atmosphere. We livened up our arena and surprisingly we had more than the usual (crowd) show up to support our local hockey teams.”
The OLCN leadership and incident management team went to all four schools on the reserve, meeting with staff and students at assemblies.
“We explained what the state of emergency declaration means and why we did it and what the incident management team does. We reassured them their safety and security is of the utmost priority to our leadership.”
Chief said the band leadership sees children coming to school neglected and malnourished, or some don’t come at all.
“We send truant officers in.”
Addressing social underlying social issues
Still, there’s a bigger problem OLCN needs to fix, said Chief.
“It’s not just about getting kids to school, it’s getting the families the help they need.”
To that end, OLCN purchased a 49-person dormitory from a camp service out of Alberta. Once it arrives in the next couple of weeks it will be converted into rooms, showers, bathroom areas, as well as meeting and office space.
“This is something we are spending our own money for because we know the urgency. This is going to provide immediate safe homes for people wanting to not only get out of the gang activity but to (break) addictions.”
Meeting with neighbouring bands to share information
Jan. 28, OLCN is meeting with neighbouring bands to share information, provide support and create an alliance document to help other bands tackling the same issues.
“They are dealing with the same crisis we have.”
Chief said as soon as one band cracks down on gang activity the gangs tend to move to other reserves.
OLCN’s wellness team is also preparing a living document for Okimaw (Chief) Henry Lewis to take to Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services in Ottawa Jan. 29.
The OLCN leadership said it wants the federal and provincial governments to step in and help Onion Lake deal with its increasing drug and gang-related problems.
“The RCMP is working hard and trying their best but they need more help,” said OLCN Okimaw Henry Lewis in a statement Jan. 24. “Their resources are stretched too thin and our community needs the support of both levels of government before it gets worse.”
Province of Saskatchewan responds
Jennifer Graham, Government of Saskatchewan, Senior Communications Consultant, Communications Branch, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Corrections and Policing, said the Government of Saskatchewan has been in discussions with the RCMP on the state of emergency in OLCN and takes concerns about gang violence in the community seriously.
“The RCMP have advised that the Crime Reduction Team has been deployed to the area to help address immediate public safety concerns,” said Graham in an email interview Jan. 28.
“Last March, our government announced our Gang Violence Reduction Strategy. This strategy includes the Community Intervention Model, which is operated by Str8-Up and Regina Treaty Status Indian Services Inc. that provides intervention and prevention services to help people leave gangs and reintegrate back into their communities. The strategy also includes expanding addictions supports in our correctional facilities, reallocating provincially funded police units to Crime Reduction Teams in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert, and improving intelligence gathering and sharing between police agencies.
“Also, as with any resident of Saskatchewan, Onion Lake Cree Nation residents have access to all provincially-funded services to address substance misuse, including detox, outpatient, inpatient and harm reduction services,” added Graham. “There are 150 provincially-funded detox beds located across the province.”
What led to the state of emergency
On Jan. 21, the community experienced what are believed to be drug and gang-related occurrences. In the early afternoon, RCMP were involved in a high-speed chase through the community. Within a few hours of the chase, the body of a missing man was discovered by a search and rescue crew combing an area situated near the community of Onion Lake. Braden Bull was reported missing Jan. 17. His body was found Jan. 21 close to Highway 797 in the Onion Lake Cree Nation. The RCMP Major Crimes Unit is investigating.
Later the same evening, after a community hockey game at the OLCN arena, a stolen vehicle lost control while speeding into the community and drove into the parking lot of the arena. The vehicle collided into the building and caused extensive damage. Local officials found what they believed to be gang-affiliated graffiti inside the vehicle.
Also, in the last two months, there were two deaths directly related to drug and gang activity.
Currently the local RCMP detachment has experienced above-average monthly open case files. OLCN leadership is urgently calling on the provincial and federal Crown for the assistance and protection promised in the Treaty.
“This problem has been steadily increasing over the last year and it is now to the point that we are having three very serious and scary incidences happening in one day,” said Lewis. “Everyone is stretched to their limits. We need the government to come to our tables and help us create a gang strategy and find solutions that will work for our nation. We need to increase policing resources, bring in external gang units or whatever is necessary to help our community members feel safe.”
Chief said OLCN is prepared to stay in a state of emergency indefinitely.
“We will stay in a state of emergency as long as it takes. The leadership are adamant.”