By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
EABAMETOONG FIRST NATION, Ont.–Children run loose at all hours of the day and night in Eabametoong First Nation as their parents hunt for their next “oxy” fix, or sleep in houses wiped clean of items holding any monetary value that have been pawned for more pills.
The fresh graves at the new cemetery offer more grim evidence of the darkness and death that has fallen on this small, fly-in northern Ontario community that sits about 300 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, says Anita Wabano, a local school teacher.
“We made a new gravesite down the road and there were a lot of new graves made just this year,” said Wabano. “So much death, it is devastating. I can feel it when I am out there walking around. I can feel the pain and the hurt.”
Wabano is one of the few local residents contacted by APTN National News Monday who was not afraid to allow her full name to be published. Some said they were afraid of repercussions if their names were linked to comments about their community.
Their experiences, however, echoed Wabano’s description of a community that has been hollowed out at the soul by prescription drug abuse, alcohol and gas sniffing.
One 21-year-old mother of two toddlers said she wanted to go “somewhere far from here.”
The band council recently announced a state of emergency for the reserve and now Indian Affairs and Health Canada officials are scheduled to land in the community Tuesday to get a first-hand look at the situation. A situation that Chief Lewis Nate said “has escalated out of control.”
Indian Affairs also announced they would be providing $25,000 for security-related equipment like walky-talkies and $50,000 to help the First Nation with the cost of hiring security officers.
The band recently hired 17 people from its own budget to support the five police officers in the community from the Nishnawbe-Aski police service. Tikinagan Child and Family Services is also providing funding for two more security personnel, said a spokeswoman for Indian Affairs.
In his national plea, Nate highlighted the murders in his community.
There have been two since the summer. Late last month, James Wasawa was stabbed to death. William Oskineegish, 27, was charged with second-degree murder.
In July, a 17-year-old was stabbed to death. A 16-year-old was charged with second degree murder.
These are not the only deaths that haunt Wabano. It’s the death of grandparents, struck down by heart-attacks because they’re overwhelmed by the pressure of raising grandchildren and watching their children dissolve into the crushed-pill powder.
Even great-grandparents are being forced to raise their great-grandchildren, she said.
“They have heart-attacks because they are too stressed out…The kids that have kids let their grandparents keep them even if they are over 65 years-old,” she said. “Everybody is helpless and the ones that don’t do drugs don’t have enough power to do anything because they are keeping their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.”
One 40-year-old woman, who only wanted to be identified as Rose, said she fears nightfall will bring another fire. There have been almost 50 arson incidents in the community this year. She keeps a wary eye on the charred and gutted remains of a nearby house where kids sometimes hide out to sniff gasoline.
“I think that part of the problem is that (the youth) witnessed the addiction in their parents and they lack good role models,” said Rose.
She says many here now live in fear.
“I know there is a certain feeling when these things happen, you feel like you want to leave this place, you just don’t feel like living here anymore with the things that are happening,” she said.
The 21-year-old mother of two said she also fears darkness will bring a Molotov cocktail, similar to the one that smashed through the window of the local Anglican reverend about a week ago.
“People are getting crazy here, crazier and crazier, probably because of the drugs,” she said.
She said OxyContin is easy to get in the community and it goes for $320 for one 80 mg pill.
“They’ll take them and use them,” she said. “(Buy it with) whatever income they have. Most parents let the kids go hungry.”
Nishnawbe-Aski police say OxyContin and Percoset are the two biggest drugs afflicting the community and they have a hard time stemming their flow despite the remoteness of the reserve.
Sgt. Jackie George said the drugs are easy to hide and are sent in a myriad of different ways, including through Canada Post, tucked in luggage, packages or hidden in the bodies of people flying into the community. She said that drugs are also transported by boat from other First Nations communities.
“You can hide a pill anywhere,” she said.
For Wabano, a glimmer of hope emerged this weekend when a Christian, three-day rally called a jamboree was held in the local gym.
“Usually, the first night, you will only see 10 people, but this jamboree was packed,” she said. “We had counselors come from out of town for trauma loss and self-esteem and on Saturday they did counseling for the families and the gym was just packed. That is how many people are reaching out for help.”