Kainai Nation, opioids and

the children left behind

Theresa McNabb and her husband Rickey Whitemanleft have a house filled with life. Theresa’s daughter and children are watching TV, kids are making themselves a snack and moving back and forth between their bedrooms and the living room. It’s a snow day so the whole family is around.


Although it is a cozy scene, it isn’t quite the life Whitemanleft and McNabb had imagined for themselves. There’s two teenagers at home, as well as some adult children living with them due to the housing shortage on Kainai/Blood Tribe First Nation.


The Kainai First Nation, also known as the Blood Tribe is a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Southern Alberta. The community is the largest reserve in Canada.


The two grandparents, who are both in their 50s are also raising a young girl, age 11 who came to live with McNabb and Whitemanleft after their niece died from an opioid overdose.


“I never thought I would be raising my grandkids. We never discussed it, it just happened you don’t plan for that,” said McNabb.


“But now we see where this is going as grandparents and what we need to do to keep them away from drugs and alcohol. Keep them going to school.”


Young people are disproportionately affected by opioid drug poisoning deaths in Alberta. The government has called the epidemic of addictions a “complex issue” and established a mental health and addictions council to provide recommendations to the premier for what they call “recovery-oriented” care which prioritizes treatment over other harm reduction methods.


The community has struggled with opioid deaths and drug poisonings for at least nine years. They first declared a state of emergency in 2015 over opioid deaths.


It started with fentanyl, an opioid up to 100 times more powerful than heroin, that has been used as a painkiller for terminal cancer patients.

Although there is not readily available opioid overdose deaths for the area, local funeral homes show on average six to eight young people, from the ages of 16 to 42 dying a month from Kainai Blood Tribe.


The obituaries do not state a cause of death. Still, across the province, data for 2023 shows that the 30-44 age range has the most drug poisoning deaths.


Data from the Alberta government shows that in 2023 in Lethbridge which is 62 km northeast from Stand Off, one of the townsite areas in Kainai, there were 10 drug poisoning deaths per month in 2023. Many Kainai community members live in Lethbridge.


The legacy of loss is a painful one for McNabb and Whitemanlft and they hope that by speaking out they can find other people to talk to as well.


“We feel guilty,” said Whitemanleft. Guilty about being left behind and wondering if they could have done more.


Whitemanleft’s niece was dragged over to the steps of her grandmother’s house and left there after her overdose.


“They didn’t even try to do CPR or anything. She was dragged from the dealer’s house. That is how she passed away,” said McNabb.

grandparents raising children due to opioid overdoses
Theresa McNabb and Rickey Whitemanleft at their home on Kainai/Blood First Nation

"They didn’t even try to do CPR or anything. She was dragged from the dealer’s house. That is how she passed away"​

Feeling alone


Whitemanleft had an illness four years ago that required him to learn to walk and talk all over again and he struggles with his speech at times. These days, McNabb does a lot of the speaking for them both.


The two met in residential school and have been together more than 40 years.


McNabb says that they have “lost count” of the number of family members lost due to addiction. The number includes her youngest son’s wife and the father of one of her grandchildren.


“We have lost a lot. I can’t even count them there’s too many. And we are the ones here that have to look after them…otherwise what is going to happen to them?” said McNabb.


Although it is a lonely feeling, McNabb and Whitemanleft are not alone in their struggles of raising young children in their older years.


“The loss we are dealing with right now. We can’t just get over it, it takes time and we feel that loss,” said McNabb.


Although it is a lonely feeling, McNabb and Whitemanleft are not alone in their struggles of raising young children in their older years.



“The loss we are dealing with right now. We can’t just get over it, it takes time and we feel that loss,” said McNabb.



Kainai Chief Roy Fox wrote as much in an affidavit.



“Given the impact of opioid deaths in our community, we have many orphaned children who are being raised by their grandparents of other relatives,” Fox wrote to Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.


The letter notes that the community has been seeking money under Jordan’s Principle, which required governments to cover the costs of services for First Nations children that would be available if they lived off reserve.

Rocky Mountains by Kainai/Blood Tribe

Last April, the First Nation announced that it would set up a special police team and clean up renovated or abandoned houses in the townsite area of Stand Off

Blood Tribe Harm Reduction Project house

Ivy Ann Big Head

Opioid death at home 


Ivy Big Head is another grandmother raising a child due to addiction. Big Head’s son and daughter-in-law overdosed on opioids in her house. Her son survived and is in recovery.  Big Head now raises her teenaged daughter on her own.


Big Head speaks to APTN inside of the Kainai Blood Tribe harm reduction house, where naxolone and food are distributed to people who drop in. She spoke about the difficult situation.


“I had four sons and now I only have two,” said Big Head.


She used to want them to return to the community.


“One of my biggest fears was that they would die out there on the street but I always prayed that [my sons] would come home. Well my prayers were answered but to me, they just came home to die,” said Big Head.


“Today I have a 14 year old granddaughter and she’s really suffering. She has problems that a 30 year old would have. That is what these children are walking around with right now.”


Big Head had her own brush with addiction and alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver. She now is sober and taking classes at Red Crow College. She relies on meditation and ceremony to stay away from alcohol. She still mourns the loss of some of her relationships from the time.


“I lost a lot of friends because they won’t stop doing what they are doing. One thing I learned is that you don’t put yourself in danger with your triggers,” said Big Head.


Big Head , who is also a residential school survivor, said she wants people to reclaim their language and way of life in order to heal.


“If you don’t have the language, how can you understand the prayers?” she said.

Daniel Crazy Bull and Randa Weasel Head

Seeking Funding

Daniel Crazy Bull and Randa Weasel Head are caring for their grandson, who has Downs Syndrome. He came into their care after their daughter began dating someone who was a drug user. She died of an opioid overdose, and he is now a teenager.

Weasel Head said that the death came as a surprise to her because her daughter had been a “hard working university student” before her death.

“My granddaughter passed away nine years ago. It was very sudden. He was doing opioids and cocaine with my daughter,” said Weasel Head.

Her daughter and the new boyfriend moved in with her.

“He had left my daughter that Saturday morning at 6 a.m. It was still dark,” Weasel Head recalls about the day that her daughter died.

Thinking she was sleeping in, Wesel Head sent her son downstairs to wake up his sister. But she had already died. 

“And here she had passed away on her boyfriend’s opiates. So that is how we ended up with Justin in our care,” said Weasel Head.

“It is a struggle for me and him,” said Weasel Head gesturing at her husband. “Because we are getting up there in our ages.”

The couple is both in their 60s and say that navigating life with a child with special needs is a particular challenge because Weasel Head suffers from Rheumatoid arthritis and Crazy Bull works in the local homeless shelter, which pays around minimum wage.

“You would think that children’s services [referring to the Kainai Blood Tribe department] would have all kinds of activities for them but I ended up with only $175 a month,” said Weasel Head.

“It is hard. [Crazy Bull] works. He is doing 12 hour shifts and has a bad back and a bad knee. He’s just a year away from being recognized as an elder,” she said.

Their son also passed away due to opioid poisioning in 2021. He left behind five kids who are being raised by their mothers.

“We get discouraged to go and ask for help at children’s services,” said Crazy Bull. He hopes that there would be more funding for people who have a disability.

Despite the family difficulties the couple, who have both been through addiction, still feel as though they want to help the people in the community.

“My wife and I have our certificates for addictions counselling and we really want to help our people,” said Crazy Bull.

APTN reached out to Chief Roy Fox and administration about funding but they were not able to respond before publication. There were a number of new deaths in the community, and four funerals planned in one week. 

The affidavit that Fox sent to the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society mentioned that the nation had submitted seven group requests for funding under Jordan’s Principle. The letter states that the requests made are not usually fully funded. 

The letter asks to have familial death and First Nations self-identified states of emergency considered an urgent request for funding.


This article is part one of a series