OxyContin abuse hits Canada First Nations communities

  • 28 March 2012
  • From the section Magazine

Addiction to prescription drugs is devastating Canada's First Nations peoples. Fort Hope, almost a three-hour flight north of Toronto, is one of the worst-affected communities.

Dave Waswa is a talented artist. He carves eagles from moose antlers. If he sold his art to a dealer he could make good money. But Mr Waswa has a serious addiction, and he uses his art to feed it.

One carving will get him five or six OxyContin pills - and in Fort Hope, home to the Eabametoong First Nation, just one 80mg tablet sells for between $400 and $600 (£250 and £376).

"It makes everything go away," Mr Waswa says of the prescription-only painkiller. "You don't have no feeling. You just want to stay high… But I'm tired of it. I lost a buddy last summer. He was 38 years old and took an overdose, went into a coma and never got up."

OxyContin is said to be as potent as heroin and twice as addictive. If it is prescribed by a doctor for the relief of chronic pain, it is taken orally and absorbed in the body over 12 hours. But people who abuse it, like Dave Waswa, crush the pill, then smoke, snort or inject it to get an immediate high.

Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, has recently stopped manufacturing the drug for Canada and replaced it with a formulation supposed to be more difficult to tamper with. The province of Ontario, in which Fort Hope is located, has also imposed tighter controls on prescriptions.

Meanwhile, it has been estimated that up to 80% of the working age population of Fort Hope is abusing the drug. Mr Waswa has been hooked for seven years. Now he wants out.

"I'm sick and tired of what Oxy's doing to me. It's taken a lot away from me. My kids, my parents, girlfriend, friends. I hurt a lot of people because of my addiction, and I'd like to try and change it," he says. "I'd like to see what it's like getting clean."

He is hoping to get help at the detox centre set up in Fort Hope by the local chief and council. It prescribes Suboxone, a drug used to wean addicts off OxyContin in the same way methadone is prescribed to heroin addicts. But the facility only has four beds, and there are 70 people on the waiting list.

Burned-out homes

Chief Harry Papah is worried. In 2010, Fort Hope declared a state of emergency as a result of the surge in addiction and the crime wave that followed, including two murders and 49 arson attacks.

"It was the first step we took to expose what we are going through, and it brought the community together," says the chief. "And it's not just us who are affected. So many other First Nations are dealing with the same issues."

Addiction to prescription drugs is a problem across Canada. But Chief Papah says First Nations communities are especially vulnerable.

"We're very isolated up here, and there are deep-rooted issues people are dealing with like abuse - in our families, or because we went to residential schools," he says, referring to thegovernment-sponsored schoolsthat separated aboriginal children from their parents in an effort to assimilate them.

The desire for the drug has had repercussions across the community. "People will do whatever they can to get that drug. They are stealing or selling off their own appliances," Chief Papah says.

"There are homes here that are empty: no TV, no furniture, and sometimes the kids are going hungry. We want parents to care for their children but they don't because they are hooked on OxyContin."

That lack of parenting means some young people are out of control, and the fallout is in evidence all around Fort Hope. Arson attacks have continued. The shell of a burnt-out police vehicle sits behind the police station. Buildings are blackened by the attempts to set them on fire, and house lots are often empty because a home has been razed to the ground.

Fort Hope's state of emergency brought in a temporary increase in police resources from the Ontario Provincial Police. Detective Staff Sgt Chris Lawrence, who heads up the force's Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau, believes far-flung First Nations communities like Fort Hope are being targeted by drug dealers.

"In cities like Toronto you can buy a hundred OxyContin pills for around $40 each. But if you get those up to Fort Hope, you can sell each one for around $500 or $600," he says. "The profit margins are ridiculous and organised crime groups recognise that."

'Shouting matches' for sobriety

OxyContin is a drug that is very difficult to give up. Doris Slipperjack is a 23-year-old recovering addict who has been in rehab, and is now taking Suboxone. She lives in Fort Hope with her three children. She used to spend all her welfare benefits on OxyContin.

"I had to live off my mom, and I would steal too from the store so my kids could eat," she remembers. "But now I'm not spending money on drugs, I buy groceries and things I never really had."

Ms Slipperjack believes her personal history made her vulnerable to addiction. She was abandoned by her birth parents as a baby, and brought up by Clara Nate and her husband. It is Clara Nate who Ms Slipperjack calls "mom", and who has pushed her to tackle her addiction.

"Sometimes I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a hole and forget this was happening to my daughter. But tough love was what was needed, and that's what I had to do with Doris," Ms Nate says. "We had a lot of shouting matches."

Ms Slipperjack says her support was critical.

"She never judged me, and she never gave up on me. She just kept coming at me and coming at me. I thought she would stop, but she didn't."

Not all of Fort Hope's addicts have the kind of family support that has made the difference for Doris Slipperjack. But she is optimistic her community can emerge from the scourge of dependence on OxyContin.

"More people are signing up for detox, and a lot of people are talking about it. And that's always the first step in overcoming an addiction - talking about it."