Reserve police powerless to stop flow of drugs
AUTHORITIES IN ATTAWAPISKAT FACE AN INFLUX OF DRUGS SMUGGLED INTO THIS RESERVE HIDDEN IN CLOTHING, TOYS AND BABY BLANKETS
Each winter in northern Ontario, a 300-kilometre ice road that connects Attawapiskat to the rest of the world becomes a pipeline for drug smugglers and bootleggers who conceal contraband in engine compartments, diaper bags, even in children’s Ski-Doo pants.
The only other way into the town — in the headlines recently for a massive suicide and overdose crisis — is by plane. Drug couriers have flown in to the local airport with narcotics stuffed in their pockets, shoes and carry-on bags, police say. Pills are also sent into northern communities by mail, sometimes hidden in children’s toys or sewn into the seams of baby blankets.
“We’re working hard to try to intercept, but some of it is going to get through; you won’t get it all,” acknowledges Terry Armstrong, chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, the largest First Nations law enforcement agency in Canada, with 35 detachments across northern Ontario, including one in Attawapiskat.
Police know of 12 drug dealers in Attawapiskat, individuals who arrange drug shipments by plane, car or mail, then distribute them. Payments are typically made through bank transfers, though it is not unheard of for suppliers to travel up north to settle debts.
But drug dealers are not the only source. It is not uncommon for residents, in the interest of turning a quick profit, to sell their prescription pills and “live with the pain,” Armstrong says.
In fact, the most common substances police encounter are pain relievers, such as OxyContin and Percocet, as well as amphetamines and marijuana. Occasionally, officers will find cocaine, and recently, they’ve seen fentanyl creep in.
Drug prices up north can be as much as five times higher than in the south; police declined to say what the going rates are now, but said a single OxyContin pill has fetched $400 in the past. It raises the question of how residents can afford it.
Nishnawbe-Aski police Insp. Eric Cheechoo says some residents will put some of their government assistance money toward drugs. Others will steal items from homes, re-sell them, then use the money for drugs.
Adds Armstrong: “Presumptively, kids (are) going without boots, houses (are) going without a fridge full of food.”
Police suspect the youths involved in the recent rash of suicide attempts likely did not buy their drugs, but simply stole them or found them lying unsecured in the home.
Cheechoo says the number of attempted suicides — including 11 in a 24-hour time span this month — caught officers off-guard.
“We weren’t prepared to have so many attempted suicides, so many youth thinking about suicide all in one weekend,” he says.
“You’ve read about all the different problems, the lack of recreation, lack of something to do. It was sad to see the desperation in the children.”
The crisis has brought promises from provincial and federal officials of more mental health support. Police say they, too, are desperate for extra support to deal with the illicit drug trade.
Cheechoo says he lacks the investigative resources to go after the dealers.
“We know where they live. But gathering evidence to bang on the door, there are so many roadblocks,” he says.
Investigators typically have to apply for a warrant over the phone and send supporting documents to a justice of the peace via fax, which slows things down.
A spokesman for Ontario’s attorney general said justices of the peace are available 24/7 to consider warrant applications over the phone and the process can sometimes be more efficient than doing it in person.
Conducting covert surveillance on an individual is also fraught with challenges since everyone knows everyone in the community, Cheechoo says.
“Our officers are all reactive, there’s very little time, most of the time, (to be) proactive.”
Armstrong says he has 132 officers spread across northern Ontario, but could use 52 more to shore up the front lines and to create specialized investigative units. Currently, he has only one drug sergeant and one drug constable on the entire force.
“We’re underfunded, under-resourced,” he says. “Something’s got to give. … We’re so behind right now.”
A spokesman for Public Safety Canada, which provides 52 per cent of the police service’s $24-million annual funding, says the current agreement is effective until 2018. As the
SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE. … WE’RE SO BEHIND RIGHT NOW.
renewal date approaches, consideration will be given to updating First Nations policing policy and learning from experiences.
Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety, which provides the remaining 48 per cent of the funding, supplements that with various grants, a spokeswoman said. The Ontario Provincial Police also provides support with its specialized resources.
In the meantime, the Nishnawbe-Aski police say they are doing what they can to curb the drug trade. During the winter, they carry out vehicle stops along the ice road looking for contraband.
Recently they brought a sniffer dog to a postal outlet in Dryden, Ont., to try to intercept contraband-laden packages destined for northern fly-in communities.
Among the items officers seized: gabapentin pills used to treat neuropathic pain and seizures; “shatter,” a derivative of marijuana that resembles peanut brittle; marijuana cupcakes and suckers; and alcohol.
“We do the best the can with what we have,” Armstrong says. “We could do a lot more.”