The chief of Attawapiskat First Nation has launched a personal war on illegal drugs because he says he is tired of waiting for others to deal with a problem that is destroying his small community in northern Ontario.
Chief Ignace Gull, who was elected in 2016 following a state of emergency triggered by a spate of youth suicides, says he’s using the authority under the Indian Act to search suspected drug dealers.
Gull and four other local officials search everyone who lands at the fly-in community’s airport, including local police officers.
“It’s a success so far,” the chief said Wednesday in a phone interview.
“These (drugs) are destroying the community.”
Police say the drugs come in through the airport or by mail.
Gull said he’s sick of waiting for police whose hands are tied by the weeks it often takes to get search warrants signed by a justice of the peace in Sudbury, Ont.
“Police can’t come to the homes without a search warrant, so I have to do it,” he said.
The chief began the searches on May 27, working with a small team that includes two councillors and two volunteers.
He brought in a drug-sniffing dog along with a handler and guard from a security company in Timmins, Ont., to help out on a recent three-day blitz.
They’ve seized fentanyl, speed, marijuana, other opioids and large shipments of alcohol, Gull said.
The community has been demanding action since the 2015 suicide crisis, Gull said, and drugs were part of the problem.
“The drug dealers aren’t hiding anymore, people just line up to get them, like getting coffee at Tim Hortons,” Gull said.
Since it’s a small community with about 1,500 people, Gull said they know the alleged dealers. So he just goes to their house, grabs the drugs and gives it to police.
“We need help, we want the government to step in and do something to help us instead of watching us from the sideline,” he said.
A few weeks ago, Gull met with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who told him to apply for funding that is available to help.
A spokesman for Goodale said they are aware of the challenges Attawapiskat faces and noted the federal government is investing $291.2 million over five years in a First Nations policing program.
“These investments include increased and ongoing funding for (program) recipients to support priorities such as additional officer positions, officer safety, policing equipment and salaries,” said Scott Bardsley.
He said the force for the region, Nishnawbe Aski police, recently finished a three-year deal through the program, which “will strengthen policing in Attawapiskat and bolster its response to these challenges.”
He said there is money available for crime prevention projects and for initiatives to reduce gang and gun violence.
“This funding would include a portion provided to Indigenous organizations to help build capacity through education, outreach and research, addressing the unique needs of Indigenous communities and urban populations,” Bardsley said.
Nishnawbe Aski police Sgt. Jackie George said the chief’s approach is common in northern First Nation communities.
Airport screenings are particularly effective at keeping drugs out of fly-in communities, she said.
“It keeps people from trafficking contraband into the communities because they know they’re going to be searched,” she said.
Last November, the Mushkegowuk Council, a regional organization that represents northern First Nations that includes Attawapiskat, declared a state of emergency on illegal drugs and alcohol.
“This pandemic has reached serious levels where it’s clearly destroying our people and communities,” said Grand Chief Jonathon Solomon at the time.
Chief Gull said he is considering buying a drug-sniffing dog to help.
“We can’t just sit around and wait for somebody to do it for us, we have to do it ourselves,” he said.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press