Wisps of snow swirl across the narrow highway that gently rises and falls over rolling hills as you drive into Treaty 6 Territory north of Lloydminster. When you enter you’re greeted by a large red sign — depicting a teepee and an eagle clawing an arrow — that declares “Welcome to Onion Lake Cree Nation.”
A short distance further, on a snow-covered hill surrounded by bare trees, there’s another large sign that gives you a sense of the crisis facing Saskatchewan First Nations. In bold black lettering, it warns “Drug dealers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Alcohol is prohibited, search and seizures will be enforced.”
OLCN remains under a state of emergency since Jan. 24 after a string of gang- and drug-related violence that threatened the safety of its 4,000 residents.
As you approach what looks like a small village, you see another large sign with a prescription pain killer bottle surrounded by colourful pills. In Cree and English it says, “Opioids kill more than pain.”
Further ahead, in front of the Onion Lake Health Centre, stands a yellow biohazard locked steel box for the disposal of needles.
Dogs — most without collars — roam free, snarling and running on snow-packed dirt roads while they chase unfamiliar vehicles.
Broken-down vehicles litter huge yards on OLCN, which consists of 188,000 acres and three townships.
Rundown homes — many with smashed windows, debris piled on porches and the ground — dot the vast landscape.
Since declaring a state of emergency the leadership has boarded up 14 suspected meth houses and driven out those believed to be gang members. Onion Lake residents say the gangs include Westside Outlaws, Indian Posse and the Terror Squad.
In front of one empty home, a child’s stuffed toy lies face down on the road.
The measures taken after declaring a state of emergency have helped, but there are still gang members on OLCN, said band councillor Darryl Whitstone.
“It hasn’t stopped it but it has had some effect,” he said in an interview on Onion Lake March 13. “It’s like gophers. You kill them in one area and dozens more pop up.”
Quiet for now
The streets in Onion Lake seem deserted and only the occasional vehicle and a few residents can be seen.
“It’s pretty quiet right now, but I think the less activity is because of the coronavirus,” said Whitstone.
The check stops and road blocks that were started when a state of emergency was declared, continue. OLCN increased its security force from seven to 36 and went from two running security units to nine. A white truck with “Peacekeeper” on its tailgate slowly drives throughout the Cree Nation, its tires crunching over the snow in the crisp winter air.
A woman in her 50s, who wanted to give her first name only, said she was afraid of the increased gang and drug-related violence, but added it’s safer now with the additional security.
“It’s been quiet, which is awesome,” said Donna. “People are minding their own business. The only thing I pray for is that it stays like this.”
Still, she said she doesn’t agree with the leadership calling a state of emergency.
“I don’t approve. People are afraid to come here now.”
What’s really needed she said, are activities for the youth.
Whitstone agreed the youth need more to do. He said although having an arena for hockey helps, that only gives about 30 youth an activity.
“What about the kids that don’t play hockey?” he asked.
Whitstone said youth form the largest portion of OLCN’s population, adding that of course there will be problems when energetic youth have nothing to do and no jobs.
“If we had a proper economy in Onion Lake with everyone working that would help,” said Whitstone.
Philip Chief, director of operations for OLCN said more than half of their population are under the age of 30, and unemployed.
“There are a lot of young people that see no hope.”
And with no hope youth turn to drugs, gangs and crime.
Glimmers of Hope
In an isolated area of OLCN, infrastructure is being put in for the 49-person dormitory OLCN purchased from a camp service out of Alberta. It’s expected to be finished in three to five weeks. The trailers will provide immediate safe homes for those wanting to get out of gangs and break addictions.
So far OLCN has put out more than $1 million of its own money and they're calling on the federal government to provide about $16 million in additional support for housing and health care.
Okimaw (Chief) Henry Lewis took a living document to Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services in Ottawa in January. OLCN wants the federal government to step up and help them deal with the drug and gang-related problems plaguing the Cree Nation.
“The RCMP is working hard and trying their best, but they need more help,” said Lewis.
“Their resources are stretched too thin and our community needs the support of both levels of government before it gets worse.”
Rosa Tfaili from media relations, Indigenous Services Canada, said they met with OLCN on March 3 to discuss items including funding, Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care, housing and the state of emergency.
“OLCN has requested a multi-departmental working group in response to the state of emergency,” said Tfaili. “A joint committee was discussed, with the goal that the committee will support overall communications. All parties are finalizing their representation.”
Tfaili said on Feb. 11 OLCN submitted a request under Jordan’s Principle to support their health model. Their proposal is being reviewed.
To adequately manage the surge in capacity for mental health supports, the Non-insured health Benefit program committed to three additional full-time employees for local therapists, including operating expenses, said Tfaili.
In addition, ISC’s Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP) has confirmed more than three years for mental wellness and detox work from a joint proposal to SUAP with Health Canada.
“This aspect will be included in their current agreement for April 1,” said Tfaili.