First Nation devastated by girls’ deaths wants to screen luggage entering community for illicit drugs
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A northern Manitoba First Nation leader whose community is reeling from the suspected overdose deaths of two young teen girls is asking for more tools to deal with an ongoing drug crisis.
“We know how to deal with it, but support from the government, in terms of security, is needed,” St. Theresa Point Chief Elvin Flett told the Free Press. “We know who the traffickers are. We don’t know who the mules are.”
Dayna Shingoose and Emily Mason, both 14, were pronounced dead after they were found outside in the cold in St. Theresa Point on March 1.
Flett and other community leaders believe the deaths are linked to the proliferation of illegal drugs in the community, which is about 450 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg and home to about 5,000 people. He said traffickers give free samples to young people in St. Theresa Point to get them hooked.
Family members said Dayna was struggling with the disappearance of her 31-year-old mother Ashlee Shingoose, who went missing in Winnipeg a year ago.
Toxicology results from the dead girls are not expected for several weeks.
Flett said the community needs more resources, including safety officers, and the ability for those officers to screen luggage when it arrives at the local airport, which is on Crown land.
NDP MLA Eric Redhead, a former chief of Shamattawa First Nation, supports Flett’s call, suggesting remote communities, such as St. Theresa Point — accessible only by air and winter roads — should be allowed to search luggage to disrupt the flow of illicit drugs.
Redhead (Thompson) said some communities did that before the provincial government put a stop to the practice.
“When I was chief, the province sent a letter saying to stop searching persons and cargo coming through the airport,” he said. “Coupled with real addiction support, this could help.
“This is a very tragic story that speaks to the need for greater community safety and support for in-community addiction services. This is a horrible tragedy, a preventable tragedy.”
Flett said the St. Theresa Point tried to set up search units, but the province told the council to “cease and desist” after receiving complaints.
The “restriction” is exacerbating the drug problem, he said, adding St. Theresa Point is not alone among northern communities fighting the devastating effects of illegal drugs.
Earlier this week, O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, also known as South Indian Lake, declared a state of emergency after a number of “critical” incidents, including a homicide.
Chief Shirley Ducharme called on the federal and provincial governments to help address issues such as violence, addictions and mental-health issues.
Redhead, a former acting chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said band constables checked incoming luggage when he was growing up in Shamattawa.
“It was definitely a helpful tool when we were able to screen luggage and people. If we were able to do that again, it would definitely help, along with addiction support.”–NDP MLA Eric Redhead
“It stopped a lot of drugs and alcohol coming into the community,” he said. “It was definitely a helpful tool when we were able to screen luggage and people. If we were able to do that again, it would definitely help, along with addiction support.”
Redhead said while he was familiar with details involving the end of searches in Shamattawa, he suspects the province delivered the same explanation to St. Theresa Point officials.
“They (the province) stated liability and, to my knowledge, that’s the only reason they stopped this,” he said, adding he’s not aware of any specific incidents or problems arising from the searches at the time.
He does’t have a copy of the letter — which he believes the province sent in 2017 or 2018 —and doesn’t recall anything further regarding the issue of “liability.”
Redhead also said screening of passengers headed for remote communities is lacking when they fly out of Winnipeg or Thompson.
The province is looking at increasing funding for the First Nations safety officer program, and it is encouraging Ottawa to provide more cash for policing and public safety, a Manitoba Justice spokesman said, denying the program’s funding was previously cut under the Tory government.
“The loss of these two teenage girls is a tragedy not just for St. Theresa Point First Nation, but all of Manitoba,” he wrote in an email. “Our hearts are with the girls’s families and Chief Elvin Flett.
“The government of Manitoba is committed to safe communities, however, it should be noted that the prosecution of drug offences remains an area of federal jurisdiction and any advice related to drug searches and enforcement would fall to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.”
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada, however, appears to view the situation differently.
“The PPSC is a prosecution service,” reads a statement sent to the Free Press Wednesday. “We can only speak to matters once charges are laid.”
Indigenous Services Canada spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper said regional officials met with St. Theresa Point’s health director a day after the girls were found to ensure supports are in place.
“The PPSC is a prosecution service. We can only speak to matters once charges are laid.”–Public Prosecution Service of Canada statement
“The recent death of two young teenagers in St. Theresa Point First Nation is heartbreaking, and our thoughts are with their families and community,” she wrote in an email.
Crisis workers have been supporting the girls’s families, friends and the wider community.
Cooper said Ottawa provides funding for two full-time and one part-time mental-health therapists who work on rotation in St. Theresa Point.
Residents who need help for addictions can be referred to a national network of treatment centres, including five in Manitoba, which receive federal money, she said.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.