The chief of an Indigenous community where the illegal drug trade has led to a public outcry is calling upon the province and Ottawa to provide more funding to combat the problem.
Chief Allan Polchies Jr. of Sitansisk (St. Mary’s First Nation) told reporters on Tuesday afternoon he wanted his government allies and partners to step up and help, following what he described as a public protest that got out of hand Sunday night.
“We don’t have those resources to bring in security, to bring in extra mental health, to bring in of course all the addictions workers, to send people away for help,” the chief said at the band office on Fredericton’s north side. “Right now we are limited. So now of course we have to reach out to our allies and declare a state of emergency, so we can have them at that table.”
On Sunday night, more than 300 people in the urban reserve stormed a residential property on Bear Drive in the heart of the community, a volatile situation that was only contained after the Fredericton Police Force, the RCMP, firefighters and ambulance workers stepped in.
The home behind Leo Hayes High School has since been boarded up, but signs of the violence remain, including a ripped yellow police tape and three vehicles in the backyard with their windows smashed out.
“There was a peaceful protest that led to non-peaceful protest,” the chief said. “It was about frustration. Violence of this sort is not the answer, by any means.”
Police arrested a man on Sunday, who was charged with assault with a weapon and released on conditions. Authorities said no one was seriously hurt.
On Tuesday, the Fredericton Police Force announced it had arrested another individual on a charge of breach of the peace.
“Both incidents remain under investigation,” said Deputy Chief Kim Quartermain in a release.
The violent situation led to the chief and council declaring a state of emergency Monday evening, in the hopes of unlocking provincial and federal resources. They also asked people in the community of about 2,000 not to gather or let their children outside for a 48-hour period between Monday and Wednesday.
'I'm a good person'
Chatter at the Two Nations One-Stop gas bar and convenience store on Monday night was all about the events. Community member Brittani Brooks said she supported the state of emergency, arguing bold steps had to be taken against drug dealers in her Wolastoqey community.
She said safety was a bigger concern nowadays than when she was a kid and would join other children to roam freely on the reserve, tucked in an urban neighbourhood on the city’s north side.
Brooks, 38, has already told her 15-year-old daughter to stay inside, unless accompanied by her godmother.
“I support the declaration because I’m dealing with a similar situation,” she said. “I have a drug house near me. And these people who come by, they’re always in my yard, they’re always looking over my yard. I have no privacy, and I don’t like it. They think I’m selling drugs and come knocking at my door. It’s happened a few times, where they pull in my driveway and demand stuff.
“I’m like, ‘hey, I don’t do drugs at all, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’m a good person. I work 40 hours a week and when I am home, this kind of garbage happens.”
Brooks said the majority of people on the reserve feel the same way.
A drive through the community past dark on Monday night didn’t show anything out of the ordinary. A few vehicles stopped at the numerous cannabis shops on the reserve, but there weren’t many people outside, other than a couple of pedestrians and the odd kid on a bicycle.
In its Facebook post, the council urged people in the community who are suffering to contact the First Nation’s critical incident stress management team or to visit the sacred fire and drum circle at the Maqiyahtimok, a large community and health centre beside the Chief Harold Sappier Memorial Elementary School.
It said the 48-hour period between Monday and Wednesday was critical.
“During this time, we ask citizens to refrain from gathering and to keep children at home. It’s vital we unite to protect our community, especially our youth who are most vulnerable to these destructive substances.”
Ministers meet for crisis talks
Earlier on Tuesday, two New Brunswick cabinet ministers met with the chief and council.
Kris Austin, the province’s public safety minister, and Arlene Dunn, the aboriginal affairs minister, visited the band office.
“What they’re dealing with here is serious, and we take it serious,” Austin said, shortly before stepping into the building with Dunn by his side. “I want to offer whatever support we can as a department to help alleviate some of those concerns.”
Austin said the purpose of the visit was to listen to the chief and council and see what the provincial government could do to help.
“The reality is, right across North America we’re dealing with this issue,” he said of the illegal drug trade. “And what they’re dealing with here is similar to what is happening across North America. We’ve seen it come to a peak here a few days ago. So we want to better understand that, and we want to understand what we can do to help St. Mary’s.”
Dunn said the meeting would be a listening exercise for the two ministers.
“It’s very distressing and very concerning and that’s the reason I’m here, to offer any support I can to the chief and council and also the community members with respect to the issues they are going through and the struggles,” she said.
Dunn said she didn’t know why the illegal drug trade was flourishing, but she could speak to its ill effects.
“We see an increase in mental health issues and addictions, which is very concerning, and it’s something we’re seeing right across the board in the entire province,” the minister said. “It impresses upon us that this is an escalating issue, and we need to get ahead of it.”
Afterwards, Dunn released a brief statement, saying Premier Blaine Higgs had been informed of the latest developments.
“We are ready to work with federal partners and Sitansisk to help address their concerns,” she said, without outlining what kind of measures or funding would be provided.
Likewise, Polchies held back when asked what he and the council had sought. He said a full list was before the provincial government, and he was hopeful it would respond.
“This is a time to build that relationship and that trust with the Government of New Brunswick. I gave them some tips as a leader here in my own community what they could do, not only for our community but all communities across New Brunswick. There’s a shortfall with mental health care, there’s a shortfall on addictions and beds that are available. And our provincial government can do better.”
Checkpoints coming back
Earlier in the day, Polchies and the band council met with two senior Fredericton Police Force officers for a few hours behind closed doors.
Later, after meeting with community members and elders at the Maqiyahtimok community centre, the chief told reporters of a further measure: the First Nation will begin to close gates again in the community overnight, a security feature it used during the pandemic to limit gatherings.
Beginning Wednesday at 10 p.m., checkpoints will be enforced at the entrance to all the residential parts of the reserve, until 6 a.m. daily.
Visitors will have to be invited by community members, who are still able to pass through any time they like.
But the chief quickly added the council will not be imposing any kind of curfew or lockdown.
John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner