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Sask. First Nations sue Government of Canada over opioid epidemic


Two northern Saskatchewan First Nations are taking the Canadian government to court for breaching its Treaty obligations by failing to address the opioid epidemic.

Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation filed a statement of claim on Friday invoking provisions of Treaty 6 that offer support from “pestilence,” and the so-called “medicine chest” clause, “which mandate support and medical care to First Nations.”

The opioid epidemic has caused “devastating loss” to First Nation communities, La La Ronge Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said in a news release.

“The opioid epidemic caused, and continues to cause, Treaty 6 Nations to suffer harm including (but not limited to) increased opioid-related crime, cultural loss, adverse health outcomes, and social problems. Treaty 6 Nations have incurred, and continue to incur, significant costs to abate the effects of the opioid epidemic on their reserves and in their communities for which Canada is liable,” the lawsuit alleges.

Last month, Red Pheasant Cree Nation declared a state of emergency following a spate of seven overdoses in a single day.

RCMP and the federal department of Indigenous services have pledged to work with the community, located about 35 kilometres south of the Battlefords, but this new lawsuit seeks remedies for all Treaty 6 bands.

Indigenous people are vulnerable to the risks of opioid drugs, the lawsuit says.

“First Nations are more likely to receive opioid prescriptions, have higher rates of opioid addiction, and face a greater risk of dying from an opioid overdose compared to other Canadians.”

To remedy the alleged breaches of the provisions of Treaty 6, the plaintiffs are asking for funds to execute an opioid abatement plan covering emergency assistance, treatment programs, family and social services, outreach and addiction supports.

The lawsuit is also critical of the Canadian government’s bargaining with Purdue Canada, as its U.S. parent company Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy plan is tested in the Supreme Court.

The plan would shield its owners, the Sackler family, from opioid lawsuits in exchange for a US$6 billion contribution to the company's broader bankruptcy settlement.

The U.S. Department of Justice is arguing that Purdue's settlement is an abuse of bankruptcy protections meant for debtors in "financial distress," not people like the Sacklers, who withdrew US$11 billion from Purdue before agreeing to contribute $6 billion to its opioid settlement.

The Canadian government made a deal with Purdue Canada that gave the it preferential allocation of Purdue Canada’s remaining assets if the U.S. bankruptcy plan goes through, the statement of claim alleges.

The Canadian government’s deal with the company “obstructs First Nations’ ability to collect on their own claims against Purdue Canada,” the statement of claim says.

-With files from Reuters Top Stories

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