Saskatchewan First Nations Sue Canadian Government Over Opioid Crisis Negligence

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In a bold attempt to call out the Canadian government for its alleged negligence, two northern Saskatchewan First Nations, Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, have taken legal action. They allege the federal government has fallen short of adhering to their obligations under the provisions of Treaty 6, particularly concerning the ongoing opioid epidemic.

Treaty 6, which historically provided support from “pestilence,” and had a critical “medicine chest” clause, signifies the obligation from the federal government to lend its support and medical care to the First Nations. The filing parties believe this contractual responsibility has been neglected in the face of the present opioid crisis.

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The far-reaching effects of the opioid crisis have resulted in what is termed a “devastating loss” to the First Nations communities. La Ronge Chief Tammy Cook-Searson expressed this regretfully, highlighting the lingering wounds caused by this epidemic. The accompanying social and health effects, which are inclusive of, but not limited to increased opioid-related crime, cultural loss and other social problems, are marked as significant points in the lawsuit.

The Red Pheasant Cree Nation, last month, had to declare a state of emergency following a surge in overdose cases, with seven occurring on the same day. While the RCMP and federal department of Indigenous services have pledged support for the community, the lawsuit aims to seek effective solutions for all Treaty 6 bands.

The lawsuit pulls no punches in detailing the unique susceptibility of the indigenous communities to opioid addiction. It outlines how First Nations are more likely to get prescribed opioids and face a higher risk of addiction and fatal overdose in contrast to other Canadians.

The plaintiffs’ aim is to use the lawsuit as a means to acquire funds that would help in fighting the opioid crisis through emergency assistance, treatment programs, family and social services, and addiction support mechanisms to the affected communities.

However, the lawsuit casts a critical eye on the Canadian government’s dealings with Purdue Canada while its U.S parent company Purdue Pharma faces a bankruptcy settlement in the U.S Supreme Court. The settlement plan seeks to protect Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, from any more opioid related lawsuits in exchange for a US$6 billion contribution to a broader bankruptcy settlement.

The Canadian government, according to the lawsuit, has formed a deal with Purdue Canada that would grant it preferential access to Purdue Canada’s remaining assets if the U.S. bankruptcy plan goes through. Such a deal is believed to stand in the way of the First Nations’ ability to recover their own claims against Purdue Canada.