Gray Friday at the end of March. It is 4:20 p.m. when Officer Leclerc* heats up her pizza in the microwave oven in the Uashat mak Mani-utenam (SPUM) public security emergency room.
The policewoman hasn’t had time for dinner yet.
“Since 11 a.m., it’s been going pretty well,” she breathes between bites before being interrupted by a loud thud. A man knocks against the walls of a small isolation room. The fellow is highly intoxicated. He is boisterous and aggressive. His clothes are soiled.
The young recruit, looking resigned, puts down his meal and walks with a firm step towards the next room. “There you stop. It’s understood ? she shouts through the glass doorway. He grumbles and runs.
She turns on her heels and finds her colleague. Agent Bertrand talks on the phone with a prosecutor to determine what happens next. The defendant did not comply with his conditions. He made threats against a woman. After discussions, the police decide to bring him to the cell.
The man, dressed in long shorts and a t-shirt, staggers, makes incoherent remarks. The metal door closes, then he fidgets, waving his arms to wave to the officers. He hands them what he had hidden on him: a cocaine smoking rod.
The Aboriginal police force has agreed to give access to La Presse to illustrate the ravages of drug use in the Innu community of some 4,500 souls. One phenomenon has emerged since the pandemic: the presence of cocaine derivatives.
Crack and freebase, which consist of a mixture of cocaine and sodium bicarbonate or ammonia, are now among the most abused substances. Very expensive, they cause intense, immediate effects and quickly create a strong dependency.
They can also lead to violent behavior, paranoid episodes and suicidal thoughts, according to the ToxQuébec website. Community health and social services are overwhelmed.
The Pakatan symposium on suicide prevention, drug addiction, mental health and cultural identity begins this week.
“I’m very, very worried,” said Innu Takuaikan Uashat mak Mani-utenam (ITUM) Council Chief Mike McKenzie, who made “wellness the number one priority.”
The Minister responsible for Relations with First Nations and Inuit is just as much: “I don’t like to do a gradation of drugs, but we are no longer in the same game. There, you are talking about exploding consumer debt and social issues, we see them, ”adds the minister.
Representatives of the Ministry of Public Security also traveled to the Innu community at the end of April to “draw up a preliminary situation report”.
According to a police source familiar with the situation, consumers of freebase can spend $600 to $1,200 in one evening. Some also indulge in very intense sequences over a few days. A consumption binge.
A gram of cocaine sells for an average of $100 in the community, allowing for two or three “puffs” of freebase, the effect of which lasts for about 15 minutes. “It takes money to do that,” said the source, who is not authorized to speak publicly.
The high cost of these substances can lead to theft and sexual exploitation of consumers, we learned. “As you can see, it’s a problem. A sexual exchange for drugs […] with the seller or the network around”, notes our police source.
Alcohol and cannabis are still very present, as are methamphetamines, called speeds. Coroner Bernard Lefrançois’ inquest into the wave of suicides that shook Uashat mak Mani-utenam in 2015 also pinpointed the presence of this stimulant. Speeds “have taken over” PCP consumption, he wrote in his 2017 report.
“Crack, freebase, is now what we see emerging,” reports Uauitshitun Community Services Coordinator Alice Guimond.
“There are teenagers trying, but what I see the most popular pool is 18-35 year olds […] The substances are easily accessible,” she laments.
Several members of the community consulted for this report also testified to the ease of obtaining the various drugs. “There are vendors on every street corner,” a police source said.
The SPUM is calling for the financial means to tackle this “scourge” while Minister Ian Lafrenière has obtained the Prime Minister’s mandate to “fight organized crime that is rampant in communities” (see the fourth tab).
“The problem really is the coke!” says Innu lawyer Jonathan Genest-Jourdain, former NDP MP for Manicouagan. What he sees is “beyond comprehension.”
“Our social fabric is highly affected and there are more and more children who are born addicted [to cocaine]”, laments the lawyer, who mainly deals with legal cases related to mental health, the protection of the youth and crime.
“You realize this [the ravages of these substances] because your client, he is less and less in good condition. His health is not good, he is neglecting himself, he is losing his teeth…”, enumerates Me Genest-Jourdain.
“The pandemic has created a need for people to get hooked on all kinds of substances in drugs,” says SPUM director Raynald Malec.
The health crisis has forced the Innu authorities to completely close its borders to protect its most vulnerable population, which lives with a high rate of chronic disease. The Innu were forced to isolate themselves in often overcrowded and inadequate homes. A curfew was imposed from the start of the pandemic and the deconfinement was slower than elsewhere in Quebec.
“Since 2020, we have had a meteoric rise in service requests,” said Uauitshitun coordinator Alice Guimond. “Before, it was around 75 requests per month […], now, we don’t have a month that is below 200 requests,” she said.
The Uauitshitun health center also observes a “multiplication of problems” for which the population asks for help. Family issues and addictions top the list.
The sun sets over the community of Uashat mak Mani-utenam. In the small SPUM relief room, agents Leclerc and Bertrand are preparing to hand over to the night shift. The first case on the menu: a woman from the community is in the hospital. She wants to file a complaint against a spouse who attacked her.
The man was intoxicated. “It always revolves around that,” sums up the policewoman.
Nine out of ten interventions for crimes against the person in Uashat mak Mani-utenam are related to drug or alcohol consumption or a psychological factor.
The number of requests to Uauitshitun social services increased by 32% in 2021-2022 compared to the previous year.
According to the ToxQuébec website, crack is a mixture of cocaine, sodium bicarbonate or ammonia, which comes in small pebbles. We can also speak of freebase or rock (coke rock). The user inhales the smoke after heating them. This operation causes cracking, hence its name. The effects are immediate, shorter and much more intense than those of snorting cocaine. They are more like those of injected cocaine.
Working as a police officer in an Aboriginal environment means quickly becoming independent with often limited resources. You also have to learn to deal with a strong community spirit that helps or sometimes hinders work. Incursion into the Public Security of Uashat mak Mani-utenam (SPUM).
Summer 2021. Minister Ian Lafrenière is on tour on the North Shore, where he visits Innu communities. During a stop in Sept-Îles, the ex-policeman has quite a surprise.
“I came face to face with three bikers. I was surprised because I know them a bit from my old life, but what shocked and disappointed me the most was that when I started digging I realized that they were doing they too are on their tour, ”launches the minister in an interview with La Presse.
Photos of members of the Hells Angels wearing their jackets and posing with elders from the Innu communities of Ekuanitshit and Nutashkuan, in Minganie, then circulated on social networks.
“They were in a reconciliation operation,” assumes Mr. Lafrenière. The affair disturbed him to the point of putting the fight against organized crime among the priorities established, with the agreement of Prime Minister François Legault, for his second mandate.
“It tired me because I know the next step, they bring in the dope […] and it’s the vicious circle that happens: we talk about consumer debt, so young people forced into crime organized, or for others, it is sexual exploitation”, deplores the minister.
This priority means for him to work with communities on prevention and to “give them the capacity to organize themselves”. Quebec and Ottawa notably extended 5.5 million last year to allow the construction of a SPUM substation in the Mani-utenam sector.
Ian Lafrenière collaborates with his colleague at Public Security, François Bonnardel, for the repressive aspect. “Actions will be presented soon”, confirms Mr. Bonnardel’s office.
“As Minister responsible for First Nations and Inuit Relations who sees this and who knows very well that organized crime people, what they want is to [exploit] an element of vulnerability, the first thing I want to do is to take the light and turn it towards them, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past year,” he summarizes.
According to him, organized crime “has accumulated a lot of money” during the pandemic. “Right now they’re in investment mode. I feel pretty comfortable saying that,” said the Minister responsible for First Nations and Inuit Relations.
The Minister claims to have the support of the nine Innu communities in his battle while the presence of drugs is wreaking havoc everywhere. The Innu Nation is also working on holding a major addiction summit, which could take place in the summer.
“I support the minister, locally we can take action, but we have to tackle the big players,” said Unamen shipu leader Bryan Mark, who said he was “out of breath”. The community, located near the Romaine, also deals with consumption issues related to cocaine derivatives and methamphetamines. According to him, the drugs transit through Sept-Îles, more than 400 kilometers away.
“Everything happens in Sept-Îles!” Mike McKenzie, head of Innu Takuaikan Uashat Mak Mani-utenam, says bluntly.
Mike McKenzie asks that the links between the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the SPUM be strengthened. “It concerns me, whether it’s organized crime or dealers, there is investigative work that is important,” he said.
Several members of the community told La Presse that resellers are often known to everyone. But there is a promiscuity in the environment that hinders denunciation and makes the work of investigators laborious.
Various initiatives have been attempted over the years without yielding the expected results, such as the creation of mixed SPUM, SQ and RCMP squads – which has a detachment in Sept-Îles. “It didn’t rise,” said the chef.
The Ministry of Public Security confirmed to La Presse that the protocol establishing a mixed team composed of three SQ police officers and one SPUM police officer, which was in effect from 2017 to 2021, was interrupted due to a lack of resources.
The director of the SPUM does not hide his impatience. Raynald Malec, after 23 years in community policing, has seen more. “I’m tired of being in tow of the RCMP or the Sûreté, really tired,” assumes the man with the imposing build.
For now, the SPUM has two investigators who have their hands full with sexual assault and aggravated assault cases, according to Malec. He would like to add four resources to his team, which would be devoted to narcotics, trafficking and pimping.
The underfunding of Indigenous police forces by Ottawa and Quebec is a long-standing battle. According to Malec, the situation has somewhat recovered since 2020.
He sees a connection to the drama of Joyce Echaquan “which woke up a lot of people” in Quebec.
• Creation of mixed intervention teams – a police officer and a community worker (in progress)
• Creation of a regional Indigenous police force (5 of the 9 Innu communities have their own police force)
• School Community Police Officer
• Creation of a permanent mixed squad
• Creation of a therapy center for 14 to 18 year olds
Rose-Anne Grégoire has come a long way. Eight members of his extended family have died by suicide in the past 25 years. Today, her stomach tightens when she thinks of her son, who suffers from drug and alcohol addiction.
The mother, now a grandmother, lights a piece of sage and disperses the smoke around her. She directs a cloud of it on her chest. “I ask the Creator to soften my heart,” she breathes.
What she is about to tell is still difficult. His eyes water before the interview even begins.
“My last one, he’s in trouble,” she says. When we meet her at her home in Uashat, Ms. Grégoire hasn’t heard from her boy for two days.
It’s the worst that comes to mind when his son, in his thirties, disappears or relapses.
At night, when she hears a car noise, she rushes to the window. “I have a lot of scenarios [in my head], worry,” she says. She manages to find comfort through traditional indigenous rituals, which she has recently reclaimed.
“It helps me,” she said, pointing to the abalone shell in which the sage is burned. She says she is working on her “letting go”.
When we call her back on Thursday to check on her, Rose-Anne Grégoire is with her son. It’s better, she reassures.
If she wants to speak, it is to demand change. She herself decided to get involved in politics, having been elected councilor at ITUM last year. Ms. Grégoire also educated Minister Ian Lafrenière during his visit to Uashat in March.
“The police need to act, it needs to get moving!” “, she launches, explaining to expect that the native police will be more present in the community.
The one who has also gone through dark times also notes that consumption is now trivialized.
“When I was young, we used to hide when we smoked or drank,” she recalls. “Today is like open. I see them, it is not hidden. I don’t find that normal. I want everyone to be able to walk [in the streets] without fear,” she continues.
The hope of change keeps her alive, helps her in her recovery. “You have to believe it can happen,” persists the 55-year-old, grandmother of 13 grandchildren. “If it moves, maybe I’ll be less afraid for them.” »