It was to a hearty round of applause that Rainy River First Nations Chief Jim Leonard stepped up and passed the first official drug test as the band began implementation of a long-awaited employee drug-testing policy to help battle substance abuse in that community.
“I’m honoured to be here today, this is a historic day,” Chief Leonard said at Friday morning’s ceremony at the band’s east-end conference centre, where the policy document was blessed by elder Willie Horton and 30 others volunteered alongside Chief Leonard to be tested.
Under this new policy, drug testing will be mandatory for any Rainy River First Nations’ employee holding “safety sensitive positions”—where their own safety, or that of others, could be at risk if they are using drugs.
This includes positions such as child and resource workers, drug and alcohol counsellors, school bus drivers, Manitou Forest Products employees, and medical van drivers.
The policy even will extend to outside agencies such as Tribal Services, Weechi-it-te-win, or even contractors who have been hired to work in the community.
Chief Leonard noted the process to bring in a drug-testing program goes back a couple of years, when an informal survey of youth aged 14-30 in the community was taken on the use of drugs and alcohol.
Out of the 88 young people surveyed, 67 said they were actively involved with drugs in one form or another, recalled Chief Leonard, including roughly half involved with Oxycontin.
“We were very, very shocked with that, it woke us up,” said Chief Leonard, with their next step being to consult with the community’s elders and then the community at large.
Out of this came three main things: the need for action, helping and supporting people instead of penalizing them, and implementing a drug-testing policy for band employees.
“There’s been many, many hours of drafting and re-drafting and getting legal opinions, and I don’t know how many times it’s been to lawyers and stuff,” Chief Leonard said about the policy which took two years to develop before being passed by both council and the community this summer.
“It’s been around the block.”
And while positions such as chief and council so far are exempt from testing, Chief Leonard, council members, and other employees have volunteered to be tested alongside others.
“If you want to work here, we’re a drug-free community—as close as we can possibly get,” pledged Hugh Dennis, known for his substance abuse prevention work across the district, who has been hired to administer the testing, with the assistance of registered nurse Miranda Sigurdson.
Administering the first drug test to Chief Leonard, Dennis explained to those on hand for Friday’s ceremony how the testing will take place, and emphasized how each individual’s information will be kept private.
Testing will occur on a monthly basis, with those being tested selected at random by a computer.
Using saliva, the method takes about eight minutes to administer, with results indicating instantly if an individual has cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, opiates, THC (cannabis), or methadone in their system.
If an individual tests negative for these drugs, they are free to go on with their job.
If they test positive, another test is administered and sent away to a lab in Mississauga to be analyzed from a quantitative perspective, Dennis noted.
For example, if a person has a legitimate prescription to be on a pain-killer, then the lab can measure to see if the amount in the person’s system fits in the parameters of their prescription amount.
If it is, it will be recorded as a “no-positive” report, Dennis said.
A positive test also will result in the employee immediately being suspended from work, and having to undergo assessment and monitoring by band addiction counsellors Elvis Debungee and Beryl Cardy.
“[Treatment is] still a decision with the employee about the various options that are available,” noted Cardy, listing referrals, pre-treatment counselling, post-treatment counselling, an eight-week counselling program, and day treatment program as some of the many options available through the community’s substance abuse treatment services.
“It all depends on what fits for the individual.
“It’s not about punishment, it’s about healing,” Cardy stressed about her and Debungee’s role in the process.
“It’s very confidential, there’s nothing released to management that’s in any way private and confidential,” she added.
“The only thing that the employer needs to know is they’re seeking help.”
And these programs are not just for those required to participate in drug testing for their jobs, Cardy pointed out. They are for anyone in the community who is in need of treatment and support for addictions.
Depending on further testing, assessment, and treatment, the employee eventually may return to work, or lose their job.
Refusal to submit to the drug testing ultimately will result in the termination of employment.
“I salute the chief and council and community for doing this,” said Dean Wilson, the band’s manager of administration.
“This policy is not to [criminalize] anybody, it’s not to go after anybody, it’s to help people,” he reiterated.
“It’s to help individuals that may be dealing with some addictions, may be having some hard times, and that’s what it’s here for.”
Wilson also pointed to the historic nature of the policy being adopted.
“We’re the second First Nation in Canada that’s adopted a policy [like this],” he noted. “The only other one is Fisher River, Man., and even our policy is more extensive than theirs.
“Other communities are going to be following us. We’ve had several communities come talk to us,” he said, noting other communities are facing the same issues of drug abuse.
“In essence, this policy is going to affect everybody,” Wilson vowed. “At some point in time, all of us as staff, our positions are going to be applicable to this test.
“It’s something that’s going to start, and it’s a starting point.”
But drug testing is just one component amongst many, Wilson added, conceding that testing alone isn’t going to wipe out drug addictions and drug dealers.
“We have to deal with the drugs that are coming into the community—and that will be another step that this community will have to take,” he remarked.
Wilson stressed that he, Chief Leonard, and other individuals aren’t “superheroes,” and that it will take the whole community working together to end substance abuse.