Red Earth Cree Nation took several large steps towards a completely dry community Saturday.
Residents walked along their main road on an awareness walk to honour those they have lost to drug and alcohol abuse. As they went, family members tied white ribbons at the sites of accidents to commemorate the deaths that have struck the community.
Red Earth Reverend Darren Head prayed at each spot and consoled family members.
Though tired by the long walk, Red Earth Band Chief Ian McKay was pleased to see so many members of the community come out to support their new laws.
“As a leader it was an enormous uplifting feeling,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine the sense of relief and support seeing the support coming from our people.
“It was great to be out there, walking with our little ones, seeing them smile.”
The ban came into effect Sept. 21. Chief McKay said that there has been a sharp decrease in late night calls from youth needing a ride after drinking, and there have been less cars on the road at night.
This is not the first time Red Earth has attempted a ban on drugs and alcohol.The first ban was introduced in 1985, but only lasted until 1986.
“The difference between how it was 30 years ago and how it is today is very different,” said McKay.
While the walk was far from a sombre affair, the purpose of it was not far from anyone’s mind. Many carried signs of support, decorated with the faces of family members who have passed away.
Red Earth councillor Charlene Head considers the walk a memorial, and also an educational event.
“This speaks volumes about the community that came together and voiced their concern.”
The walk was also part of the healing process for families dealing with the after effects of death.
“Grief takes long,” Head said. “It’s a thing like this, a recognition of that grief that can become a healing journey for (the families).”
After the trek, the community gathered in the John William Head Memorial Education Centre to discuss Red Earth’s recent ban on drugs and alcohol.
Members of council, and visitors from other First Nation’s communities spoke about the undertaking, and how it would affect the community.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Councilor Fabian Head. “It’s people and the community who have spoken … to preserve our young ones, and to preserve our future.”
Fifty-three community members had lost their lives due to drugs and alcohol by 2015. As well as drunk driving, suicide, overdose and violence have been causes of alcohol and drug related deaths.
Curtis Head, grandfather of Christian Head who was killed in a drinking and driving incident last year at the age of 19, gave an emotional speech that left many in the audience in tears.
“It takes something like this for a community to wake up and realize the loss we have to endure, the heartaches we have to bear.”
The ban was first proposed by members of the Red Earth youth council.
“We wanted to support the youth and help them live a better life,” said youth council member Ethan Head.
Already he’s seeing the effect it has had on the community. Youth group meetings have been better attended, and the local churches have seen an increase in attendance.
When news of the ban broke, many from Red Earth, other First Nations, and outside the community commented on the development.
Charlene Head does not understand the negativity and skepticism, saying the comments “are hurting our children.”
“Everyone has a right to be saved. They deserve safety today, not tomorrow. The only time someone should be looking down on someone else is when they are reaching out to help them up.”
Looking ahead, McKay considers the biggest challenge to be keeping the momentum going.
“This is a process that is not going to be happening overnight,” he said. “The change has been happening all along. (The ban) was simply the voice of our people saying ‘let’s move more aggressively, let’s move more assertively.’”
Those found with illicit substances will be charged with possession of an illegal substance.
Given how recently the ban was put into effect, concrete details about punishment and enforcement have yet to be determined.