POLITICS
04/13/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 06/12/2012 05:12 EDT

A decidedly mixed blessing: mining jobs near a remote First Nations reserve

NORTH CARIBOU LAKE, Ont. - Isolation often takes the blame as the source of many problems on remote reserves.

But Chief Pierre Morriseau has decidedly mixed feelings about that.

His Oji-Cree community 320 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, Ont., is definitely remote. During the winter, an ice road connects North Caribou Lake to other communities in the lake-soaked terrain of northwestern Ontario. The rest of the year, it's fly-in only.

But the Musselwhite gold mine nearby flies many of the local residents in and out every two weeks.

On paper, that means jobs, decent pay and training. So even though official statistics show only 10 per cent of the population has graduated from high school, the band only relies on government money for 30 per cent of its revenue.

"There's lots of people working. It gives people some hope," says Mike Jeremiah, home for a couple of weeks from before heading back to the mine for another two-week stint.

But in practice, much of that money these days is spent on financing a prescription drug addiction that has affected up to half of the community's adults.

They are addicted mainly to opioids such as OxyContin and Percocet. The prices are far higher than in the city, selling for about $150 for just one of the weakest pills, and up to $800 for the most powerful pills.

Petty crime is rising. Children are missing school because their parents can't get up in the morning. The sparse nursing staff at the health centre is overwhelmed.

"They (addicts) broke into my house a couple times," says Linda Kanate, whose son is an addict. "They have to have it."

For Morriseau, the world of globalization, money and people leaving the reserve on a regular basis have led to the end of a way of life.

"I have very mixed feelings about the mining," Morriseau says during a break from meetings in the band office, choosing his words carefully.

He was speaking to reporters, federal MP Carolyn Bennett and Stan Beardy, the grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which advocates on behalf of many first Nations in northern Ontario.

Both Beardy and Bennett have been raising the alarm about the scourge of prescription drug addiction in remote First Nations communities.

Beardy had intended to showcase North Caribou Lake as an example of how benefits from natural resources can help a band beat the odds.

But even he was taken aback by the chief's sense of seige.

Morriseau said the band is now dependent on mining for its livelihood, turning its back on the traditional ways of hunting, fishing and living off the land, he says.

"I'd rather be out there. I have that calling always. It's in my heart, that the land is calling me. But I'm not able to go."

This week, the elementary school is closed because of a flu epidemic that spread quickly through crowded homes and stuffy classrooms. Several children have had to be medivaced to hospital.

The nursing staff can barely keep up with the virus, let alone focus on helping people deal with addictions.

Several reserves across the region are dealing with an "epidemic" of addiction to prescription painkillers, Beardy says. At the same time, the area's First Nations are also campaigning hard to grab a bigger piece of the natural resource extraction that is ramping up around the so-called Ring of Fire.

But no one will be able to benefit unless the First Nations communities are healthy first, he said.