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A drug test worth taking, in a remote First Nation

The Lake Babine First Nation in British Columbia will before long launch a voluntary alcohol and drug testing program for the chief, the council and the reserve's staff. Chief Wilf Adam is trying to set a good example as the first member of the community to take the test. Many of the details are still a work in progress.

"If the members can look at who got tested and who didn't," said Chief Adam, "they can make their own judgment."

Lake Babine is about halfway between Prince Rupert and Prince George (on what is known as the Highway of Tears), with 2,500 residents. The community's centre is at Burns Lake, which the highway passes through.

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The band council is clearly worried, not just about the old familiar alcohol and drugs, but that heroin has reached Lake Babine. The local authorities now also fear the advent of the opioid fentanyl and other prescription drugs coming from the cities.

The Rainy River First Nations, in Northern Ontario, was the first aboriginal community in Canada to test councillors and staff and even independent contractors for drugs and alcohol, six years ago. At first, it was a voluntary program, but it has become mandatory. Samson Cree First Nation in Alberta also takes this approach.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association takes a dim view of this idea. Its policy director, Micheal Vonn, says it would be an invasion of privacy. She may well have a point. Lake Babine wanted to have a mandatory program as long as six years ago, but they seem to have run into unfavourable legal advice.

A voluntary approach is worthwhile, though. A remote aboriginal community has to be particularly careful, for example, to make sure that the people who look after their water-treatment plants know what they're doing, and when. They can't always count on outside contractors. Good drivers for medical and other emergency vehicles may be in short supply, too, and local fire brigades are not always up to urban standards. Amateur and semi-amateur child-protection workers can be problematic, too.

For all these reasons, the local authorities in First Nations in many parts of Canada have reason to scrutinize their workers. Chief Adam and his colleagues in Lake Babine face heroic tasks.

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