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B.C. First Nation to implement voluntary drug, alcohol testing

Wilf Adam Chief of Babine Lake Nation seen here in Burns Lake September 28, 2012. Chief Adam said he will be the first person tested when the program is up and running in the coming weeks.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A B.C. First Nation says it will implement a voluntary drug and alcohol testing program for its chief, council and staff to combat substance abuse in the northern community.

Chief Wilf Adam of the Lake Babine Nation said he will be the first person tested when the program is up and running in the coming weeks.

"I think it's important as a community that the leadership and the people that work for the community help find ways in battling drugs and alcohol," he said in an interview on Wednesday.

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Exactly how the program will work is still being determined.

Chief Adam said community members have long called for such a program. The First Nation – which has about 2,400 members and an office in Burns Lake – attempted to set up a mandatory program six years ago, but ran into legal challenges, he said.

Chief Adam said he has heard of other First Nations adopting such programs. Their use in British Columbia, however, does not appear to be frequent.

He said heroin has had an impact on the community, but fentanyl – which is fuelling a surge of overdoses in B.C. – has "for the grace of God" not yet arrived.

"[Drugs are] the cause of a lot of what's happening in the community, family breakdowns and stuff like that," he said.

Dean Wilson, manager of administration for Rainy River First Nations in Ontario, said a drug testing program was instituted there six years ago. He said it was initially voluntary, but is now mandatory.

He said Rainy River first focused on "safety-sensitive areas," such as people working at the community's water treatment plant, driving medical vehicles, or dealing with family services. Those in areas such as finance were initially exempt.

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However, Mr. Wilson said, drug testing eventually became a requirement for new full-time and casual employees, as well as contractors, and has become the norm.

He said the push-back when the policy was introduced has subsided.

"There was a lot of resistance because they felt that we're trying to get people, we're trying to do this. But it actually did a 180. Now the same people that were concerned over the test … now they want to see it more stringent," he said in an interview.

Mr. Wilson said the drug tests are random. Within the band office, three people might be tested in a given month. An additional two or three tests might happen at the community's sawmill.

Mr. Wilson said no one has been fired for drug use, and the band wants to help those who fail a test. He said "a very small amount" of people have decided not to return to their jobs after testing positive.

"We feel it's worked out very well. It's not perfect, by any means. But we feel it has been positive," he said. "…It's also shown the general public that this First Nation is doing this and trying to promote a positive impact on the community and we're a good organization to deal with."

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Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said she does not want to minimize the issues the Lake Babine Nation is facing, but is concerned about the consequences an employee could face for refusing to take a drug test.

She said an individual who was not willing to have their privacy invaded could be subject to "a highly prejudicial inference."

Chief Adam said the First Nation could not penalize anyone who refused to take a drug test. However, he said, the First Nation has discussed making the results public, which could mean community members would know who refused.

"We have to make sure that we follow the rules and regulations of the law," he said.

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