A multi-jurisdiction drug investigation, dubbed Project COAST, has dismantled a drug trafficking network that leaders in the James Bay Coast say has been “destroying their communities.” The Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), in partnership with the Ontario Provincial Police Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau, made 55 arrests earlier this month in connection with the trafficking and selling of prescription medications and other illicit drugs to communities in the North.

Thirteen individuals from Timmins have been arrested and charged as well as more than 20 individuals from the coastal communities. Other individuals from outside the region, including Ottawa and Toronto, have also been charged.

As a result of a six-month investigation that began in November, the police seized $252,000 in cash, 57,792 methamphetamine tablets, 7,229 oxycodone pills, 706 grams of cocaine, more than 476 grams of marijuana and more than 154 grams of fentanyl patches.

The estimated street value of these drugs in Northern Ontario is approximately $2.1 million, police say, as the going rate for some is four times that of similar drugs in southern Ontario.

Police also recovered one shotgun and a bulletproof vest in their investigation.

The seized drugs and cash were on display at a press conference held at Cedar Meadows in Timmins on Tuesday, where the police detailed the specifics of the investigation.

NAPS Chief Terry Armstrong said the drugs originated from southern Ontario, mainly Ottawa, and were transported to the coastal communities through connections in Timmins.

He said Aboriginal communities are often targeted by drug traffickers because narcotic-based prescription medication sells for a much higher rate in the North than in other urban centres.

A single fentanyl patch sells for approximately $1,600 in the North compared to $400 in the South, for example, while a methamphetamine tablet goes for between $20 and $25 per pill in Northern Ontario versus $10 in other parts of the province.

“The Ottawa connection was absolutely targeting vulnerable communities because it is where they can make the most profit,” Armstrong explained. “Without them, the seizures wouldn’t be as large as they are and it proves the point that these communities are under attack by all angles.”

The police were joined by officials from the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN), Muskegowuk Council and Moose Cree First Nation, who all provided insight into the “devastating” impacts these drugs have on the members of their communities.

“The impacts that we’re seeing in our communities as result of the misuse and abuse of these drugs is destroying lives, it’s destroying our families, it’s destroying our communities,” said NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. “The price that our kids are paying is too great — some are paying with their lives.”

He said that somewhere between 60 and 70% of the population in the NAN territory are facing addiction issues.

In February this year, in fact, the NAN declared a public health emergency in relation to the inadequate treatment of diseases, mental health concerns and addiction in its communities.

Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon of the Mushkegowuk Council admitted he too has noticed that his communities are being ravaged by addiction.

“For a long time, alcohol was a major problem in our communities and then it doesn’t seem too long ago that prescription drugs and illicit drugs came into our communities,” he said. “People in the community are getting off of alcohol and into drugs because they are more affordable than a bottle of whiskey up North.”

While these drugs may be cheaper than alcohol in some cases, Fiddler stressed the money being lost to addiction is far more than many of the individuals affected can afford to lose.

“That’s our children’s money that’s on that table,” he said, in reference to the money seized in the investigation. “That’s our children’s tax money, our family allowance, their social assistance money.”

The police also noted that aside from the cost factor, prescription drugs are also easier to conceal for those trafficking and purchasing them.

Criminals also “know no boundaries and respect no jurisdictions,” OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum added, which speaks to the need for agencies to work collaboratively to stop the flow of these drugs into vulnerable populations.

Everyone on Tuesday’s panel also agreed that the quantity of drugs seized highlights the crucial need for the NAPS to have a dedicated drug enforcement unit in order to keep the residents in its communities safe.

In fact, according to a Postmedia report last month, the NAPS has only one drug sergeant and one drug constable on the entire force, which Armstrong said must be changed.

“A project of this magnitude paints a clear picture of what is happening in our communities,” Armstrong said. “The quantity of drugs being trafficked is shocking and yet we should note, that NAPS is not funded by the province or Canada for drug enforcement units. This leaves people wondering just how much devastation has taken place in our communities over say the last five, 10, 15 years without NAPS having the proper tools or resources to combat this illicit drug trade. This clearly shows the need for fully funded drug enforcement units in our catchment areas and to serve our communities.”

While everyone involved was pleased that a large quantity of drugs was pulled off the streets, the police admitted the threat is far from over.

“We’ve got a few networks here charged today but we’re not naive to think that’s it, there are other networks out there,” Armstrong said.

As for those still participating in the illegal drug trade, Solomon had stern words to share with them.

“You are hurting our communities, you are causing destructive manners in the family unit and in the homes,” he said. “Just like any addicted person, you need help and I hope you seek that help because the path you are walking is causing destruction.”

As a result of this investigation, police have laid 341 charges on 55 individuals under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act and Criminal Code of Canada. Thirteen individuals charged are from Timmins, 11 from Moosonee, seven from Moose Factory, seven from Ottawa, eight from Chapleau, two from Brunswick House First Nation as well as one each from Fort Albany, Foleyet, Sudbury, Toronto, North York, Renfrew and Orleans. These individuals will be appearing before Ontario Courts of Justice and the investigation is ongoing.