Mike Hennessy was 10 years old when he jogged his first horse, and it tore flat-out across the farm track so fast he thought his father had pranked him. The speed, the smell of the stables, the thunder of hooves on the track and the mountain air whirling across the northern Rocky plains—Hennessy put his heels along the girth line and breathed it all in. In all its dust and glory, the horse-racing life was his, and he was hooked on the thrill of losing control and the chase of getting it back.
Hennessy, who grew up in Calgary and Airdrie, Alta., became a third-generation harness racer. Alberta has raised some of the world’s best, including Red Pollard, who rode Seabiscuit, and Hennessy’s own legendary father, Rod. Horse racing used to move trains in this province: on race days, the Canadian Pacific Railway ran a locomotive from Calgary to Cochrane, early Alberta’s horse-racing mecca. Into this history came Hennessy in his sulky, assuming his role as its next hero. By his early 20s, he was Alberta’s most promising horse racer. His father once said that in racing you’ve either got all the money in the world or you’ve got nothing. Boom or bust. Hennessy was smashing track records, stacking wins and raking in prize money. It was boom time.
Drugs were always around. “The horse-racing community isn’t exactly spiritually fit,” he told me. “The saying is, ‘Win or lose, you drink the booze.’” After alcohol he moved on to cocaine. Then, in 2004, he broke his heel and the arch in his left foot collapsed, and his doctor wrote him a prescription for OxyContin. He began using small, “manageable” amounts, and it helped him quit drinking. Then his use became more frequent and eventually he was racing high. OxyContin led to heroin. “Maybe people knew,” he said. “But if you’re doing well on the track, people believe what they want to believe.” Until you get caught, that is. One day, the race track drug-tested him, and when they got the results they told him not to come back for a month. Hennessy sold two horses he was raising and took a 45-day vacation full of the drugs that had got him there. He wound up on the West Coast.
In Vancouver, Hennessy found that heroin was cheap on the streets, until he needed so much that it broke him. He detoxed a couple times, but always came back to drugs. The recovery house he was living in eventually caught him using and kicked him out, and he ended up at the city’s infamous Whalley Strip, turning to crime to fund his addiction. He had moments of realization that he was choosing drugs over racing. “But when I was at those depths, people weren’t talking to me, they were talking to my disease—and it was talking to them.”
At the bottom, he went to jail, got out, and then landed back in for breaching bail conditions. He faced the prospect of two to three years in prison. He spent his days enduring the sweats and at night he kicked so much he put holes in his bedsheets. He’d gone cold turkey, which meant at least he was off the heroin. But he phoned his family and told them he’d be staying inside—he didn’t want to try for bail. It wasn’t the drugs or the crime that overwhelmed him, but the shame. Plus he could stay clean inside. Generations of his family had pinned their hopes for the future on him, believing he could continue the harness-racing way of life. Here’s where it all ends, he thought, I am the broken link.
Mike Hennessy’s story isn’t unique. While most people might view heroin as an urban drug, today’s opioid crisis dovetails with a growing rural alienation and with a lifestyle common to young people in rural and agricultural communities, one of physical labour, social isolation, and dwindling job prospects in shrinking, left-behind towns. As farming communities in Alberta see their communally held knowledge, skills and values disappear, and as rural families break apart in search of work, it makes me think of the “high and lonesome sound” banjo great Roscoe Holcomb created to evoke the void of rural abandonment.
I know the kind of place Hennessy comes from. My family were the descendants of immigrant farmers and had a cattle ranch on a half-section near Islay, a hamlet in eastern Alberta, population 195. It was near the farm my great-great-grandfather had purchased when he arrived in Alberta from Scotland in the early 1900s, the farm where my grandparents raised my mother, where they grew their own food, sewed their own clothes and got by without running water until 1974. My aunt and uncle still live on that land. I grew up in a community with reverence for the land we worked and the lives we led.
Farmers in Alberta are bound to their traditions because without them they suffer the loneliness of rural life. Yet they know their way of life is vanishing, so they want their children to go off to college and find good jobs, aware the odds are slim they’ll return. I had always assumed I’d have to leave and after high school I headed for Edmonton, knowing I’d never move back. I was hardly the only one.
Globalization, capitalism and neoliberalism have normalized ideas that are still radical to those in rural places: that freedom of movement is paramount; that tradition is suspect; that land is a resource to be tapped not a home to be cultivated. In the last few decades, rural Alberta has seen its small-town schoolhouses close and its grain levators topple. Its grocery stores, banks, entertainment and industry have migrated to urban centres. Crime is up, populations are down, and the cost of farmland has doubled in the last five years. The richest 20 per cent of farms produce 80 per cent of the products.
And there are no jobs, especially jobs young people might stick around for. Politicians pledge to make our cities great places to live, not just do business, but few candidates promise to invest enough money and resources in rural communities. People who live in rural places are acutely aware that this way of life is disappearing, and a sensitivity to the bits of our culture that remain manifests in “Cowboy Pride,” as Ian Tyson titled his song. Combine these things—the loss of the agrarian lifestyle, the fight against the inevitable, the shame of wanting to leave, the shame of being left behind—and you can see the kind of hole that opens up, a hole that drugs promise to fill.
In Writing Off the Rural West, a collection of essays, former pastor Cameron Harder wrote about farmers who were going bankrupt. Although these communities prided themselves on helping each other in times of need, financial hardships generated silence. The community saw the failure as shameful, and viewed shamed people as unworthy of its respect, or even as threats. Writing Off the Rural West was published 17 years ago, and a modern version could easily swap the words “financial failure” for “drug addiction.” While much of urban Canada has changed its attitudes toward drugs, primarily in treating addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue, this change has been slower to take hold in rural areas, where there are addicts rather than people with addictions, and where addiction brings shame to the addict’s family. Shame compounds over time. We return, as I have off and on, and find the same people in the same bars holding the same grudges, and we feel ashamed again for the failures of rural life. Then the shame transfers to the community’s shoulders. I can tell you about many of these things because I have felt them in my own life. “Cowboy pride will always get a man through,” Tyson’s song goes, “but sometimes it makes a fool of you.”
The first call was about a stabbing, the result of a botched drug deal. Tammy Young* was the 911 dispatch supervisor that night, and she listened as a man, who had been left for dead, watched his blood spread out across a stranger’s floor. He’d been outside and when things had gone south, he stumbled, severely injured, into the first unlocked house he saw and found the phone. Then Young took a call from a mother who’d discovered her son’s body after he had died of an overdose. Young heard the horror in that mother’s voice and it portended what her own future in Grande Prairie might be. This was in the early 2000s, when the city was one of Alberta’s fastest-growing boomtowns, thanks to oil and natural gas. Like other mid-sized cities in Alberta, Grande Prairie was full of young men making good money, and its prosperity was tailed by vice. The city became known for its supply of cocaine and meth, and Young bore witness to the underbelly of her city every day at work.
Young thought that living in a smaller community would be safer and she’d have more control over what her kids were exposed to. “You get them into 4-H, you get them into high-school rodeo, you do things that centre around the family, around doing it together,” Young said. “I thought, ‘That’s what’s going to protect my kids from the world.’”
In 2001, she moved her family to a farm 10 minutes from Sexsmith, once known as the grain capital of the British Empire. Over the years, the family collected six horses. Her daughter, Hailey*, raised one from a foal and later had its name tattooed on her back. Hailey was a quiet kid, but “could talk your ear off about horses,” Young told me.
Hailey, though, was directionless, thrilled by a few things and uninterested in everything else—and immune to tough love. She was Young’s fun-loving flower child, a wayward traveller. After she graduated high school, she left the farm for Grande Prairie. Through creeping realization, Young eventually understood Hailey was using. When Young visited her, Hailey looked gaunt and her behaviour was erratic. Hailey would say she wanted to go to school and Young told her she was happy to pay the tuition. “No, I need the money,” Hailey would snap.
There were pills, and eventually cocaine, pot, acid and heroin. Soon, Hailey only came back to the farm to take some of her old belongings to sell. One day, when there was almost nothing of hers left to sell, Hailey drove to the farm while her mother was at work and sold the horse she’d raised.
When we talk about the opioid crisis, we tend to focus on how and why people get addicted, yet that’s the easy part to explain; all it takes is a broken bone and a prescription pad, or maybe a pill pressed into your hand at a party. But to comprehend why the opioid crisis is so intractable in rural areas, we need to think more about why people stay addicted.
Imagine your city, with its public services, its parks, its people. Think of the cutting-edge medical facilities, the safe-injection sites, the preponderance of police, ambulances and doctors, and how a hospital is usually a few minutes away. Remind yourself that even in your city, a drug crisis persists. Now, take away the addiction treatment centres. Take away mental health support. Remove the hospitals. Remove the already small number of physicians trained to administer replacement therapy drugs such as methadone. Locate the police station and ambulances far enough away to render them useless in an emergency. Remove the nearby friend you might call to talk you out of putting that needle in your arm. Now into that emptiness, drop the most potent drugs known to man.
This was what Hailey was up against.
When I spoke with Young, she recounted stories of her days as a 911 operator, with Hailey always on her mind. Alberta had 687 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2017, up about 40 per cent from 2016. Overdose deaths from carfentanil—a synthetic opioid claimed to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine—increased from 30 to 159. Alberta’s rate of opioid deaths is about 50 per cent higher than the rate in the United States and almost 15 times higher than in the European Union. In the U.S., the overdose death rate for rural areas recently surpassed the rate in urban centres. Young had always thought of the farm as a sanctuary from this, but Hailey might have been at an even higher risk than anyone in Grande Prairie. A study from U.S. agricultural organizations found that while 46 per cent of rural Americans know someone who’s addicted to opioids, 75 per cent of people specifically from farming and ranching communities do.
Young tried to get Hailey into treatment for years, but rural Alberta’s only treatment centre was in Cardston, almost 1,000 kilometres away (Edmonton has three and Calgary has four). Opioid-replacement therapy via teleconferencing, which now reaches 45 communities across rural Alberta, hadn’t arrived yet. Beds were in short supply in every clinic, and they faced months-long wait times. When Hailey did land on a waiting list for treatment, she’d abruptly back out. She would get a job at an equestrian facility, then go on benders and skip work. Before Christmas 2017, Hailey called Young and told her there was an opening at a rehab centre in Calgary, could she send money? But this wasn’t Young’s first rodeo: she said no. Hailey didn’t come for Christmas.
Young tried to speak with people in her community about her daughter’s struggle, but gossip spread like dandelion seeds. Instead of offering support, she said they distanced themselves and kept their children away from her. “People talk, not around the water cooler but around the water trough, about so-and-so’s family, but nobody came to help out,” she said. “Certainly if there was an illness like cancer, people were always helping each other out, but when it came to drug addiction, it was a whole different ball game.” This kind of isolation and stigma isn’t uncommon in other towns, as families try to cope with addiction alone.
Stettler is a historic railway town about two hours from both Calgary and Edmonton. It’s the kind of town where, by midday, elderly men in suspenders and trucker caps, pens sticking out of their shirt pockets, stroll across the wide, quiet streets to the coffee shop. Whitney Hall is a soft-spoken bookkeeper who lives in Stettler, a single mother with four girls who grew up there. Like Grande Prairie, drugs of all kinds flourished in Stettler when the province’s economy was booming and even more so when it crashed.
Hall’s partner, Richard, ended up in Stettler after living in various places across Alberta. As a youth, he sold pot and, later, harder drugs, but at first he didn’t use them. Eventually he took up cocaine, then pills, and then heroin. He underwent treatment multiple times, staying clean for six months, maybe a year, before starting up again. When he moved in with Hall, she knew his history as an addict. She was naive about those kinds of things, she said, meaning the things that happen in cities but surely not in towns like Stettler.
Hall never did discover exactly why Richard became addicted to heroin. She believes it was tied to a childhood trauma he was too ashamed to speak about. He kept to himself and liked to be alone. He’d read downstairs late at night or go to the garage to tidy up. Around 2014, she began following the news about the rising body count from the synthetic opioid fentanyl, and she and Richard had many conversations about the risks involved. “How can you take it and not be afraid to die?” she asked him. Still, the nighttime treks to the garage continued.
“He used alone because he felt ashamed, like he should be better than this,” she said.
Richard’s fear and shame were no doubt fuelled by stigmatization because, in a town like Stettler, even if you don’t technically know everyone, you know their families, or maybe your children go to school together. You don’t go to the hospital and ask for help, because the person behind the desk could be your in-law. Eventually, though, Hall took him to see a doctor in town, who recommended he quit drugs cold turkey. They looked for help in Edmonton and Calgary, but were afraid it’d be too easy to find drugs there, especially when Richard, who didn’t have family in either city, would be alone. Not that he could just up and leave his work, anyway. Time and again, they hit roadblocks. Finally, they found him a spot at Grace House, a rehabilitation centre in Drumheller.
As they prepared to go, they talked about the future: building a gazebo in the backyard, vacationing, having grandchildren—all the opportunities that would open up before them. But then Richard had a gallbladder attack and had to reschedule his trip to Grace House. One night shortly thereafter, Hall awoke alone in bed.
It was three a.m. She assumed Richard had fallen asleep downstairs and so she went back to sleep. In the morning, she walked downstairs and found Richard on the floor in his bathrobe, his body purple and cold, with a needle beside him. He was dead.
Richard’s heroin had been laced with fentanyl. His was the first fentanyl-related overdose death in Stettler, so Hall expected to see it in the news. Instead, there was only silence, undergirded by the kind of shame that something like this could happen here.
I knew about that kind of silence, the silence that drowns out the stories everyone knows but won’t talk about, like the husbands who beat their wives bloody, like the undisguised racism toward the Indigenous people we share land with, like the story of the gay teenager who ran his car engine in his closed garage until he died and the parents who called it an accident. It is the kind of silence that mutes any voice saying we’ve failed ourselves and our children. During my research, I called my parents, who live in the Whitney Lakes by Elk Point, two and a half hours east of Edmonton, and asked if they knew much about the opioid crisis. My mother mentioned a name and asked if I remembered playing hockey with him. “He died from an overdose a few weeks back,” she said. “And your cousin,” she continued, “we’re pretty sure that’s what he’s addicted to, but the family won’t talk.”
Then she mentioned a man with an alcohol addiction from my hometown. In the city, she said, he’d be just another alcoholic you pass on the street. But in our town, where everyone knew him, they found him a cheap place to live and a job he could hold down. Why couldn’t we do that for people addicted to opioids? Maybe, she continued, if losing that sense of community is what’s made the opioid crisis so bad, could we reclaim those same values to solve it? Or at least start. “If the stigma in our communities is worse,” she said, “maybe that means the bonds are stronger, too? I’m asking. I don’t know.”
Down the hill from the Blood Tribe community clinic in Standoff, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers pointed from the window of her SUV at people outside a hall. “There’s a funeral going on over there,” she said. “A young person.”
Tailfeathers had invited me on a tour of Standoff, a town in the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta. It was April and already sweltering. The reserve is so close to the U.S. border that the sacred Chief Mountain, in Montana, is almost always visible. She looked from behind her sunglasses at mourners by the hall. Her pain seemed to alter the atmosphere inside the vehicle when she spoke. Tailfeathers, who was born and raised on the Blood Reserve, has a barely audible voice but her words can stop you in your tracks. “Opioid overdose.”
I asked her if she knew them. She nodded.
We took a two-lane highway leading out of town, past St. Catherine’s cemetery, where there was a pile of unearthed soil for a grave waiting to be filled.
Tailfeathers had left the reserve to become a doctor, and used to split her time between Fort Chipewyan and Standoff. Now she works at the clinic in Standoff full time. The opioid crisis, which has devastated the community since 2014, brought her back. Between August that year and March 2015, when the tribe issued its first state of emergency, almost 20 people died from fentanyl overdoses. Things haven’t improved since. One weekend last February, when a snowstorm enveloped the reserve, the Blood Tribe reported 14 overdoses related to a bad batch of carfentanil. By the end of that week, the number of overdoses surpassed 50 in Lethbridge.
The Blood Tribe, or Kainai Nation, has always been a farming and ranching community. The Kainai were in large part responsible for southern Alberta’s prosperity in the early 20th century. Settlers needed their commodities, such as coal and hay, and relied on their freighting infrastructure and trade connections. Even today, the Blood Reserve owns the country’s largest private irrigation network.
In 1918, the federal government imposed a land-use policy on the Bloods, which opened up leasing on tribal lands to settlers. Soon the Bloods’ cattle numbers and grain bushels dropped off. They couldn’t sell their cattle, wheat or hay without going through Ottawa, and couldn’t borrow money for machinery. After a row of drought years, the cattle starved, and soon the tribe couldn’t keep pace with ranchers outside the reserve. In the 1921 book Our Betrayed Wards, Indian agent R.N. Wilson called it a deliberate effort by his government to sabotage the tribe. Its legacy is still visible. Today, most of the agricultural land is leased to non-Indigenous people. Tailfeathers’ grandparents were farmers, and her brother is still a cattle rancher, but agriculture in the community has become increasingly controlled by fewer and wealthier people.
Days before I visited Tailfeathers, I had met a physician named Ginetta Salvalaggio at the University of Alberta. Salvalaggio’s work focuses on social determinants and relationship-building, and she is examining how to support people who use drugs alone, something common in the rural Alberta experience. Childhood experiences of trauma, poverty and growing up in residential schools are strong predictors of drug use, she explained, noting that the rural reality of the opioid crisis can’t be uncoupled from community breakdown. Salvalaggio had left me with a question that ran through my mind as I drove with Tailfeathers. “Is it really the opioid causing the death?” she asked. “Or, when the social fabric starts to deteriorate in someone’s life, is that the death knell?”
Looking out on the Blood Reserve, however, Tailfeathers didn’t want to focus on tragedy. There was an abundance of overdoses in February but just one death. A year ago, she said, it could have been 20. People in this part of rural Alberta were changing how they helped people addicted to drugs.
The tribe used to exile drug dealers and send patients to treatment centres in the major cities, but it learned— as the rest of Alberta has subsequently learned—that abstinence alone doesn’t work. The community instead shifted its focus to tradition and ceremony, and to social inclusion. Overdoses still happen, but the tribe is saving lives.
The high school has implemented trauma-informed care, which focuses on the connection between adverse childhood experiences and outcomes. Staff at the high school are volunteering more and the rodeo club has expanded. Both the boys’ and girls’ high-school basketball teams recently made it to provincials, and there’s a rumour that one player is being scouted by the NBA. Every night there’s something on at the community centre, from cooking classes to beading courses and, at the health centre, children tend the garden beds outside the windows of the elders’ long-term care facilities. In early autumn, the kids harvest what they grow and take it home to eat.
The child welfare program has shifted its focus, too, aiming to keep families together. Chief and council now focus on addressing the social factors affecting the opioid crisis, and have invested in affordable and alternative housing. There are more jobs, and the streets are cleaner and quieter.
I had spoken about the Blood Tribe’s approach with Salvalaggio, who said the potential for this kind of community development, and for creating doctor-patient relationships that establish a continuity of care, was far greater in rural areas. Strong, supportive relationships reduce blame, shame and stigma, and shift the focus to healing. When you know that the community has your back, she said, self-confidence in your ability to tackle addiction increases.
Tailfeathers put it similarly: Identity is important to health, just as culture is important in healing. As we drove, she gestured to a street nicknamed Oxy Alley. “There used to be 21 people in a three-bedroom home with one bathroom,” she said. That day, it looked like most other streets. Kids wheeled tricycles around and bounced on trampolines while laughter cut through the air. A towering white cross was erected in someone’s backyard, behind a fence on which a classic prairie mural was painted: A man wearing a headdress sits atop a horse facing two tipis and, in the distance, Chief Mountain. The man’s head is held high, his gaze unflinching. It looks as if he’s simultaneously where he needs to be and scouting where he’s going next.
After Mike Hennessy had spent more than 70 days in prison, the Crown Prosecutor’s office told him to get help, since he had no criminal history. So instead of two or three years in jail, he spent 13 months in treatment in B.C., then returned to Alberta, and by February he was racing again. That summer he represented Alberta at the Western Regional Driving Championship, and by November he had more wins than anyone else in the province—a record he hit again the next year. In March 2017, he reached the coveted 500win benchmark driving a three-year-old filly. Rod Hennessy, with more than 2,800 wins, joked that it’d come a little late.
But earlier this year, after returning to rural Alberta and racing at the top of his game, Mike Hennessy quit harness racing. For good, he said. The vices, the people, “the bond at the racetrack”—it creates temptation. Meetings, prayer and meditation were his new benchmarks. Hennessy said he was off to the mountains to work as a farrier and trainer, and told me when he left that what he would miss the most was working with the horses. That, and the rush.
Tammy Young also relocated. After 18 years as a first responder, she left Alberta for British Columbia and now works with an equine-therapy non-profit. She has two horses: a little paint horse and an eight-year-old quarter horse with some colour. She lives in Nanaimo, B.C., and she and her husband board the horses in a facility, avoiding the stress of owning a farm. They should have done it years ago, she said, then offered, unsolicited, that she still hadn’t heard from Hailey.
These are melancholy stories, much like the story of our land, especially in that the land I grew up on, that our country grew up on, is not merely land. The marks we make on it, Roger Epp described in Writing Off the Rural West, even the collapsing and abandoned houses, halls, and churches, are “repositories of intergenerational family identity and community memory.” Epp wrote, “Land is where ancestors are buried. Land is the site of good work that feeds people, that engages parents meaningfully with their children. Land in combination with Prairie sky, light and quiet represents an aesthetic sense of space that is not willingly abandoned.”
It’s not just the space you miss. You never forget the horses you leave behind: how one would flinch when you’d scrape off the bot flies on her tendons, or the way another would writhe his back and kick his heels up as he bucked. My family had two Texas Walkers and a miniature horse named Buffy. One day, I found Buffy dead in the field, her limp body in a pile of hay where we’d ride her in circles. We sold both Texas Walkers when we left the farm.
My Texas Walkers, Buffy, Hailey’s foal, the dozens of all-star Standardbreds that Hennessy raced through his career—this litany of horses gone by reminds me of a line by country singer Corb Lund: “Whenever I see horses, it reminds me of what I ain’t.”
The horse symbolizes the folkloric rural West, a lifestyle in decline, stubbornly refusing to fully disappear. The rural history of Alberta is full of abandoned company towns like Mercoal, coal-mining communities like Bankhead and railway camps like Coalspur. Kitscoty, where I went to school, was named after a tomb. Its population grows but its culture shrinks. It had a grocery store, but it burned down and won’t be rebuilt. The old bank, long ago transformed into an antique store, was finally torn down. Most of the businesses on Main Street have shuttered. Even the liquor store couldn’t stay open. I look at our local history and have little hope.
But I do have stories. Clichés about winding rivers or long roads sound trite, like when Lund sings, “You ain’t a cowboy if you ain’t been bucked off.” But such metaphors reconstruct the past to show us who we might have been and who we might still be. When we lose these symbols, we lose our sense of identity, the identity so crucial to our health. We need them to move on. Our stories—our identity and culture—come from the land, as we do, and they affirm it’s acceptable, noble even, to stay where we came from.
Yet what are you supposed to do when part of you can’t leave and part of you can’t stay? That inner conflict sows the seeds for the threat, the loss, the anxiety, the mistakes, the shame. The opioids.
Before my grandfather died from lung cancer, he and my grandmother moved into Vermilion from the farm, and in the backyard of their small house he cut down a branch from a tree and found in its rings the image of a man staring back at him. He began having dreams in which he became this man in that piece of wood, and could observe everything that happened around him but could not move or speak. My grandfather was bedridden, oxygen tank at his side, forced off his farm. I suppose transforming himself into this man in the tree was his psyche’s way of capturing what he felt as he prepared to die, helpless as the world left him behind.
When my aging aunt and uncle have passed away, no one will be left to work the farm where my mother and her siblings were raised. I imagine it will be sold to big business, maybe owned by a hedge fund and traded by people who never thought for a second about those who wheeled their wagons through the plains, dying of thirst and poverty, to build a new Eldorado. I certainly won’t be taking over the farm. I am my family’s broken link, and I still hear it all the time: that high and lonesome sound, that twang of despair. Yes, it breaks the silence. But it deepens it, too.
Mike Hennessy was 10 years old when he jogged his first horse, and it tore flat-out across the farm track so fast he thought his father had pranked him. The speed, the smell of the stables, the thunder of hooves on the track and the mountain air whirling across the northern Rocky plains—Hennessy put his […]
July 30, 2017 – Edmonton Airport As a child I thought the Arabic term for Lebanon was “the Balaad.” That’s what my parents called it whenever they fondly remembered their life before Canada, before I was born. This other world, as they described it, was somehow a more difficult place, yet culturally superior. I was […]