Following four Yukon drug-related deaths in the first week of January, and more deaths in the past week, including two women at the local homeless shelter on Tuesday, Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee has declared a substance use health emergency.
A lengthy briefing this morning involved McPhee, chief Yukon coroner Heather Jones, acting chief medical officer of health Dr. Catherine Elliott and RCMP Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard.
They spent more than 90 minutes outlining an action plan that draws liberally from other jurisdictions, particularly British Columbia, where a similar state of emergency has been in effect for six years.
McPhee said her government “is working closely with partners to advance a range of harm reduction initiatives in response to the emergency.”
A number of initiatives will be underway, including:
• a new territory-wide public awareness and education campaign addressing the toxic drug supply present in Yukon communities;
• expanding drug testing and safe supply to rural communities and increasing availability in Whitehorse;
• enhancing the Yukon government’s supervised consumption site in downtown Whitehorse to support those who use inhalants;
• increasing on-the-land treatment options in the territory;
• working with Blood Ties Four Directions to extend the hours of operation of the outreach van, which provides mobile fentanyl testing and enhanced supports to marginalized individuals; and
• developing a new Opioid Action Plan to build on the success of the territory’s first Action Plan in 2018.
“This declaration is a commitment to action by our government, and a call to action to all Yukoners,” said McPhee, who is also the minister of Justice.
“It is time to rally around our communities, our friends, our neighbours and family members who need our support.
“We need to address our territory’s substance use health emergency and make our communities more safe and healthy. Substance use is killing people and creating mental health crises in each and every Yukon community.”
Added Elliott: “The rapid increase in opioid-related deaths signals a significant health problem that requires immediate focused attention.
“The Yukon’s illicit drug supply is contaminated, and that is contributing to a significant increase of accidental overdose, injury, illness and death,” Elliott said.
“As acting CMOH, I am committed to focusing our resources, enhancing our partnerships across Yukon and addressing this complex health issue.”
By coming together, Elliott added, “I am confident that we will be able to address the immediate crisis and work to improve the underlying factors that contribute to illicit drug related harms.”
Jones confirmed four deaths due to illicit drugs in the first seven days of this month.
“Three of these deaths are the result of fentanyl.
“Further, the Yukon Coroner’s Service is investigating three more deaths occurring between January 15 and 19 that are suspected to be drug-related,” Jones confirmed.
Toxicology results related to these three additional deaths are pending.
“The extremely high number of drug-related deaths in the past several months is a catastrophic reminder of the dangers around illicit drug use in the Yukon,” the coroner added.
“The presence of toxic street drugs is a public health and safety concern throughout the territory.”
The Yukon NDP issued a statement during the briefing.
“The government has announced a substance use emergency in the territory,” the party said.
“While the Yukon NDP welcomes this long-awaited announcement, we are waiting to see what concrete, new action will come out of this,” the release stated.
Annie Blake, the NDP MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin, said, “Folks across the Yukon have been demanding that government take action for years. Our territory needs more than just words. People need mental health support. They need counselling.
“Until the government finally listens and provides actual support to grieving families and Yukoners struggling with addiction, nothing will change for the people who need it most,” Blake said.
The Yukon Party weighed in on the issue Wednesday.
“Our sincere condolences go out to all Yukoners who have been affected by the opioid crisis in our territory,” said MLA Geraldine Van Bibber.
“The communities are in desperate need of assistance to help stem the flow of drugs arriving and distributed to their citizens.
“When the First Nation at Carcross declares a state of emergency and a petition is filed during the fall (2021) sitting of the legislative assembly on behalf of Mayo residents, there is a proven deep concern and a cry for help.
“We urge the Liberal government to take charge and provide extensive addiction treatment within the Territory so all can access assistance closer to home,’ Van Bibber said.
“Meetings and summits are pointless when we are losing people at this rate – action instead of words are needed now.”
Bronte Renwick-Shields of Blood Ties Four Directions said, “As the Yukon continues to see an increasing number of overdose fatalities throughout the territory, we know all of our hearts are very heavy right now.
“We encourage people to reach out for support, naloxone training, harm reduction education and to utilize our drug-checking programs. We want to remind people not to use alone, to carry naloxone and to use the supervised consumption site.”
There are solutions to the crisis, Renwick-Shields added.
“We continue to call for decriminalization of substances, low-barrier access to safe supply throughout the Yukon and increased supports for rural Yukon communities.”