Opioid crisis sees First Nations deaths double during pandemic


Canada’s top doctor said she’s concerned about the rising number of opioid related deaths in what she is calling a major consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief medical health officer, recently released her report on the state of public health in Canada for 2020 which describes the worsening of the opioid crisis.

Tam said the reason for the rising deaths related to the crisis is partially due to more fentanyl in illegal drugs now.

This year, extreme concentrations of fentanyl were detected in 14 per cent of opioid deaths compared to only eight per cent last year.

“There are indications that the street drug supply of opioids has grown more unpredictable and toxic due to the pre pandemic supply chains being disrupted by travel restrictions and border measures,” Tam said.

The deadly trend is worse in British Columbia where First Nations deaths due to opioid overdose have almost doubled.

First Nations people accounted for 16 per cent of all overdose deaths this year and they were 5.6 times more likely to die from overdose compared to the rest of the population.

That mortality rate is up from 3.8 times last year.

“Prior to the pandemic, there had been a 13% decrease in opioid overdose deaths in Canada between 2018 and 2019,” the report states.

Before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11, cases were going down in Alberta and B.C. but now jurisdictions across the country are reporting rising opioid deaths.

Another damaging outcome of the pandemic is the reduced access to safe consumption sites.

In Lethbridge, Alta., the busiest injection site was shut down by the province because of misspending.

The site had 500 visitors a day and now a temporary site, which is opposed by residents, is operating in a local downtown park.

According to statistics, 449 people have died in Alberta due to an overdose from opioids like fentanyl. More than 300 died between April and June.

In comparison, 288 people have died in the province from COVID-19.

Many sites were forced to shut down or at least reduce their number of clients due to COVID-19 restrictions. The report describes one case in Ottawa where a safe consumption site scrapped its social distancing measures when several clients overdosed outside while waiting in line to get in.

The report says health officials suspect more deaths are also arising out of COVID restrictions.

“Public health measures such as calls for physical distancing and limited trips outside the home may have increased social isolation and reduced access to services, such as in-person support groups and other programs. This is a particular consequence for the opioid crisis,” said the report.

Public health agency simulation models suggest that rising fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances in street drugs and decreased public health measures to prevent overdoses will contribute to the greatest increase in deaths since the highest peak of the opioid crisis in 2018.

Reporter / Ottawa

Originally from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi on the eastern coast of James Bay, Quebec, Jamie has lived in Ottawa since 2015. Trained in journalism at Carleton University, he has worked as a freelance print journalist and as a writer/researcher for the Cree unit of CBC North out of Montreal. Jamie was hired as the reporter/correspondent for the Ottawa bureau in October 2019.