Reaction to Yukon’s new substance use health emergency receiving mixed reviews


While the Yukon government’s new substance use health emergency is intended to respond to the territory’s addictions crisis, some people feel little will come from the declaration.

Last week Health Minister Tracey-Anne McPhee made the declaration in response to the territory’s addictions and mental health crisis.

“Far too many need our help and support. Far too many are dying in our communities and here in Whitehorse,” she said regarding the declaration on Thursday.

Initiatives under the declaration include a new territory-wide public awareness and education campaign addressing the toxic drug supply present in Yukon communities, developing a new opioid action plan and increasing on-the-land treatment options in the territory.

On Monday, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Yukon Regional office responded to the declaration.

A news release from the office states “the AFN Yukon Region welcomes the territorial government’s acknowledgement and willingness to take these mental health and addictions issues seriously, and looks forward to working with federal partners to address the urgent and long-term needs of communities.”

It went on to say following the declaration’s announcement, chiefs in Yukon met with Carolyn Bennett, minister of mental health and addictions, to “stress the immediate need for community-focused government support.”

A handful of chiefs in the Yukon provided statements in the release urging immediate action, including Deputy Naa Sháade Héni Alex Oakley of the Teslin Tlingit Council.

“What matters right now is strong action and the mobilization of immediate resources from the governments’ directly to Yukon First Nations…I need this message to be heard by the federal government, and territorial government, loud and clear,” he said.

Communities left out

But Carcross/Tagish First Nation Elder Geraldine Carol James is doubtful meaningful change will come from the declaration.

“The whole thing about the opioid crisis, it should have been done years ago. First Nations should have had help the minute they got out of residential school,” James says.

She was born into addictions and struggled for many years with the trauma and grief it caused her and her family.

James says she grappled with addiction and raised her three older children in an environment similar to that of her own childhood. Two years ago, she lost her adopted daughter to alcohol addiction.

Now, her home community of Carcross is grappling with three drug-related deaths in the first few weeks of the new year, prompting C/TFN to declare a state of emergency earlier this month.

On Monday, Yukon’s chief coroner Heather Jones released a statement that a fourth death took place in the community over the weekend which might be drug-related.

James says she’s concerned about what’s happening and feels more rigorous supports for communities are being left out of the declaration.

James says there are no after-hours counsellors in Carcross and the territory’s only supervised consumption site is in Whitehorse around an hour away – issues she would like to see addressed.

She notes she’s often woken up in the middle of the night helping young people in crisis and it’s becoming difficult to deal with.

“Why aren’t the communities involved? Why don’t we have help here at  4 a.m. in the morning? Why don’t we have a (supervised consumption) site?” she says.

While the declaration does include support for communities, such as expanding drug testing and safe supply to communities, other areas of the declaration are focused only on Whitehorse, like enhancing the supervised consumption site to support those who use inhalants.

James says she wants to see more meaningful support provided to communities.

“That’s enough of hearing and talking. There’s got to be action,” James says.

No state of emergency

James is not alone.

Lyndsay Amato, who is also a C/TFN citizen, has similar concerns.

Amato organized an addictions and mental health vigil across the territory earlier this month.

She says the declaration is a good first step, but she’s concerned it’s too vague.

“Our concern now is what is are the timelines for these supports? It’s going to drag on and on and on, and in the meantime, we’re going to continue losing people,” she says.

Last week MacPhee noted the declaration is not a state of emergency, but a commitment to respond to the substance use crisis.

It does not grant the territorial government any additional powers like a state of emergency would.

Amato, who collected signatures to declare a state of emergency during the vigil event, says she’s frustrated one was not called.

“If the government would have declared a state of emergency, like a full state of emergency, things would start happening right away, that’s what we feel. But that doesn’t really seem like that happened,” she says.

Yukon NDP leader Kate White is also disappointed with the declaration.

“I think like many people I’m relieved the minister has finally acknowledged that there’s a problem, and like many people I’m disappointed it’s taken this long. It’s just a rehash of announcements,” she says. “It feels like the government really waited.”

Like Amato, she’s curious about when supports will be implemented.

“So now the question becomes when are they going to have a managed an alcohol program, when are we going to talk about a supervised consumption site attached to residential, when are we going to talk about those programs that actually make those meaningful changes,” she says.

Meanwhile, James is hopeful better access to on-the-land treatment will be a reality under the declaration.

“It’s up to us to develop those camps and what we’re going to put in there for our people.”

According to Monday’s release by the Yukon’s coroner service, eight people, pending toxicology on one case, died between Jan.3 and Jan.23 due to illicit drug use.

Three deaths that occurred between Jan.15 and Jan.19 involved fentanyl. Cocaine and benzodiazepines (“benzos”) were also present in two of the cases.

Reporter / Whitehorse

Sara Connors is originally from Nova Scotia and has a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. After graduation she worked in South Korea for two years as an English Language teacher and freelance journalist. After she returned home in 2019 she worked behind the scenes at CTV Atlantic in Halifax before joining APTN's Yukon bureau in July 2020.