Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation declares substance use emergency

Chief of the northernmost First Nation in Yukon says her community isn’t immune to the addictions crisis.

As Yukon continues to grapple with an addictions crisis, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) is declaring a substance use emergency.

“I think (we’re) no different than any other Yukon community,” said Chief Pauline Frost. “I think we’ve seen a significant rise in opioid overdoses and deaths, and Old Crow is not any different.”

VGFN is the third community to declare a crisis.

The First Nation, located 800 km north of Whitehorse in the community of Old Crow, is the only fly-in community in the territory.

Frost said despite her community’s isolation, the substance use crisis is impacting citizens who live in Old Crow, Whitehorse and other communities.

She noted five citizens have died from addictions and substance use in recent years, a number that is hard hitting for the community of 220 people.

“The situation has gotten to the place where we’ve seen too many lives lost,” she said. “It affects everyone, and the loss of life also is terrible.”

VGFN joins the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun which made a similar declaration in February after a double homicide took place in the community of Mayo. In January 2022, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation was the first to make a declaration after three community members died from substance use during a one-week span.

Frost, who is a former Liberal MLA and minister of health and social services, said her community wants action when it comes to tackling substance use.

While the declaration does not grant VGFN any additional powers or privileges, Frost said it serves as a “huge statement” and is a commitment from the First Nation’s government to provide resources to citizens that need them.

Frost said VGFN is being proactive about the issue. She noted VGFN now has a full-time counsellor, social worker and needle exchange in the community. She noted her government just recently had outreach workers from Blood-Ties Four Directions there to do prevention and harm reduction education.

Frost said another win for her community is that more than 30 citizens recently applied to go to treatment. She said there are now 21 active applicants with 10 currently in treatment.

“It gives me hope for better tomorrows for our children,” she said.

Coroners investigation underway

Chief Pauline Frost during a walk in March 2023 in support and solidarity for those impacted by the opioid crisis. Photo: VGFN Facebook.

The same day of VGFN’s declaration, the Yukon Coroner’s Service (YCS) put out a release stating it was investigating four deaths that took place between April 15 and April 18.

Chief Coroner Heather Jones said while the deaths are unrelated, all appear to be linked to substance use.

“It raises concerns for sure when we see them this close together,” she said in an interview with APTN News.

While Jones couldn’t confirm pending toxicology results, she believes opioids will likely be a factor in the deaths.

Two deaths occurred in Whitehorse, while the two others took place in the communities of Haines Junction and Watson Lake.

The deceased are men and women between the ages of 27 to 52. Three of the deceased belonged to First Nations in the territory.

Jones said she’s noticing more Indigenous people dying in Yukon in recent years due to substance use.

“It’s certainly the majority that we’re seeing this year, and that’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Jones said while the number of deaths is not getting better, she’s hopeful First Nation’s commitments to tackling addictions will help address the situation.

“I really think that both the territorial government and all the First Nation governments are really putting resources and energy here to try to make a difference.”

According to YCS, 25 people died in Yukon last year from toxic illicit drug use, 17 of which were Indigenous.

The territory currently has the highest toxic drug death rate in Canada by per capita basis.

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