It’s painful for Chantal Tizya to talk about her older sister, Myranda Charlie, but it’s something she wants to do.
Charlie, a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation citizen, died on Jan.19 from an opioid overdose at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter. She consumed a lethal dose of cocaine mixed with fentanyl and benzodiazepine.
She was 34-years-old.
“All I think about is my sister. She was such a good person,” Tizya tearfully recalls.
According to the most recent news release from the territory’s chief coroner, eight people died in the territory between Jan.3 and 23 from illicit drug use.
Charlie was one of them.
But Tizya says her sister is not a statistic.
She cracks a smile when recalling growing up with Charlie in Old Crow, a fly-in community in northern Yukon.
Tizya says Charlie was a caring person and a sports enthusiast. She was involved with recreation in Old Crow and could often be found playing baseball with youth in the community.
Charlie excelled at hockey and left Old Crow as a teenager to play for Team Yukon in Whitehorse. She later played in the Arctic Winter Games and the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG).
She also took pride in joining the Junior rangers and later joined the Canadian rangers alongside her beloved father, Douglas.
Charlie even cared for Tizya’s son when Tizya was struggling with addictions of her own.
“She was always there for people and just a lot of people loved her for the person she was,” Tizya says.
Tizya’s not sure how her sister came to be involved with drugs and alcohol, but as the years went by Charlie’s addictions became more severe.
Tizya says last fall their father died from cancer which her sister struggled to cope with.
“Things just got worse for all of us, especially my older sister. It was just too hard to quit I guess,” she says.
Tizya says around the time of her death, Charlie did not have suitable housing and was living in downtown Whitehorse where she often stayed at the emergency shelter. Tizya moved to Whitehorse to better support her sister and asked her to live with her, but Charlie declined as Tizya was maintaining her sobriety.
Tizya recalls two days before Charlie died, she said wanted to get clean.
“She came to my house and I told her to stay here with me. She said ‘I want to go to treatment, and I need to go to treatment,’ and I said ‘okay.’ She really wanted the help. She wanted to change,” Tizya says.
Now, three weeks after her death, Tizya says not having her sister in her life has been devastating.
“Right now, I lost my dad five months ago. Myranda was a big part of my life. After that, losing our dad, I feel like I got nobody now. It’s very hard,” she says.
Despite grieving the loss of her sister, Tizya doesn’t want another family to experience the pain of losing a loved one to opioids – and that’s why she’s speaking out.
She’s calling on the territorial government to end Yukon’s addictions crisis so no more lives are lost.
“(I’m speaking out) not only speaking for my sister but everyone else who’s lost someone in the Yukon right now. It’s hard. We’ve lost so many people and we need to put an end to this,” she says.
Too little too late
Last month Yukon Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee declared a substance use health emergency in response to the deaths.
It includes a range of harm reduction initiatives, such as a new territory-wide public awareness and education campaign, the expansion of drug testing and safe supply to rural communities as well as enhancing the territory’s supervised consumption site to support those who use inhalants.
Unlike a state of emergency, the declaration does not grant the territorial government any additional powers or privileges it doesn’t already have.
McPhee told APTN News the declaration “express a commitment from our government as a priority of government action.”
McPhee says her government is taking Yukon’s addictions and opioid crisis seriously and is committed to finding solutions.
But Tizya wonders why the declaration wasn’t declared years ago. According to a press release from the chief coroner from November 2021, the opioid crisis began claiming lives in the territory since the spring of 2016.
“I think there’s way more that could be done and I don’t know why it’s taken so long for them to realize,” Tizya says.
“All this stuff they’re coming up with now should have been done long ago.”
But McPhee says it’s taken time to recognize the impacts illicit drugs have had on the territory. She says conversations have taken place as to how to tackle the issue, such as at the Yukon Forum, a regular meeting held between Yukon government, Yukon First Nations and the Council of Yukon First Nations.
“The truth of it is it is at a crisis point at this stage,” McPhee says.
“We have seen an increase in opioid-related deaths here in the territory. It is at a crisis point and it needs the coordinated response we think the time has brought.”
But Tizya says the declaration has come too late for her family.
“I just hope they get the drugs off the street and put an end to this hurt and pain. I don’t know how much more I can take,” she says.
Billy Huebschwerlen is a recovering addict living in Whitehorse.
The Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) citizen has been clean for 13 years with the help of a treatment centre he attended in B.C.
He says his home community of Carcross is grappling with an addictions crisis.
Last month C/TFN declared its own state of emergency after three community members died from illicit drug use in the first week of January. Another death in the community is being investigated by the Yukon coroners service according to the most recent release and is assumed to be drug-related.
Huebschwerlen says he knows the people who died, one of whom was his cousin.
“She was in treatment and came back. There was no aftercare program, and now she’s passed away too because of the addictions,” he says.
Like Tizya, he’s doubtful of the new emergency declaration.
“(McPhee) announced the emergency and that’s about it. It’s an empty announcement,” he says.
But McPhee says the government “is listening at every chance we get.”
She notes Yukon government is working with its partners and is encouraging people who need support to use the territory’s supervised consumption site and to access safe supply and supports in their community if they’re able to do so.
“We are producing an environment where they can come forward and feel safe and supported and receive treatment and recover in a way that is supportive of them as individuals and supportive of their community in a broader way,” she says.
Huebschwerlen says something he would have liked to see included in the declaration is a greater focus on treatment centres.
He credits the treatment centre he attended with helping him beat his addictions, but he says Yukon is lacking in options.
He says through his own experience and talking with people he knows who are in active addiction, the territory’s only short-term withdrawal management centre is frequently at capacity.
Tizya agrees. She says during her own battle with addictions, she went to the centre but was turned away because it was full.
McPhee says the withdrawal management centre has a reduced number of beds due to COVID-19 spacing requirements, which she hopes will soon change.
She says the Yukon government is supportive of treatment centre programming and she has had discussions with partners to expand services within communities. She says the topic will be discussed at a mental health wellness summit planned for next week.
She says she’s also initiated work to look at spaces in western Canada in order to provide people in need with a quicker turnaround time.
A government spokesperson told APTN the territory has one other live-in alcohol and drug treatment facility led by highly trained clinical counsellors. Huebschwerlen says the government should also look into hiring counsellors who have experienced addiction.
“A lot of them are college or educated counsellors that have no experience in the field of addictions. They don’t know what addictions is. They learn it from a book. With school-educated people you don’t get a response from the addict as you do when it’s another addict,” he says.
Huebschwerlen says another issue that needs to be addressed is more investment in aftercare.
“The Yukon is a hard place for people to struggle with addictions. There’s not a whole lot up here, there’s not a lot of avenues for them to go to,” he says.
He says in Vancouver there are several, if not hundreds of narcotics anonymous meetings every day, while only a handful are run in Yukon.
He says the lack of aftercare has had devastating consequences, especially for people like his cousin who weren’t able to access aftercare services.
“I don’t disagree that there’s very little coordinated aftercare programming,” says McPhee.
She says aftercare is often left to people who have just finished treatment elsewhere and return to their communities, and that better supports are needed.
“I think a coordinated aftercare program that would be available either in communities or in a way that people could connect through communities is absolutely critical. We do know that when individuals go for treatment they absolutely must be supported when they come home,” she says.
McPhee says she’s speaking with First Nations governments regarding a coordinated aftercare response.
But despite McPhee’s commitments, Huebschwerlen says he’ll believe it when he sees it.
“It’s very empty promises right now. They’ve said they’re going to do stuff and it’s been a few years now and we haven’t seen anything concrete from them,” he says.
Yukon government under fire
Earlier this week McPhee’s government was publicly criticized by the Yukon NDP Party.
A press release from the party states that while the Yukon government declared that a safe supply of opioids would be expanded across the territory three months ago, “it is still nowhere to be found.”
“Despite what the government is saying, safer supply is only available in theory, definitely not in practice. Safer supply is not being advertised anywhere, which means that people who want to access it have no idea it’s even available, let alone how or where to access it. Service providers who want to promote safer supply don’t even have any information to hand out,” said Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Annie Blake in the statement.
The statement goes on to make recommendations, including following B.C.’s model of enabling registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe treatment medications for opioid use disorder.
McPhee says she’s aware of the criticism but says only medical professionals and pharmacists can provide opioid or opioid-style drugs at this time.
“We do have the availability for some nurse practitioners and registered nurses that have expanded scope of practice that are in each of our communities to provide those kinds of opioid replacement drugs as well, and we’re working to have each of them be able to do that,” she says.
The Yukon Medical Association (YMA) also recently put out a release urging the territorial government to decriminalize simple possession and use of controlled substances.
“This is a crisis of huge proportions, and it is disproportionately impacting First Nations people who make up a significant proportion of our population,” said YMA President Dr. Ryan Warshawski.
The release also states Yukon doctors believe access to opioid agonist treatment is limited in communities due to a lack of pharmacy services and it must be expanded outside of Whitehorse.
Meanwhile, Tizya says she’s honouring her sister by encouraging anyone struggling to reach out and get help.
“I lost a very good person. My life will never be the same without her,” she says.
“We need to realize we need the help to get through this and looking for healthy ways to get through this.