First Nations people in B.C. are five times more likely to experience an overdose and three times more likely to die from one, according to new data released Thursday.

The statistics confirm what Indigenous leaders in the province have suspected for months — that their communities have been disproportionately affected by a crisis that killed 640 people in the province in the first five months of the year.

The First Nations Health Authority and the provincial government released the data in Vancouver Thursday. The data also showed that, while province-wide numbers typically show that men are more likely to die from an overdose, fatalities are more evenly split between men and women in First Nations communities.

Officials said racism, stigma and intergenerational trauma were factors in the higher number of women affected.

Data sought for months

It's the first time such information has been released in B.C. 

In April, Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit said he believed the fentanyl crisis was affecting more First Nations people, but didn't have the numbers to prove it. He told the Canadian Press he'd been asking for the data for months, to no avail.

Tribal Chief Wayne Christian said the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council buried five band members from its communities in the span of a week in March 2016. He, too, was looking for provincial data to help quantify the crisis.

On Thursday, B.C.'s chief medical health officer said a lack of resources made it nearly impossible to collect data sooner.

edward john

Grand Chief Edward John said he's suspected that Indigenous people are more affected by the overdose crisis than non-Indigenous people for more than a year, but didn't have the data that this is the case. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Perry Kendall said a province-wide public health emergency declared in April 2016 gave the province jurisdiction to access data that wouldn't otherwise be available — including emergency room information and statistics from the ambulance service. 

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said methodology was also a challenge.

"There were some sensitivities — do you ask people their ethnicity when you're responding to a call and will that offend people?" she said.

"But ... the First Nations Health Authority, they were asking for us to collect that data. So now coroners, at every reported death, have to ask: 'Did this individual identify as Aboriginal or Indigenous and, if so, did they identify as First Nation, Indigenous or Metis?"

Previously, Indigenous-specific data was collected based on self-identification and had to be compared with the province's First Nation client file, a data set that also includes information from the federal government.

Dr. Shannon McDonald of the FNHA said Thursday's numbers are going to be used to identify where health care can improve for First Nations communities going forward.

More than 900 people died of an illicit drug overdose in B.C. last year. It's the deadliest overdose year on record, up 80 per cent from 2015.

With files from Farrah Merali and The Canadian Press