The Yukon government has asked a retired doctor and a former chief to lead a task force that will look at ways to better help those who are extremely intoxicated.
Longtime Whitehorse physician Bruce Beaton and James Allen, a former chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, will work with First Nation, health-care, justice and social service officials to discuss the issue of extreme alcoholism in the territory.
"We must consider the options for supporting people in our communities who are struggling with alcohol dependence, and in particular those whose visible dysfunctions put themselves and others at risk," Health and Social Services Minister Glenn Hart stated in a release Thursday.
"We need to ensure that the options we look at reflect the current best practices and are solutions that will truly help the people we are trying to reach."
Yukon MLAs voted unanimously in favour of creating the task force following the May 2 death of Robert Stone who had spent about 15 hours in an RCMP cell, the hospital and then the detox centre where he died.
Last month, an inquest panel heard details about the December 2008 death of Raymond Silverfox, who had spent 13 hours in the Whitehorse RCMP's drunk tank.
Beaton, a longtime emergency room physician, told CBC News that extreme alcoholism is a major issue in the territory. At the same time, the task force will not try to solve the broader problem of alcohol and drug abuse, he said.
"It's going to limit itself to how to manage, care for, deal with the acutely intoxicated individual and help them through the transition back to a state of sobriety," Beaton said Thursday.
"I'm not so sure that I can state that our problem is any bigger or worse than any other society. But it is a significant one, and one that needs attention and one that needs upgrading to the current levels of technology and care available."
Hart said the task force will include representatives from the Yukon's health and justice departments, as well as paramedics, RCMP, the Yukon Medical Association, the Salvation Army, the Yukon Hospital Corp. and First Nations. The task force will begin working as soon as those organizations identify their representatives.
Beaton said the issue is not limited to Whitehorse, the panel will travel to communities across the territory to gather people's views.
Want to hear from workers, street people
Allen and Beaton say they particularly want to hear from front-line workers, as well as people who do struggle with acute intoxication.
"I don't think that the professional people will be able to come up with a plan that may work," Allen said. "We have to call in the people that are also having problems on the streets."
Allen added that society's overall attitudes toward intoxicated people must change.
"Every one of those people are human beings, and I think we must treat them with more respect and more dignity," he said.
The task force must present its report to Hart by Dec. 31.