British Columbia

B.C. First Nations leaders call for more Indigenous-specific drug treatment programs amid overdose crisis

A medical officer with B.C's First Nations Health Authority says government funding needs to be matched by anti-racist policy changes that tackle stigmatization and stereotypes.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip: 'Enough talk about good intentions, we need results'

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and his late son Kenny Phillip. (Joan Phillip)

A constant reminder of B.C.'s drug overdose crisis sits on a shelf in Grand Chief Stewart Phillip's Penticton home: the ashes of his son, killed by carfentanyl, a little more than three years ago.

"The opioid crisis is a very personal, painful issue for our family," the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president told CBC's The Early Edition.

"Kenny was an amazing individual, he was 6'4", robust, just an uplifting sense of humour ... we had the pleasure of raising him from a child, and then we [lost] him on his 42nd birthday."

On Tuesday, International Overdose Awareness Day, the B.C. Coroners' office announced more than 7,760 British Columbians have died from illicit drugs since a public health emergency was declared in 2016. 

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the hard data. And the human loss, deeply felt in First Nations communities, is driving new calls for action.

"It's very painful for thousands upon thousands of parents and family members across this country," Phillip said.

Demands for Indigenous solutions 

Dr. Nel Wieman, acting deputy chief medical officer of the B.C. First Nations Health Authority, says more needs to be done.

"We [had] 254 First Nations people lose their lives in 2020 and we only represent 3.3 per cent of the population," she said.

"It's quite shocking and saddening.  But at the same time it sort of motivates us to do more, to think about what we can do prevent this increase … what we can do to bring these numbers down."

Key to that struggle, Dr. Wieman says, is developing and funding programs that go beyond medical treatment, and incorporate Indigenous experience, culture and traditions.

"There are programs, for example, that honour traditional ways of knowing and being. Ceremonies are part of the treatment, learning one's traditional role in those ceremonies, and there are other programs that take people out on the land, and help them with that sense of identity that I think is a big piece of people who are suffering from … substance use disorders."

In 2019 the First Nations Health Authority and the provincial government pledged $40 million to build two Indigenous treatment centres.

Indigenous-focused addictions and mental health programs have been set up in at least 10 First Nations and rural communities in B.C.. 

Dr. Wieman says while more funding and programs are needed, government policy needs to be actively anti-racist, and battle the stigmatization that hampers access to care. 

"There's stigma at all sorts of levels," she says, ranging from harm-reduction to treatment to the justice system. 

"Decriminalization does a lot to destigmatize people who use substances."

Vancouver Councillor Jean Swanson joined drug activists in front of the Downtown Eastside's community police station to hand out pre-tested packets of heroin, meth and cocaine to users at a demonstration on July 14. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Complex crisis cuts across stereotypes

Dr. Wieman says British Columbians also need to realize the overdose crisis is as varied as the province itself, challenging racial and demographic stereotypes.

"Not everyone who died has a substance use disorder. Some people are experimenting. Some people who are working the trades ... use pain medication they may buy on the street. There's a lot of diversity."

It's a complex crisis Grand Chief Phillip understands first-hand, and he's echoing the call for action. 

"Governments need to understand this is a crisis, same as the COVID-19 crisis, and more resources — particularly treatment centres, detox centres, and after-care centres — need to be constructed, and that has to happen immediately," he said.

"Enough talk about good intentions, we need results. People are dying on the streets of major cities of this country, literally, on a daily basis." 

With Files from CBC's The Early Edition