Hamilton·Q&A

Opioid overdoses in Indigenous communities increased sharply during pandemic: reports

A pair of new reports show that opioid-related deaths among First Nations people in the province increased 132 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic, and an Ontario regional chief says governments need to work with Indigenous communities to help fix the problem.

Ontario regional chief from the Chiefs of Ontario says opioid-related deaths increased 132% during COVID

Glen Hare, Ontario regional chief with the Chiefs of Ontario, says the opioid crisis among First Nations is a pandemic on its own. (Supplied by Anishinabek Nation)

A pair of new reports show that opioid-related deaths among First Nations people in the province increased 132 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic, and an Ontario regional chief says governments need to work with Indigenous communities to help fix the problem.

The studies from the Chiefs of Ontario and the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network show a 68 per cent increase in opioid-related deaths among non-Indigenous people during the pandemic, but a much higher proportion of fatalities among Indigenous people.

In the first year of the pandemic, one of the reports says, there was a 132 per cent increase in deaths related to opioid poisoning among Indigenous people. Of those, 87 per cent were fentanyl-related, while cocaine contributed to two of every four deaths and methamphetamines contributed to one-third.

The reports also said First Nations communities need more access to harm reduction services, including naloxone and addictions treatment.

The opioid crisis in First Nations communities is a pandemic of its own, said Glen Hare, Ontario regional chief with the Chiefs of Ontario.

"The COVID-19 pandemic emerged amid an opioid crisis in our communities," said Hare, who is from M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island.

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"The findings in these reports reinforce what First Nations leadership, families and communities have been demanding for decades. More needs to be done, and we must act now."

One of the reports, Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Opioid-Related Poisoning among First Nations in Ontario, shows that opioid-related deaths increased sharply among rural Indigenous people during the pandemic, rising to 31.9 per cent from 18 per cent after March 2020.

"The findings in this report reinforce the urgent need to address the rise in opioid-related harms among First Nations people during the COVID-19 pandemic," the report says.

In a release, the Chiefs of Ontario point out that the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission include the federal government establishing measurable goals and identifying gaps in health outcomes among Indigenous people.

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Hare spoke with CBC News about the reports, and what he thinks needs to be done. Here's an edited transcript of that conversation:

Why are First Nations disproportionately impacted by this?

One of the things I believe is we're studied out. When a crisis hits our communities, it's "we need to study this." We know what the problem is. So our reports that we have out there outline that we need more partners. We need partnerships to address the crisis in this province. And it's a pandemic. Let's admit that. Why can we not admit that it's a pandemic? Let's focus on this now. COVID is getting under control. The opioids, the drug world, is out of control.

How does the number of opioid-related poisonings and deaths among First Nations compare to non-First Nations people?

There is a big difference. I don't know why that is. But you know, over all the years that we've been around, the focus has been on … They always say, "You don't matter. You live for free. You don't pay taxes." All of that is not true. We're in this province. Our veterans fought for freedom in this province. And I don't know why we are where we are.

But let's move forward. Let's move forward with the government. Let's focus on protecting our young ones.

I'm from Manitoulin Island. My neighbouring community, we just buried two more young ones taking their own lives here, under 25. When we lose our loved ones, the phone rings. "How can we help?" Well, you can't. We don't need your help now. It's too late. We know how to bury our kids, sadly.

I want to change that around. If you can help, let's do it right now. The thing I truly believe could turn this around a little bit are the pharmacists and the doctors who write prescriptions out when people who have a drug problem come to see them. Let's start handing out less powerful medications than the opiates and the fentanyls. There are less powerful medications to address the hurt. These [drugs] just increase the problem.

What services for First Nations people are available now?

We have treatment centres, but not enough. We are trying, but we can't do it alone. I can't just work with people at high-level tables and talk about it and talk about it. We need to reach out to communities and talk to them, and say "What do you need? What can we do?" The people want to see something on the ground. I want to see something on the ground.

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