'I want them to live on': Yukon residents remember loved ones lost to opioids, drug overdose

Vigils popped up across the Yukon Saturday to remember those who died from opioids or illicit drugs. Organizers are drafting a petition asking the territory declare a state of emergency.

Three people died from opioids in the first week of 2022, coroner confirms

Approximately 30 people gathered around the fire at Saturday's vigil in Carcross, Yukon, to pray, play sombre drum music and light candles. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Thirty people gathered for a sombre vigil in Carcross, Yukon, Saturday afternoon to remember those they've lost to opioids and support the grieving families they've left behind. 

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation declared a state of emergency last week after three people died from drug use. 

Lyndsay Amato organized the vigil. She says her brother, who she lost four years ago to an overdose, would be proud of her for putting it together. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Lyndsay Amato, the vigil's organizer, said it's a way to mark these losses, but also a time to pressure the territorial government for more harm reduction support outside of Yukon's major centres. 

"I come out here and everybody is affected," Amato told CBC News.

"We lose one person, we lose a part of us. When you come home and there's another person gone, what are we coming home to? Pretty soon, we're going to have nothing left." 

Sean McDougall drums at the Carcross vigil. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Such vigils sprang up across the territory this weekend, including in Whitehorse, Teslin, Mayo, Pelly Crossing and Carmacks. 

'He'll be super proud of me for doing this' 

People gathered around fires to pray, listen to drumming and light candles for the dead. 

During the ceremony in Carcross, Amato said she took the time to remember her older brother, who she lost to an overdose four years ago. 

It's still difficult for her to talk about, she said. 

"He was a very strong person in my life," Amato said. "I never really recovered from that loss. I don't think I ever will. 

"I know he'll be super proud of me for doing this." 

Sean McDougall of the Carcross First Nation suggested the territory could fund culture-based programs to keep people's healing as close to their traditional territory as possible. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Sean McDougall, who works for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, said the state of emergency call should be considered a cry for help. 

"We've tried the best that we can, but we also need outside help," McDougall said. 

Still, McDougall said it's hard to know what needs to be done to permanently change his community for the better. 

One possible next step, he continued, could be to fund programs that allow people to heal within their own cultures, instead of imposing a "real Western way of doing things." 

'I want them to live on'

A small group quickly grew to roughly 100 people marching through the streets of downtown Whitehorse on Saturday. 

In Whitehorse, at least 100 people joined the march for better harm reduction supports in Yukon communities on Saturday. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

The march was led by the family of Travis Smarch. His family says the 27-year-old died of an overdose just last week at the Chilkoot Trail Inn, where the event started. 

His family carried a bright pink poster bearing his name and photo.

Members of the Smarch family receive hugs from relatives and friends at the vigil. Travis Smarch, 27, died from an overdose last week at the Chilkoot hotel, they say. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

Families and their supporters eventually gathered at the healing totem on Front Street, where they shared their heartbreaking stories of coping with the loss of their loved ones, and an overall rallying cry for solutions. 

Organizer Nicky Myke said the goal was to make sure the families felt heard.   

"I want the people who have passed away not to have died in vain," Myke said. "I want them to live on, and to make a change for other people." 

Nicky Myke, organizer of the Whitehorse march, said she wanted the families to feel comfortable coming to the event and sharing what they've been through. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

Myke made 23 ice candles for grieving family members so they could light them at the end of the event in memory of their loved ones. 

Those candles are still burning bright along the waterfront. 

The families of the deceased lit ice candles in remembrance of their loved ones and left them along Whitehorse's waterfront. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

Twenty-three people died from illicit drug use in 2021, new numbers show 

The vigils come as Heather Jones, Yukon's chief coroner, gave CBC updated numbers into how many have died from opioid and drug-related deaths late Friday night. 

Twenty-three people died from illicit drug use in 2021, a statement from Jones said. Of these deaths, 22 involved opioids. Three more cases are waiting for toxicology reviews, but Jones said these cases are "almost certain" to add to 2021's total. 

Jones's statement also confirmed that three people died in the first week of 2022 from illicit drug use. Two of those deaths involved fentanyl. 

Yukon's chief coroner Heather Jones updated the number of people who have died from opioid and drug-related deaths late Friday night. She said 23 people died from illicit drug use in 2021, and three pending cases are 'almost certain' to boost the total. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Officials say more information from a toxicology report about a fourth death in that time frame will be coming next week. 

Jones is also warning about benzodiazepines, used medically to treat conditions like anxiety or seizures, present in the Yukon's drug supply. They were a factor in at least six out of the eight illicit drug deaths recorded in the last four months of 2021. 

This tranquilizer, she confirmed, has not played a role in the 2022 deaths. 

Government commits to February wellness summit

Organizers said they invited Yukon government officials to come to the vigils, but they did not. 

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver and Tracey-Anne McPhee, the territory's health minister, released a joint statement late Friday expressing their "deep sadness" for the people lost to overdoses in the last week.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver sent out a joint statement with his minister of health late Friday to the families of overdose victims. He said the government is committed to holding a wellness summit with Yukon First Nations in February. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

"Our thoughts and heartfelt sympathies go out to all of the families, friends, and communities mourning and navigating these troubling times," the statement reads. 

"They are loved ones, our family, our friends and our neighbours. This is a health emergency." 

In that statement, the government committed to plan "phase one" of a mental wellness summit with Yukon First Nations in February. The focus will be on addressing substance use, the opioid crisis and suicide prevention.

Amato and Myke said they are putting together a petition to the Yukon government to call a state of emergency over these deaths.

The people of Mayo tried to do so in November, but McPhee refused their petition. Their version also called for additional local supports, such as a detox centre, and to fill vacant health-care positions. 


  • An earlier version of this story stated that all three opioid related deaths in the first week of 2022 were members of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. CBC News has been informed that is incorrect by Yukon’s Chief Coroner. The story has been updated to reflect the change. The story also incorrectly referred to benzodiazepines as benzodiaphrenes.
    Jan 16, 2022 3:18 PM CT
  • This story was updated from an earlier version that stated benzodiazepines are a type of animal tranquilizer. They are in fact a drug used medically to treat people with anxiety or seizures.
    Jan 20, 2022 10:41 AM CT

With files from Mike Rudyk