'A beacon of hope': New Yukon EMS unit focuses on substance use crisis

Yukon EMS have started a new pilot project where paramedics will be educating the public on how to safely consume and test drugs.

Yukon declared a substance use emergency in January 2022

Jeff Bell, a superintendent at Yukon EMS, stands next to a black SUV that's part of the new paramedic response unit. His job is to assign himself to non-emergency calls and, when it's not busy, to go out into Whitehorse's neighbourhoods and educate the public on safe drug consumption and testing. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

Jeff Bell gets ready for his paramedic shift in Whitehorse by loading fentanyl test strips and withdrawal management equipment, alongside a traditional first aid kit, into the back of a black SUV. 

Bell, a superintendent with Yukon EMS, is one of the paramedics now assigned to the paramedic response unit — a new pilot project to respond to the ongoing substance use crisis in the territory. 

"We're hoping that this vehicle is ... a beacon of hope in the community," Bell said.

During his shift, Bell could assign himself to respond to non-emergency calls for patients dealing with withdrawal or overdoses. 

He can direct patients to places like a detox centre or the city's emergency shelter instead of the emergency room if the cases aren't severe — something he says takes pressure off the territory's main hospital. 

Radios in the Yukon EMS car for the paramedic response unit. Like regular paramedics, they are able to hear calls coming in to 911 and assign themselves to cover non-emergency ones. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

If there are no calls coming in, Bell will head out into Whitehorse's different neighbourhoods to teach Yukoners how to safely consume and test their drugs. 

"We know that opiates are not just in the downtown core — they're not just tied to a certain subset of the population," he said. 

The new EMS program is the latest effort by the territory to address substance use. 

The Yukon government declared a substance use emergency in January after a string of overdose deaths took place in the first three weeks of the year. 

The deaths of 21 people have been tied to toxic illicit drugs this year, according to the latest numbers from the Yukon's chief coroner. Sixteen of these deaths involved opioids.

Bell said he's an ideal person to do this job because he knows first-hand how addiction is an illness. 

"I have had addiction in my family, and I know how it destroys ... people," Bell said. "Drug use isn't going away. 

"Until more initiatives like this are brought forward, we're not going to get a handle on it." 

The Whitehorse General Hospital in winter. Bell says the new paramedic unit should be able to relieve some pressure on the territory's main hospital. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

'Our goal is to save lives'

Ryan Soucy, the deputy chief of clinical operations at Yukon EMS, said the new program is unique to the Yukon. 

"There is mobile testing in other areas of the country, but we are the only paramedic service that I know of that's actually embedding it into EMS," said Soucy, who's worked in EMS units throughout the country over 22 years.

To join the new unit, paramedics go through 100 hours of online training, Soucy said. 

Ryan Soucy, the deputy chief of clinical operations at Yukon EMS, stands in the ambulance bay at the Yukon EMS headquarters in Whitehorse. He says the goal of the program is to reduce barriers for those that need treatment for drug or alcohol-related problems. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

The training teaches them how to meet the specific healthcare needs of clients they might meet in the field and how to respond to conditions like overdose and withdrawal. 

It goes well beyond that too, Soucy said, by also including lessons on seniors and how to help those aging in place. 

Paramedics also learn how to use equipment like Narcan nasal spray and spectrometers so they know how to specifically respond to overdoses. 

"Our whole goal is to remove barriers that exist for people to access these sort of services," Soucy said. "Our goal is to save lives." 

The project will be running for at least a year and a half, Soucy said, but he hopes it will be extended "indefinitely." 


Anna Desmarais is a videojournalist for CBC North based in Whitehorse. Before that, she spent two years as the South Slave correspondent based in Hay River, N.W.T. She's also reported from Yellowknife, Ottawa, Edmonton, Toronto and Kathmandu. Reach her at or @anna_desmarais.