Yukon now has highest opioid death rate in Canada, territory's chief coroner says

Yukon now has the highest rate of deaths due to opioids in the country, at 48.4 deaths per 100,000 people, more than double the Canada-wide rate of 19.4. “This is shocking,” said Heather Jones, the territory's chief coroner.

'We are on a frightening trajectory,' said Heather Jones, the territory's chief coroner

Yukon's chief coroner, Heather Jones, said Monday that the opioid death rate is "shocking." (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Yukon now has the highest rate of deaths due to opioids in the country, at 48.4 deaths per 100,000 people, according to Heather Jones, chief coroner for the territory. Yukon has recorded 21 deaths due to opioids since the start of the year.

"For this office, and most certainly all of us, this is shocking," Jones said Monday. "This must be seen as a medical crisis. These deaths for the most part are people who are dying alone in their homes."

Jones said country-wide, Canada has a rate of 19.4 deaths from opioids per 100,000 people, based on national data compiled from chief coroner and chief medical examiner offices across Canada.

Jones said before now, B.C. had "consistently" led the country with the highest rate of opioid deaths since 2016, with a current rate of 40.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

So far in 2021, 21 people in Yukon have died from using opioids. Oxycodone pills are pictured in this 2019 file photo. (Keith Srakocic/The Associated Press)

There have been 21 people in the Yukon to die due to opioid drug overdoses between Jan. 1 to Nov. 26., Jones said, making up more than 20 per cent of all deaths investigated by the Yukon Coroner's Service in that time frame. These kinds of deaths continue to be on the rise in the territory at an "alarming rate," she said.

"It is both heartbreaking and staggering." 

All of the deaths involved opioids in various formats of fentanyl, and many also involved cocaine. Alcohol and benzodiazepines (known as "benzos") also contributed to some of the deaths. 

Increasingly unpredictable drug supply

Bronte Renwick-Shields, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions, a Whitehorse-based non-profit that offers harm reduction and other services to the city's vulnerable population, said the coroner's report lines up with what the organization has been hearing from community members.

"We are of course devastated to hear confirmation of these deaths and have more Yukoners lost to overdose," Renwick-Shields said in an interview with CBC.

"Each one of these these deaths … represents a loved one, and a family member, and a person whose life had meaning, and whose death has impacted our community greatly."

She said the Yukon has been seeing an increasingly unpredictable drug supply since the COVID-19 pandemic began — an observation that was echoed by Jones, who added it's also getting more toxic.

"So we are seeing an increasingly strong supply of drugs with, you know, large degrees of fentanyl. And now benzodiazepines in our drug supply which may not be what is anticipated from the person using," she said, adding fentanyl is hard to dose accurately.

Renwick-Shields said Yukon's opioid death rate "speaks to an increased need" to respond to the crisis that is "devastatingly" impacting the Yukon.

'It's devastating'

Chief Doris Bill of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation said she doesn't just consider the opioid problem in the territory as a crisis, but rather "a full-blown emergency" at this point. 

"It's devastating. It's frightening. It's alarming," Bill said. "I just never dreamed that we would be in this position … I'm heartbroken."

Doris Bill, chief of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse, calls the opioid drug overdose stats 'alarming.' She said more mental health support is needed to help address the crisis. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

She said the situation has been made worse due to COVID-19, which has limited gatherings to support the families who have lost loved ones.

She said the people who are dying from overdoses are "not bad people." 

"We've lost some beautiful people, we've lost some very young, wonderful people who have made a contribution to our community in many, many different ways." 

Bill said there are people who are "suffering in silence," and in isolation. In terms of support, she said the First Nation has put out education materials, made Naloxone kits available and set aside money toward treatment. But, she said, it's not enough.

"We're crying out for more resources," she said, specifically toward mental health support. "We need help."

The Yukon opened its first supervised consumption site in Whitehorse earlier this year, which offers drug testing. Bill said she hopes it helps.

A crisis since spring 2016

Yukon has been struggling with the crisis since 2016, with everyone from teenagers to elders dying, Jones said. Since the spring of 2016, 54 people in the Yukon have died from opioids. Of the total deaths, 85 per cent involved fentanyl. Another 10 people died from non-opioid drug overdoses during that time. 

Since the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, the Yukon saw 32 drug-overdose deaths, 29 of which involved opioids. All but one of the deaths were fentanyl-related, Jones said.

Seventy-three percent of these deaths happened since January, with numbers "tragically increasing over these past three months."

"We are on a frightening trajectory," Jones said, adding the deaths are particularly difficult for small communities.

She said she hopes by "shining a light" on the crisis, it encourages people to reach out to each other for support.

"And, somehow together, collectively we can find a solution to this," she said.

With files from Juanita Taylor, Meghan Roberts, and Mike Rudyk