Yukon officials warn of deadly street drugs amid ongoing opioid crisis

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation declared a state of emergency in connection to drug crisis in the territory. Yukon officials have confirmed one recent death, and said more are under investigation.

Carcross/Tagish First Nation declare state of emergency

Yukon Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said the Yukon is 'witnessing an increase in drugs containing benzodiazepines' or more commonly known as 'benzos.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Carcross/Tagish First Nations has declared a state of emergency in its community in connection to the drug crisis in the territory.

The executive council of Carcross/Tagish First Nations said the move was in relation to a "recent drug-related deaths impacting the community."

In a news release issued Wednesday, the Carcross/Tagish First Nations said there were three drug-related fatalities impacting the community within the first week of the new year.

Yukon officials confirmed one drug-related death during a COVID-19 news conference on Wednesday, but said more are under investigation.

"Our nation is deeply saddened by the recent loss of three of our people to drug overdoses. The issue is as complex as the people that we have lost, and like every single one of those people, carefully acknowledging and addressing each aspect of this problem, matters and deserves our utmost concern," Haa Shaa du Hen (Chief) Lynda Dickson (Skoehoeteen) said in a statement.

"As leaders, it is our duty to prioritize the health and wellness of our people."

'Increase in drugs containing benzodiazepines'

Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said use of toxic drugs continue to be a serious concern in the territory, which is also "witnessing an increase in drugs containing benzodiazepines" or more commonly known as "benzos." 

"Drugs containing benzos are very dangerous substances. We know these drugs are here in the territory and that there has been an increase in overdose deaths in recent days," McPhee said.

"Our thoughts and best wishes are with the families and the loved ones of these individuals, and these terrible tragedies are felt by us all."

McPhee implored people to have their drugs checked for toxic substances either through Blood Ties Four Directions or its outreach van.

"Do not use drugs alone and carry Naloxone kits with you," she said. "Please know that the supervised consumption site is also available to support those who are using substances and there to help keep them safe."

McPhee said the territory is "working closely" with the RCMP, the acting chief medical officer of health, the chief coroner and other partners to address the situation, "but the risks are very high and very serious."

McPhee said there's also been warnings issued in northern British Columbia by health authorities there and in conjunction with their coroners and the RCMP. She said the region is seeing "similar activity at the moment and it is critical that the message get out."

In late November, Heather Jones, chief coroner for the territory said Yukon had the highest rate of deaths due to opioids in the country, at 48.4 deaths per 100,000 people. 

Dr. Catherine Elliott, the acting chief medical officer of health, said she echoes the minister's condolences and said it's more critical now than ever to carry naloxone kits.

"These deaths that have been experienced underlie many more who are suffering, and remind us of the importance of our ongoing work to address the opioid crisis through harm reduction and how it can save lives," she said.

Carcross/Tagish First Nations calling on gov't, other First Nations

Leaders and community members gathered at an emergency meeting on Jan. 7 and hosted a discussion on issues and needs surrounding the drug crisis, the release states.

They agreed on a need for coordinated, community-led approaches, collaboration with other Yukon First Nations and orders of government, and a desire to cultivate in-community services and supports.

"Carcross/Tagish First Nations leaders are adding their voices to a chorus of urgent calls for action that have been issued from various entities and communities across the Yukon on this enduring and growing issue," the release reads in part. 

'Strength in numbers'

The First Nation is calling on the Yukon government and other Yukon First Nations "to come together in solidarity under the declaration and act in collaboration" to address the territory's drug crisis.

"It's tragic. It sheds light on the epidemic and the problems that we face in the Yukon and our own communities and across Canada," Dickson said in a interview Wednesday with CBC's Leonard Linklater, host of Midday Cafe.

She said COVID-19 plays a big role in the drug crisis.

"It keeps [people] home, we can't celebrate who we are. We can't do ceremony. We can't have funerals. We can't gather. We can't have potlatches. It's a very isolating," Dickson said.

She said another meeting is planned for next week to come up with "a few more solid steps" moving forward. She said communication has been sent to all of the First Nations in the Yukon.

"It's easier with more people standing up for the same emergency than just one First Nation. There's strength in numbers," she said.

"I think with all of the First Nations having similar issues, in one way or another, I think that if we hold one another up, we will be able to come up with better solutions and moving forward."

Written by Amy Tucker