'The silence is deafening' as opioid problem grows, says Kwanlin Dun chief

'I just feel right now this whole community is in mourning. There's so much death going on around us that it's, you know, you bury someone then you're having to bury another person,' Chief Doris Bill said.

'This whole community is in mourning. There's so much death going on around us,' says Chief Doris Bill

Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill argues there's a lot of secrecy around overdoses and drug-related deaths. She believes it's time to speak more openly about what she calls an opioid epidemic in Yukon. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Doris Bill, chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation in Whitehorse, says opioids are taking a toll in Yukon — and she feels nobody's really talking about it.

"What I say is, the silence is deafening — and I don't know why," she said.

"If we had a 10-car pile up, we'd all be talking about it. So I just... I really feel that it's time as a community that we start talking about this issue."

In October, the territory's top doctor said there had been 16 fatal opioid overdoses in Yukon since early 2016. Twelve were fentanyl-related.

Bill calls it an epidemic.

"It's tragic. It's devastating ... I just feel right now this whole community is in mourning. There's so much death going on around us that it's, you know, you bury someone then you're having to bury another person," she said.

"It just breaks my heart to see people in so much pain."

Bill argues there's a lot of secrecy around overdoses and drug-related deaths. Privacy rules mean health officials don't publicly identify overdose victims. Bill wonders if that should change.

Police in Yukon searched a suspicious package in 2017 and found 535 pills containing fentanyl. (RCMP)

"We don't hear really whether or not this person or that person died from opioids, other than the rumours on the street ... that's a good question to put to the community — you know, should we be aware of who was dying, and why?"

Territorial action plan

The territorial government agrees that Yukon is in the midst of an opioid "crisis," and last month it presented an action plan to address the issue. The plan was developed with input from police, health officials and First Nations.

According to the plan, the government will continue to expand its take-home naloxone kit program, and support drug-checking services in Yukon. It will also support more substance-use education in schools.

Kwanlin Dun will soon be offering drug testing services at its health centre, Bill said. 

"No judgment, just come in — and I'm urging people to do this ... don't take a chance."

She's also planning to bring the issue to a Kwanlin Dun forum on community safety. 

"I think we need to have a conversation as a community. You know, sometimes we don't have all the answers," Bill said.

With files from Sandi Coleman