North·In Depth

Grief still fresh in Yukon 2 months after spike in opioid deaths

Two months after losing her sister to an opioid overdose, Chantal Tizya is still coming to terms with the loss. Others say drastic action is needed to prevent more losses in the Yukon.

'She was funny, had a good sense of humour,' says Chantal Tizya of sister Myranda Charlie

Chantal Tizya holds an eagle feather gifted to her in the wake of her sister Myranda Charlie's death in January. Tizya, a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, says stroking the feather keeps her strong and grounded while thinking about her deceased sister. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Chantal Tizya threw a birthday party last week for her 15-year-old brother Gavin with all her friends and family.

Everyone except for Myranda Charlie, her older sister, role model, and mother figure. 

Charlie, 34, died of a drug overdose along with her girlfriend at Whitehorse's emergency shelter in January. The two were among eight Yukoners who overdosed on opioids in the first three weeks of January. 

A photo of Myranda Charlie hangs front and centre in Chantal Tizya's Whitehorse apartment. The talented hockey player and dedicated community member died of an overdose at Whitehorse's emergency shelter in January. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Their deaths left a big hole in the lives of everyone who knew them — in Whitehorse and Old Crow, where they grew up, Tizya said. 

"She was just all around [a] great person," Tizya said of her sister. "She was funny, had a good sense of humour. 

"She really cared for everybody— her family, her friends." 

Tizya keeps the memories of her sister and her girlfriend close to her chest with a custom T-shirts she made for family and friends. Both women died of overdoses at Whitehorse's emergency shelter in January. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

Jeremy Jones also lost a sister to opioids in January. 

He describes her as funny, outgoing and energetic, yet says she ended her life alone, surrounded by the toxic drugs that killed her. 

"It's hard to believe that she's gone," he said. 

"There's a hole there. And it's a scar. It's, you know, it's like your heart gets ripped apart."

So far, nine people in Yukon have died this year from drug overdoses, according to recent numbers from the territory's chief coroner. One more death is still under investigation but opioids are suspected.

CBC checked in with others at the frontlines of the opioid crisis, a few weeks after that initial spike in January. They say more needs to be done to prevent more families from being torn apart, like the ones still grieving. 

'It's all encompassing' 

Many times in the last few years, Heather Jones has walked along Whitehorse's waterfront and paused in front of the healing totem. 

A place for healing and peace, the territory's chief coroner prays for all the people she knows who have been lost to overdoses. 

Heather Jones, Yukon's chief coroner. Forty per cent of all the deaths investigated by her office are now overdose deaths, a number she says is "frighteningly high." (Vincent Bonnay)

Yukoners, many of them her neighbours or community members, are dying at a higher rate than ever before. 

Twenty-four Yukoners died from opioid-related deaths in 2021 —more than double the number in 2020. 

In total, opioid-related deaths now account for almost 40 per cent of all cases Jones' office reviews in a year. 

"The numbers are frighteningly high," Jones said. "There's very few of us, if any, that have to reach very far to be personally impacted by these deaths. 

Jones comes to this healing totem on Whitehorse's waterfront to pray for those that have been lost to the opioid crisis. (Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC)

"It's ... all encompassing for us in the Yukon."

'I'm getting phone calls all day long'

Across town, at the Blood Ties Four Directions office, a group of Yukoners is working around the clock to provide crucial information to people in communities about how to use drugs safely. 

A critical role that — if done fast enough, could save lives. 

Alex Hodgins, the community harm reduction coordinator at Blood Ties, is getting ready to bring safe drug use supplies like pipe kits and naloxone kits to Dawson City. 

Alex Hodgins packs tupperwares like this one full of drug prevention kits, including fentanyl test strips, to bring to communities across the Yukon. He says the demand for this type of education has skyrocketed since the deaths in January, and wants to see more people like himself on the ground across the territory. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Hodgins said his job has completely changed since the news of the overdose deaths came out. 

The workshops he used to plan over several months with First Nations governments and municipalities are now being done almost every week — and he can't keep up with the demand. 

"I'm getting phone calls and emails all day long, like people wanting resources and support as soon as possible," Hodgins told CBC. "It would be really great if our organization could expand, if there were more people like me on the ground." 

An overdose emergency kit hangs at the Blood Ties Four Directions office in Whitehorse. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Since January, communities are asking for more fentanyl testing strips, which allow users to test the safety of their drug supply at home, he said. (Fentanyl played a role in all the confirmed deaths in 2021 and 2022 so far, according to data from the chief coroner's office.)

Hodgins also went door to door in Carcross, Yukon, one of the communities connected to several of the fatalities in January, to teach people how to use naloxone kits. 

Alex Hodgins shows what's inside a naxolone kit. In January, Hodgins went door to door in Carcross, a community connected to many members who overdosed in the winter spike, to teach people how to use them. The kits revive those who have overdosed. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Hodgins said he believes the Yukon government's substance use emergency declaration, made on January 20, will help efforts on the frontlines, but that it will take some time to see those changes happen. 

Decriminalize hard drugs, frontline workers say 

The pain of Charlie's death is still very fresh for Tizya, two months later. She said she's struggled to get a good night's sleep ever since. 

Her recent sobriety, brought about by a desire to change, has been hard to keep. 

"Because I'm sober, it's harder for me to cope with these things because you should just go drinking something," she said. "But I don't want that relief, so I'm try[ing] to stay strong through it all." 

But Tizya said she's getting through with the support of family and friends that "reach out everyday" to check in on her. 

Another thing keeping her busy is her advocacy work. 

A lot of times, you're walking downtown homeless and you feel like you have nobody here. Nothing will get better unless we help these people- Chantal Tizya, Myranda Charlie's sister 

In March, Tizya wrote a letter to Tracy Anne McPhee, the Yukon's health minister, detailing the circumstances around her sister's death, her own struggles with addiction, and what needs to change. (Tizya said she hasn't gotten a response from the minister yet.) 

The first thing on her radar — homelessness. 

"A lot of times, you're walking downtown and you're homeless and you feel like you have nobody here, nobody cares about you," she said. "Nothing will get better unless we help these people." 

Jones and Hodgins agree that the government needs to address the root causes, like homelessness, when talking about how to end the crisis. 

But they say the most important thing to do first would be to create a safer drug supply. One way to do this would be through decriminalization, Jones said. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the family name of Alex Hodgins.
    Mar 25, 2022 10:43 AM CT

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