Yukon declares substance use health emergency after 4 deaths in 1st week of January

Yukon Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee declared a substance-use emergency Thursday morning in the wake of multiple drug-related deaths. "There are no right words for news like this," she said. "It is truly heartbreaking."

'Far too many are dying in our communities and here in Whitehorse,' says Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee

Yukon Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee announced a substance abuse emergency in the territory on Thursday morning. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Yukon Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee declared a substance use emergency Thursday morning in the wake of at least four drug-related deaths in a single week.

"Far too many are dying in our communities and here in Whitehorse. There are no right words for news like this. It is truly heartbreaking," McPhee said at a news conference on Thursday morning.

"We are all completely devastated and it has been a very difficult start to this year. If you are hurting right now, please know that we are standing with you and that you are not alone."

Four people in the Yukon died due to illicit drugs in the first week of the new year, said Chief Coroner Heather Jones in a news release Wednesday. Three of the deaths involved fentanyl.

Three more deaths suspected to be drug related are being investigated by the Yukon Coroner's Service. These deaths happened between Jan. 15 and 19. The toxicology results for those deaths are pending.

"The extremely high number of drug-related deaths in the past several months is a catastrophic reminder of the dangers around illicit drug use in the Yukon," the coroner's news release stated.

"The presence of toxic street drugs is a public health and safety concern throughout the territory."

Officials have recently warned Yukoners to be "extremely careful," and that the drug supply in the Yukon is becoming "increasingly dangerous," with risks of benzodiazepines ("benzos") being used in conjunction with opioids. The combination of substances is extremely dangerous and can be lethal, according to the release.

Vigils were held in a number of Yukon communities last weekend for victims of overdose. The Smarch family receive hugs from their relatives and friends at the vigil in Whitehorse. Travis Smarch, 27, died from an overdose this month. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

Men in early 40s most vulnerable

Multiple officials with the Yukon government lead the online news conference on Thursday morning, joined by some community leaders and chiefs. 

Jones said the territory is seeing people from their early 20s to their 70s affected by the crisis. When narrowed down to the most vulnerable population, Jones said, it appears to be men in their early 40s. 

"However, I say that only because of that statistical analysis. We have to keep in mind that everybody is being affected by this," Jones said. 

Chief Coroner Heather Jones, shown in a file photo from 2019, said there were four drug-related deaths already this month in the territory and three more deaths are under investigation. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

She said people must "abandon judgment" of fellow Yukoners.

"Not only does this hold down those who are suffering from this illness, it also complicates the grief," Jones said. "We need to create communities of support and compassion in every way, from the individual to the institutions and the systems we work within."

Commanding Officer of Yukon RCMP Chief Superintendent Scott Sheppard was asked at the news conference if he feels there's enough policing staff to help deal with the crisis. 

"We can always use more resources and I've said this since the first day I arrived here," he said.

"I messaged that on previous occasions to the minister and her staff and as always we have those discussions as part of our regular meetings."

Nurse to be at Whitehorse emergency shelter

In immediate response to the crisis, the licensed practical nurse from Whitehorse's supervised consumption site will be at the city's emergency shelter during the day to promote the supervised consumption site, McPhee said. 

The nurse will also be an extra health care worker to provide harm reduction support and to transport people to the supervised consumption site if they choose to go.

As well, two additional counsellors will be on site at the shelter to help clients and staff, McPhee said.

McPhee said the territory is "committed to immediate, short, medium and long term actions" to address the ongoing crisis, including what she called "an aggressive public awareness and education campaign."

"People need to know that toxic drugs are in our communities and it is not safe to use alone," she said.

McPhee said there are plans in the works to expand drug testing and safe supply to communities and increasing availability to those also in Whitehorse.

The territory also plans to enhance the supervised consumption site to support those who use inhalants and to put into place on-the-land treatment options that are rooted in cultural healing with the territory's First Nations partners.

'We're all here hurting' 

Last weekend, more than 100 people attended a vigil to remember those lost to substance use and overdoses in the Yukon.

On Monday afternoon, another vigil took place at Whitehorse's emergency shelter where some residents said two people died early Monday morning from overdoses. Officials have yet to confirm the cause of the deaths.

Sean McDougall drums at a vigil last weekend to remember loved ones lost to opioids and drug overdose in Carcross, Yukon, about 70 kilometres south of Whitehorse. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Darlene Jim, who organized the vigil, said she had "so many people" calling her that morning.

"I needed to get them together so we could at least know that we're all here hurting at the same time. We have a lot of support, we just need to stick together and stand strong, push each other up right now," Jim said.

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

Anyone using, especially alone, can call the National Overdose Response Service (NORS) at 1-888-688-6677 where a volunteer without judgment will stay on the line while you are using and make sure you are OK. It's a confidential service that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Rapid Access Counselling is available for people with mental wellness and substance use issues by calling 867-456-3838.

More supports can be found here.

Written by Amy Tucker, with files from Anna Desmarais