Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon has been 1 year since the public health emergency was declared
A year after the public health emergency was declared, the Yukon’s Carcross/Tagish First Nation says it’s still grappling with drug-related losses. But community members also say there is reason for hope.
The First Nation declared a state of emergency in January 2022 in response to a spate of opioid-related deaths among community members. Shortly thereafter, the territorial government also declared a health emergency due to drug use.
Darla-Jean Lindstrom is Deputy Ḵaa Shaade Héni (Chief) of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. She said the community is still experiencing the effects of fresh and ongoing grief.
“We’re going through a period of mourning, and we’re still dealing with this crisis,” she said. “And it doesn’t get any easier. But we try to work on our health and heal from everything.”
The First Nation hosted an event to mark the anniversary on Friday.
In her remarks, Lindstrom called the day “somber but solemn.” She said there have been many efforts in the community over the past year to help people struggling with drug use.
More people are seeking treatment, Lindstrom said. She also said she had seen elders reach out to young people in the community and look to them to offer guidance and support.
Close support gaps
Brook Davis, who has been the resident nurse at Carcross Health Center for 15 years, said the past year has been challenging. She said the health center, which currently employs six primary care nurses, has been under pressure.
“We’re seeing people who are currently in crisis with alcohol or substance use, not just opiates,” Davis said. “That causes any other planned programming to result in a slowdown.”
The Carcross/Tagish First Nation has worked to offer additional support.
On Friday, the First Nation’s health and wellness team unveiled a new emergency vehicle stocked with harm reduction supplies such as naloxone kits, as well as snacks and warm clothing.
First Nation director of health and wellness Stacey Robinson-Brown said the team is looking for volunteers who could help and has already generated a lot of interest from community members.
“Maybe they’ve been affected by the crisis, maybe they know someone, or maybe they just want to help,” Robinson-Brown said. “And they’re paired with a health and wellness worker, giving them the training they need.”
The van still needs the finishing touches before it hits the road in March. The van is initially scheduled to travel through Carcross/Tagish First Nation territory two or three days a week, with the possibility of extending operating hours in the future.
Yukon Health Secretary Tracy-Anne McPhee, also speaking at Friday’s event in Carcross, commended the First Nation’s efforts. She pointed to a partnership between the health department, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Whitehorse-based charity Blood Ties Four Directions.
“Their teams literally went door to door, to every home in Carcross, providing naloxone kits and drug testing kits, training how to use them, and relaying information to community members about the importance of not just drugs to take,” she said.
Gary Sidney Johnson, who lives in Carcross, said it’s encouraging to see the community coming together in this way.
“Even though we declared a state of emergency a year ago, we have been in an emergency for quite some time,” he said. “And it’s just nice to know that people want to do something about it.”
Sidney Johnson lost a close friend about a year ago. For him, the anniversary is a reminder of this grief.
“It seems like more people want to heal because so many more people are affected and impacted by these deaths,” he said.
Sidney Johnson said that although people are seeking support and treatment, he has noticed a lack of programming and support when they return from treatment programs outside of their community.
It’s a gap that Lindstrom has also noticed. She would also like to see more treatment programs in the Yukon.
“The indigenous people here want treatment programs on land.” She said.
“Alcoholism, mental health and addiction are just symptoms of other things, systemic things that have yet to be looked at.”
One initiative in this area, Shawthän Näzhì, recently received funding from the Arctic Inspiration Prize to offer just this type of support at a farm near Haines Junction, Yukon.
McPhee agreed there is a gap in aftercare support and said the territorial government is working to fill it.
“It’s something we absolutely support,” she said. “Messages have gone to every chief and council [regarding] treatment on land and in whatever form,” she said. “It could be a cultural camp, it could be a longer-term aftercare program.”
The Department of Health and Human Services is working on a substance use action plan to be released in the coming months. McPhee said she expects aftercare to be a focus of this plan.
When asked if the Yukon would consider decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, which BC is trying to do, McPhee said it was too early to say.
“I think there are very good reasons why if it were adopted here, it will appeal to some members of the community,” she said. “But determining the success or impact of that is something we can learn from British Columbia, and we’re watching that very closely.”
For Lindstrom, treating drug problems should begin before they even arise.
“People talk about harm reduction. Well, let’s start before that: prevention,” she said. “And for me, as you heard me say before, prevention extends from before birth to after death.”