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Yukon’s illicit overdose death toll now highest in Canada: coroner

Opioid fatalities now represent over 20 per cent of all deaths investigated by Yukon’s coroner
The Yukon provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Yukon’s Coroner’s Service says the territory’s opioid overdose rate per capita is now the highest in Canada with a reported 48.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

Yukon chief coroner Heather Jones says opioid fatalities now represent over 20 per cent of all deaths investigated by the service between January and Nov. 26 this year.

Jones says in a news release the deaths must be seen as a medical crisis.

Since the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, Jones says 32 drug overdose deaths occurred in Yukon and all but one were related to fentanyl, a powerful opioid responsible for many Canadian overdoses.

Since the overdose crisis began in 2016, Jones says British Columbia has consistently led the country with the highest rates of opioid deaths, but recent data indicates Yukon has overtaken those figures.

Jones says most people are dying alone in their homes and she warns that naloxone is becoming less effective against the “increasing toxicity of the drugs.”

The service says it doesn’t collect race-specific information, but Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill says she believes First Nations people are “disproportionately affected.”

“It’s no longer a crisis. It’s an emergency,” she said in an interview. “We need more resources and we need the federal government to step in to help us.”

She says she’s calling on the government to “put all hands on deck” and to review the Yukon government’s opioid strategy to identify and fill the current gaps in service.

“We, as leaders, need to come together and talk to find a solution because this can’t keep going this way. We’re losing too many good people.”

She says the safe consumption site in Whitehorse that opened in September should have Indigenous-specific cultural support available.

“It’s already difficult enough for vulnerable Indigenous people to make use of services and programs that are out there, and a lot of it stems back to residential schools among other things, so it’s really important that we have the proper cultural supports in place for our people.”

Ontario released a report last week that found its illicit overdose death rate for Indigenous people doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— By Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

RELATED: With 1,716 deaths, 2020 deadliest year of overdose crisis in B.C. history