Territories struggle with substance abuse

Oct 11, 2019

In recent years the number of opioid-related overdoses in Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut has continued to rise, despite their small populations. A recent article published by Vice Canada has examined the growing drug problem in Canada’s territories.

“A significant portion of criminal activity is largely driven by the sale of illicit drugs, which brings with it a culture of violence and intimidation.”

Coralee Reid, media representative for the Yukon RCMP, to Vice

Trafficking and drug-related crime are not only prevalent in the territories’ city centres, but are also present in isolated and remote communities. Moreover, it appears that illicit drugs trafficked into the territories are sold by organized crime groups based in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon territory’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, has previously told CBC Canada that the number of opioid-related overdoses in Yukon continues to rise, making it a region with one of the highest rates associated with opioids in the country.

“If we’re looking for a pattern, we saw a sharp increase in drug overdoses overall, presenting to the emergency [room], between 2016 and 2017. And we continue to see that upward trend,”

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health

According to Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, which organizes a street outreach program for vulnerable members of its community, crack cocaine has become the drug of choice for drug users in Yellowknife. Moreover, Yellowknife crack cocaine prices appear to be similar to prices reported in major Canadian cities.  

Despite the prevailing substance abuse problems across Canada’s territories, there is a lack of supervised consumption sites for illicit drugs and alcohol. Yellowknife Women’s Society had previously run a safe crack kit program but unfortunately the program was “put on hiatus” due to staffing issues.

Currently, there are no dedicated withdrawal services within Nunavut, although the hospital in Iqaluit and local health centres provide counselling services and can help patients experiencing withdrawal. The government does provide funding for out-of-territory treatment, but this means individuals must travel to access drug and alcohol-related treatment.

Patricia Bacon, executive director of the Yukon-based Blood Ties Four Directions Centre, an NGO that provides services including a safe needle exchange, fentanyl testing, crack use kits, and naloxone kits in Whitehorse, told Vice Canada there is still a significant amount of social stigma around addiction in Canadian territories. According to her, typically, an individual accessing counselling and medical care and services would not be personally known to the caregiver. However, in small towns in the Canadian territories, this type of “neutral” care does not exist.

Bree Denning added that one of the most important changes needed in addiction treatment in Canada’s norther communities is the “idea that people need to hit ‘rock bottom’ before they can access addiction and care services.” According to Denning, “We need to improve on that… sometimes [rock bottom] is death.”