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Spike in First Nations lives lost to toxic drugs ‘cannot be ignored’

Toxic drugs are taking a deadly toll on BC’s First Nations communities.

The number of First Nations lives lost to toxic drugs jump​ed dramatically last year. 

In 2020, 254 First Nations people died in BC due to toxic drugs.

That’s a 119 per cent jump from 2019 and the highest number of toxic drug deaths recorded for First Nations since 2016 when BC first declared a public health emergency.

Shannon MacDonald is acting chief medical health officer with the First Nations Health Authority. 

She says they’re taking steps to help our First Nations during this crisis “by developing creative ways to get B.C. First Nations informed, get help, support others with facts, services, communication, and compassion.”

The large gap in death rates between First Nations and other BC residents is now wider than it has ever been. 

First Nations people died at 5.3 times the rate of other British Columbians in 2020, up from 3.9 times in 2019. 

“The messaging for the pandemic is that we’re all in this together but this is not the case for the toxic drug crisis,” said Dr. Nel Wieman, the FNHA’s Acting Deputy Medical Officer. 

“We continue to lose more people in BC to the toxic drug crisis than to COVID-19, yet the issue is not receiving the attention it deserves. We need to change the narrative and work together to address existing stigmas surrounding toxic drug use.” 

“The devastating impact of the toxic drug crisis on BC’s First Nations people, families, and communities cannot be ignored”, said Richard Jock, CEO of the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA). “This issue will not be resolved without the continued support and commitment of health service partners, and First Nations leaders. We must continue to work together to reduce the impact of drug toxicity on First Nations people.” 

Last year saw the highest-ever number of toxic drug deaths among both First Nations women and men: 172 men and 82 women died. 

First Nations women were especially affected. 

Women account for 32 percent of toxic drug deaths for First Nations people, double the rate of non-First Nations women in BC. 

First Nations people have been over-represented since the beginning of the public health emergency.

They make up 3.3 per cent of B.C.’s population yet account for almost 15 pe cent of toxic drug deaths in 2020. This is an increase from 11.8 per cent in 2019. 

The toxic drug supply crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have had unintended consequences for First Nations people. 

According to the FNHA, the implementation of public health measures to reduce exposure to COVID-19 means that more people are choosing to use drugs alone, instead of using with others or accessing harm reduction sites and services. This comes at a time when street drugs are becoming increasingly more toxic. 

To address some of the challenges caused by pandemic restrictions, in 2020 the FNHA says it swiftly launched the First Nations Virtual Substance Use and Psychiatry Service as part of its commitment to create a range of accessible treatment and healing options for Indigenous people who use substances.

The FNHA added that it has also supported expanded access to prescription alternatives and Opioid Agonist Therapy. 

In an effort to keep people safe when they are using drugs, the FNHA says it developed a comprehensive harm reduction policy, expanded harm reduction education across the province, and transitioned the successful Not-Just-Naloxone training sessions online. 

The recent launch of a harm reduction campaign uses personal stories to engage and educate on the impacts of the toxic drug crisis on BC First Nations people, their friends, families, and communities.

“Public discussion of the toxic drug crisis and its impact on BC First Nations may be difficult and potentially triggering for the many people impacted,” FNHA said in a release. 

“The KUU-US Crisis Line is available 24/7 to support Indigenous people in B.C.”

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