Poisoned Drugs Claimed the Lives of 254 First Nations People Last Year in BC

Deaths of First Nations people in British Columbia from toxic drugs more than doubled last year, claiming 254 …

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Deaths of First Nations people in British Columbia from toxic drugs more than doubled last year, claiming 254 lives.

That’s 14.7 per cent of the  1,723 people who died in 2020, the province’s deadliest year on record.  In 2019, 116 people from First Nations died, 11.8 per cent of the 985  lives lost.

New data  from the First Nations Health Authority released Thursday shows First  Nations people, who make up just 3.3 per cent of the B.C. population,  are more than five times more likely to die from poisoned drugs.

Dr. Nel Wieman, who is Anishinaabe from  Little Grand Rapids First Nation in Manitoba and an acting chief medical  officer for the FNHA, said government responses to the pandemic and  poisoned drug crisis have played a role in the large increase in deaths.

“Unequal responses to these  crises have had a significant negative impact on toxic drug overdoses  and deaths overall, especially for First Nations people in B.C.,” said  Weiman.

The disproportionate impact of the toxic drug crisis on First Nations individuals is at its greatest since 2016.

And First Nations women are nearly 10 times as likely to die of toxic drugs than other women.

“The messaging for the pandemic has been  that we’re all in this together, but this is not the case for the toxic  drug crisis,” Wieman said.

The First Nations Health Authority has  decided to use the term “toxic drug crisis” rather than “overdose  crisis” because it reflects the reality of an increasingly poisoned  illicit drug supply that makes using a predictable amount of drugs  impossible, Wieman said.

“We need to change the narrative and work together to change stigmas for people who use drugs,” she said.

The pandemic brought restrictions on harm  reduction services, isolating people who used substances from the  support networks that allowed them to use more safely.

For First Nations people, a lack of culturally-safe support and treatment options, limited access to primary care and anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system deter them from seeking support or being able to access it at all.

And intergenerational trauma from past and  ongoing colonial violence, including the Indian Residential School  system, can cause some to use substances to cope.

“When that distress becomes intolerable, people turn to using substances at times,” said Wieman.

While men continue to make up the majority  of deaths, First Nations women were almost twice as likely to die as a  result of poisoned drugs as their non-Indigenous peers.

First Nations women deal with substandard  housing, low income, limited access to culture and language and  culturally-safe health care, FNHA acting chief medical officer Dr.  Shannon McDonald said.

The combination of racism, sexism and  misogyny First Nations women experience, as outlined in the inquiry into  Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls final report,  creates layers of trauma, fear and limited resources “that all get in  the way of people accessing care when they need it,” said McDonald.

The First Nations Health  Authority has been working on expanding Indigenous-specific, culturally  safe harm-reduction and treatment services in First Nations communities  and for those living in urban areas across the province.

These include distributing naloxone kits to  First Nations communities and building opioid agonist therapy access in  21 communities with an expanded number of prescribers.

But both Wieman, McDonald and provincial  health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the best way to save lives is to  decriminalize substance use and create a safe and regulated supply of  drugs.

It has been eight months since the province  said it would expand safe supply without further details. On the fifth  anniversary of the overdose public health emergency, the province said  it would request a federal exemption to decriminalize small amounts of  illicit drugs, something Henry said was possible without Ottawa in 2019.

“We need to advance the calls that we put  out from our office for several years around decriminalization,” said  Henry. “We need to create a safer drug supply and that is one of the  things we continue to push.”

Wieman and McDonald stressed that the toxic  drug crisis needs the same urgent and large-scale government response  as the pandemic has received to truly end.

According to reports from the coroners’  office, 2021 is currently on track to surpass 2020 as the most fatal  year on record, with 498 people dead in the first three months of the  year.

“Just as with the pandemic, the only way out of this toxic drug crisis is together,” said Wieman.

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