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Canadian First Nations leaders urge "immediate and dedicated response" to drug deaths

Giovanni Torre -

The First Nations Leadership Council and Our Children Our Way Society have highlighted the danger of toxic drugs to their communities in Canada.

On Wednesday the organisations noted that in the shadow of Bell's Let's Talk Day, a day to promote action regarding mental health, British Columbians were "confronted with the reality" that 2023 was the worst year for toxic drug deaths in their province's history.

There were 2,511 toxic drug deaths in BC over the course of 2023 - nearly seven deaths every day. FNLC said First Nations are disproportionately represented in the number of people dying by toxic drug poisoning.

The two advocacy groups noted that more than 14,000 British Columbians have died by toxic drug poisoning since BC declared a Public Health Emergency in 2016.

FNLC and Our Children Our Way noted that toxic drug poisoning is now the leading cause of death among British Columbians between the ages of 10 and 59, and that among youth victims of toxic drug deaths, most (73 per cent) had been involved with the child welfare system and 67 per cent were living with mental health challenges.

Our Children Our Way Society chair, Mary Teegee, said toxic drugs "are devastating our families and communities".

"This crisis has become a catastrophe and is only getting worse," she said.

The groups noted that bias and stigma, rather than meaningful action, are too often driving the response to individuals dealing with addiction.

The groups acknowledged the efforts of BC's outgoing Chief Coroner, Lisa Lapointe, who repeatedly called for evidence-based action to end the epidemic of toxic drug deaths, but noted the government of the province "categorically rejected" the Chief Coroner's recommendations, "without advancing any meaningful alternatives".

Ms Lapointe said as she retired that she was deeply saddened "we have been unable to influence the essential change necessary to reduce the tragic impacts of toxic drugs on so many thousands of our family members, friends and colleagues across the province".

Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs President, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, said "the problem to solve goes beyond substance misuse".

"It is an issue that must be understood in a context of intergenerational trauma, the impact of residential schools, displacement from community and insufficient action by governments to respond to the highly challenging and rapidly escalating crisis," he said.

"Every lost person is someone's family member- we must find ways to save the lives that are unnecessarily being taken."

The Our Children Our Way Society said it recognised the urgency of the crisis and that "an immediate and dedicated response is needed now".

In the 'Culture is Healing: An Indigenous Child & Youth Mental Wellness Framework', the organisation shares ways that the mental wellness system can change to shift the trajectory of the crisis. Our Children Our Way said 'Culture is Healing' calls for government, Indigenous leadership, service providers and youth to come together to develop a comprehensive plan to make those changes.

BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee said: "We need to be supported in our priorities of healing and wellness, and we need to build understanding of the solutions that are grounded in culture as healing."

Cheryl Casimer of the First Nations Summit Political Executive said it is "unacceptable" that the number of deaths from "the ongoing opioid crisis continues to rise year over year".

"With more than 2,500 British Columbians losing their lives in 2023, it is clear that we need governments at all levels to show bold leadership and take decisive action to address the crisis that is unfortunately disproportionately affecting First Nations peoples in British Columbia," she said.

"Far too many families have lost loved ones to overdoses and the time for action to curtail this public health crisis is now. We must have appropriate funding for evidence-based harm reduction and recovery programs, as well as real systemic change to the current policies, to stop this tragedy and bring reform to a system that is clearly not working for First Nations peoples".

FNLC and Our Children Our Way noted in a joint statement that "addiction knows no bias".

"It touches every region, every community and nearly every home across this province. It is our human responsibility to see the individuals—brother, daughters, husbands, mothers, grandfathers, aunts, cousins and loved ones—living with addiction. None of them are disposable. They deserve love, care, connection and action."

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