Overdose deaths increase by 93 per cent among B.C.'s First Nations

VANCOUVER — The First Nations Health Authority says 89 members of its community fatally overdosed from illicit drugs across British Columbia between January and May, an increase of 93 per cent compared with the same period last year.

The authority's acting chief medical officer, Dr. Shannon McDonald, said Monday that measures to control the spread of COVID-19 have led to people overdosing alone as they are less likely to access harm-reduction services, whose operations have been limited by the pandemic.

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Sixteen per cent of all overdose deaths in the province up to May of this year involved people from First Nations, which represent only 3.4 per cent of B.C.'s population, she said.

Overdose deaths among First Nations have been climbing steadily since 2016, when the province declared a public health emergency, compared with the general population.

"First Nations people had been experiencing overdose deaths 3.8 times more than other residents in 2019, and in 2020, First Nations have experienced overdose death 5.8 times more," McDonald said.

"We're hoping we can change that in the next few months," she said, adding 6,315 kits of the overdose-reversing medication naloxone have been delivered through First Nations sites and Aboriginal friendship centres.

Seven community health centres are delivering the opioids substitute suboxone and seven more are planned for this year and into 2021, McDonald said, adding that 98 new sites are providing mental health and addiction services.

Five Indigenous wellness educator positions are being established to facilitate community conversations about harm reduction, the First Nations Health Authority said.

"When people have attempted to access health care there have been many stories of systemic racism as a barrier to that access," McDonald said.

Stigma has also prevented First Nations from using health services, she told a teleconference call, a sentiment echoed by Chief Charlene Belleau, chair of the First Nations Health Council, as well as the chief coroner and provincial health officer.

Belleau said mental health issues among First Nations people who are experiencing addiction, including youth, require community-driven and culturally appropriate assessment and treatment.

"Throughout our work we've noted that self determination is a critical determinant of the overall health of our people," she said. "When our people have their authority and autonomy recognized and are supported with adequate services our health improves."

Both the First Nations Health Authority and the province each contributed $20 million in funding a year ago for treatment and support services for First Nations to build two new treatment centres and renovate others, Belleau said, adding the federal government has also been asked to provide the same share of money.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said overdose deaths have increased overall in B.C. during the pandemic as increasingly toxic substances contaminated with fentanyl have hit the streets.

"So all of those who use substances are at risk now in this province, and it's quite frankly terrifying" Lapointe said.

The possibility of facing charges for small amounts of drugs for personal use hinders people from getting the medical help they need, Lapointe said.

"When we're asking people to seek support and to feel free to go to health-care facilities when there's a fear of being arrested or losing a child or losing a job, that is a very difficult thing to do. So we encourage governments to continue to adopt a comprehensive, evidence-based, non-stigmatizing approach."

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she's concerned about the increase in overdose deaths among First Nations, noting the province had a record monthly death toll of 170 people in May.

"First Nations people are routinely differentially impacted by these deaths and we need to know how we can do better to support Indigenous people."

This report by Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2020.

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