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Toxic drug deaths response, care now top priority for First Nations Health Authority

When looking at abstinence as only option, it creates stigma, fear and shame: FNHA
Protesters march out of Oppenheimer Park along Powell Street in Vancouver on April 14, 2023 during an event marking the seventh anniversary of the toxic drug deaths in B.C. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

With B.C.’s public health emergency around toxic drug deaths hitting First Nations harder than the rest of the population, the health authority is moving to a healing- and wellness-centred approach to treatment and care.

The First Nations Health Authority released data Friday (April 21) on toxic drug deaths for Indigenous people in 2022, and they are dying at more 5.9 times the rate of other British Columbians, which was up from 5.4 times in 2021.

In total, 373 First Nations people in B.C. died from toxic drugs in 2022.

The First Nations Health Authority says Indigenous people in B.C. are “particularly and disproportionately” affected by toxic drug deaths, and especially Indigenous women compared to the rest of B.C.’s female population.

READ MORE: First Nations ‘particularly and disproportionately’ overrepresented among B.C. toxic drug deaths

Indigenous people made up 16.4 per cent of the 2,314 toxic drug deaths in B.C. last year, despite only representing 3.3 per cent of the province’s total population.

Of those, 36.5 per cent identified as women – a stark contrast to the 18 per cent of all women in B.C. when including non-Indigenous deaths.

Richard Jock, CEO of FNHA, said the public health emergency can only be dealt with a head-on response, which is now the health authority’s top priority.

“It’s going to be our chief mechanism for gearing up our response for the deploying and re-deploying resources both human and financial to meet these emerging and changing needs.”

On April 14, 2022, the province commemorated the seventh anniversary of the toxic drug crisis. At least 11,807 deaths have been caused by unregulated drugs since the public-health emergency was first declared in April 2016.

READ MORE: ‘Without a regulated supply, everyone just dies’: Parade marks 7th year of toxic drug crisis

Katie Hughes is the vice-president of the public health response, and she said early on in the toxic drug death crisis the FNHA developed a framework for action and key area “based on what we hear from community, health directors, frontline staff, peers and people who use substances.”

“We recognize that the toxic drug public health emergency is a very visible manifestation of longstanding health inequities, including intergenerational and contemporary trauma, culturally unsafe care, unmet needs and a disjointed health system.”

Hughes explained the FNHA is moving to a healing- and wellness-centred approach to treatment and care that builds on First Nations peoples’ strengths and resilience. It also includes land-based healing initiatives and expanding healing pathways to those that have lost loved ones to the toxic drug crisis.

The health authority, Hughes said, acknowledges that not all people who use substances seek treatment or abstinence as their next step.

“When we look at abstinence as the only option, substance use is viewed with stigma, fear and shame and this stigma prevents people from accessing support. This continuum acknowledges that a range of options are needed to truly meet people where they’re at in their healing journeys and to support self-determination.”

She added some people may return to substances after an attempt to stop or a long period of not using, “which increases the risk of overdoses and deaths.”

Looking ahead, the FNHA is planning to continually enhance its response to the drug crisis.

That includes seeking more funding to enhance wraparound services, with more than $4.5 million in harm reduction grants currently making their way through B.C.; expanding FNHA’s virtual substance use and psychiatry services that supports community health workers around referrals for treatment planning and withdrawal management; First Nations focused and led overdose prevention and mobile harm reduction services; working with B.C. to get more detox and treatment beds specific to First Nations people; and furthering harm reduction education when it comes to today’s toxic drug supply.

READ MORE: B.C. First Nations health gets $8.2 billion in federal funding to fix ‘disparities’


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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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