Message from Richard Jock, FNHA Chief Executive Officer and Dr. Nel Wieman, FNHA Deputy Chief Medical Officer
*Content Warning* This material may trigger unpleasant feelings or thoughts. Please contact the 24 Hour KUU-US Crisis Line at 1-800-588-8717 if you need emotional support.
This week, the British Columbia (BC) Coroner's Service hosted a media event to present its 2021 data on toxic drug poisonings. The data was deeply disturbing, and especially so for BC First Nations people who are once again found to be disproportionately represented in the harms from toxic drug poisonings.
While this trend has been consistent in annual data releases for many years, it is now evident that 2021 was a particularly devastating year and we wish to acknowledge the tragic losses of First Nations people and extend our care and condolences to their families, friends, communities and nations.
Today, BC First Nations people are dying due to toxic drugs at a rate more than 5 times that of non-First Nations people. The root causes for this increased impact on BC First Nations are complex and varied and include the effects of inter-generational trauma due to colonialism, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and ongoing child apprehensions, systemic racism, and a lack of timely access to culturally safe mental health, substance use and wellness supports.
In acknowledging the devastating impacts that toxic drugs have on First Nations people and communities in BC, the First Nations Health Authority has continued to work with local health care partners, other regional health authorities, government agencies, and community Chiefs and leaders to develop culturally safe mental health and wellness programs and supports. While this is a good start, there is still much more to do.
Going forward, and in order to reduce these impacts, we must seek to understand of the root causes of substance use and addiction, including trauma, and work together to address the stigmas surrounding toxic drug use and the people who use substances.
To this end, the FNHA is currently working with the province on their application for exemption from Health Canada under Section 56 to decriminalize personal possession of up to 4.5 grams of illicit drugs, including heroin and fentanyl. Decriminalization will both recognize those who continue to use substances and reduce stigma around drug use, in particular for First Nations people who are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The FNHA is supportive of provincial efforts in prescribed safer supply, which will have a significant impact by reducing dependency on the illicit toxic drug supply.
We encourage our communities to reflect the values of Indigenous harm reduction. These include reducing stigma for those who use substances, and maintaining culture and connection as central themes to how we approach our work. Above all, it means meeting people where they are at.
The toxic drug poisoning crisis has been a public health emergency for almost six years now. In the face of these immeasurable losses, we need to build hope.
Hope is built by redoubling our efforts, working with our funding partners.
Hope is built in changing how we think about, how we talk about, and how we treat people who use substances. Action must be taken, including having those difficult and courageous conversations with the people around us – with the people we care about, with those who are using substances.
Working together, just as with the COVID-19 pandemic, will bring an end to the toxic drug crisis.
In Health and Wellness
Richard Jock, FNHA Chief Executive Officer
Dr. Nel Wieman, FNHA Deputy Chief Medical Officer
For more information, the FNHA publishes a regularly updated public facing report titled Toxic Drug Poisoning Events and Deaths and FNHA's Response.