It’s often said society is best judged by how it treats its most marginal members.
Viewed this way, Yukon isn’t doing so well.
Mocked and abandoned by his jailors on the cold concrete floor of the RCMP drunk tank for 13 hours, Raymond Silverfox died a “natural death”- alone and poisoned after sucking his own vomit and filth into his lungs.
He wasn’t the first. Madeleine Henry died under similar circumstances in 2002.
And, after being shuffled from RCMP to the hospital to detox, a drunk Robert Stone died just days after the Silverfox inquest wrapped up. The cause of his death will probably never be known.
The territory has a drinking problem. And it has a problem dealing with its drinking problem.
Frankly, it doesn’t deal with it at all.
The government has been far more concerned with protecting the financial interests of hoteliers and their bars than safeguarding the health of its alcoholics, and, through that, the finances of the entire territory.
Alcoholism costs us all through direct health costs, broken families, driving accidents, violence, abuse … the list is long.
Last year, the territory spent just $10,000 on alcohol and drug prevention and education.
It collects $11.9 million from sales of booze every year. It invests just $4.9 million in alcohol and drug services.
That pays for more than 500 detox admissions every year. But the government runs only nine 28-day treatment sessions a year, handling just 78 people.
So, if you hit bottom and want to enter a program, you may have to wait months for the next intake. Good luck battling your demons.
Since 2002, the Yukon government talked about opening an aboriginal healing camp. In 2006, John Edzerza fled cabinet for the opposition benches and was publicly derided by Premier Dennis Fentie, who said he had failed First Nations by not getting one started.
Edzerza was lured back to the government benches recently, and his long talked-about camp opened – shortly after the Silverfox debacle – as a one-year pilot project. Financing beyond next year is a big unknown.
Tragedy often spurs action – usually in the form of studies, which are used as a pretext to stifle debate -“we’ll wait until the committee has done its work”- and delay action far into the future. Until the public’s passion has cooled.
For example, the Silverfox inquest recommended RCMP establish a community group to review public intoxication. It suggested the group provide alternatives to incarceration.
That task force, co-chaired by Dr. Bruce Beaton and former Champagne and Aishihik First Nations chief James Allen, will spend until the end of the year examining public drunkenness and alternatives to incarceration. A report will be tabled in the legislature in the spring.
And in May, shortly after the Silverfox inquest, Health Minister Glenn Hart announced the government would study how to better help chronic drunks. He dusted off a $200,000 tender, announced almost a year ago but not issued, that will hire consultants to evaluate existing drug and alcohol treatment programming.
It is not clear, yet, how this project relates to the Beaton/Allen task force. Health officials have stonewalled requests for information.
But do we really need another report? Or two? And must such efforts take a year, or more?
In the eight weeks after the Beaton/Allen investigation was announced, the Yukon News launched its own investigation. We wanted to know what options are available for alcoholics in other jurisdictions and what programs local frontline staff believe are needed to curb addiction.
Six reporters and two photographers fanned out and explored the subject, interviewing people in the territory and across the continent.
We discovered that while past reports have been ignored, their conclusions often stand.
The needs are well known and relatively modest – especially when compared to the more than $75 million that will eventually be spent building two brand new community hospitals. In fact, much of the pressure on the territory’s doctors would be alleviated by proactive treatment of alcoholism.
The cost of our dithering is great in terms of human suffering and, if you’re more mercenary, cold, hard cash.
But unfortunately our leaders lack the courage to act, to establish programs and facilities for our most fragile and least represented citizens, those struggling with the disease of chronic alcoholism.
It is time to end the stalling.
It is time to act.