The one-year commemoration of the the Carcross/Tagish First Nations’ (C/TFN) emergency declaration on Feb. 10 in Carcross was sombre, informative and hopeful. In spite of a long roster of well-informed speakers, the day-long event was tentatively attended. Grief and vulnerability were palpable.
C/TFN’s opioid emergency year was bookended by the deaths of three young citizens who died within days of each other in January 2022; then another young man from the community was killed Feb. 2, 2023. The community is grieving.
Speaker after speaker talked about the need for the community to become a safe place for people to return to following treatment for substance use. One said, “We need to stop hurting our people, from ourselves.”
Darla-Jean Lindstrom, Deputy Kaa Shaa Du Hen, opened with a prayer. Following traditional ways, she had charcoal markings on her face out of respect for the community’s recent loss. Planned dance performances had been removed from the agenda.
“We have to honour the people we lost and assist the people who are still struggling and it’s a long-term thing,” she said. “We need to acknowledge that we still struggle.”
It was noted that 26 people from C/TFN have signed up or left the Yukon for substance use treatment since the summer of 2022.
“Some have completed and graduated while others are still currently in treatment at this time,” said Pamela Winsor, a mental health and addictions case worker at C/TFN. “They’re learning to live in communities where they learn to live substance free, they make new friendships, and have goals.” Of the 23 CTFN people who completed their residential treatment program, only 8 so far have returned to Yukon. The others are either still enrolled in treatment or longer term recovery programs. Winsor said another six people from the community are waiting to go as well.
Shadelle Chambers, executive director of CYFN, told the News last August, that people they have sent out from treatment have had the option to stay in transitional housing affiliated with their treatment program people in BC. “However, we recognize that they’re not coming back to the Yukon. They’re not coming back to their home and their culture and their community and their families.
“However, that’s all we have.” Chambers admitted.
Winsor reminded the audience, “your community doesn’t change when you come back from treatment, but you change.”
Gary Johnson, Keinas Áxh Łdóos, lamented the loss of his friends over the years: “The problem wasn’t the fact that they went to heal. It’s the fact that when they came back home, all of their friends and peers still were in that same lifestyle, and they were waiting. Waiting to give those drugs to them, waiting for them to fall.”
Now in recovery himself, Johnson said he’s seen it many times.
“Because I chose this lifestyle, some of my friends became less friends with me,” he said.
Winsor said that C/TFN is working to have tools available, like safe housing, so that the people returning to the community can stay strong.
She said people have to be able to avoid old triggers like the smell of weed or alcohol, and have support in situations where they are vulnerable to relapse.
Tracy-Anne McPhee, minister of Health and Social Services, was the first speaker of the day. After lunch, McPhee acknowledged to the News the need for recovery supports and aftercare. She admitted that sober housing is a “gap in the system” and a problem that needs to be worked on.
“The next piece of, ‘How do I go back into a community where there’s going to be pressures to use again, or pressures to drink again, or pressures just from regular daily life that might make you want to do that?’” McPhee said.
“To me, [that] is something we need to bring attention to.”
One of Johnson’s solutions was more direct. In his message to the community, he said: “We need to stop protecting our own people who sell drugs to our people.”
The front lines
Flowers were placed on every table, and people lingered in their hugs amongst one another.
Heavy alcohol and drug use has long been a problem that rises and falls at different times in Carcross. COVID-19 weakened social connections; poisonous drugs made drug use more dangerous.
“An opioid crisis doesn’t come in isolation,” said Brooke Davis, Carcross’s nurse-in-charge who has long made the community her home. Davis said it has not been easy; she lost her full nursing team a year ago and has been working hard to rebuild.
Davis was able to announce that the Carcross Health Centre is once again fully staffed and is especially pleased that one of the new hires is a C/TFN citizen.
Other speakers who made the way to the podium ranged from the political to those on the front lines — the director of Emergency Medical Services who’s building North America’s first mobile drug testing spectrometer; the counsellor who is driving people into Whitehorse to attend support group meetings; a Blood Ties Four Directions Centre worker who went door to door distributing naloxone kits last spring; and the director of Yukon’s Mental Health and Substance Use Services.
The afternoon was occasionally littered with little celebratory hoots and hollers for people with various sobriety milestones.
There were also speakers from Outside, including Dr. James Makokis, whose purpose and life’s work in medicine is to “help rebuild these institutions which kept our nations and people healthy.”
His presentation drew heavily on Cree and Blackfoot traditions which formed the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He took it one step further and talked about self-actualizing communities; what they looked like in the past; how institutions have replaced traditional governance structures in communities; and what is needed to create communities with cared-for children and kind, humble and wise elders. He talked about community sobriety, rather than focusing on individuals.
Makokis’ husband, Anthony Johnson, was next at the podium. Both won national attention as the winners of Season 7 of “The Amazing Race Canada”. They called themselves Team Ahkameyimok which means “never give up” in Cree. In spite of having led a life doing “some pretty amazing stuff,” Johnson regards his six years of sobriety as the most important accomplishment of his life.
“We’re not just talking about achieving sobriety once, but how do we keep people clean? How do we keep them on that path? How do we reclaim our identities that were strategically taken from us?” Johnson said.
Johnson grew up on a Navaho reservation before graduating from Harvard University. He said he did his first hit of meth in his freshman year. His mother taught him that having a foot in both worlds is a curse and a blessing, and he spoke of the contribution that “breakdowns” can make to “breakthroughs.”
The day brought the importance and fragility of prolonged recovery to the fore. C/TFN declared its state of emergency on Jan. 12, 2022. The Yukon Government declared their substance use health emergency eight days later.
C/TFN’s declaration called upon the “Yukon government and other Yukon First Nations to come together in solidarity under the declaration and act in collaboration to address gaps identified by Yukon First Nations and communities in addressing the territory’s drug crisis.”
As many acknowledged, that is a work in progress.
Contact Lawrie Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org