Better late than never

The Yukon government will study how to better help chronic alcoholics, Health Minister Glenn Hart announced Monday. It's about time. The territory received $201,000 from Ottawa to do this work seven months ago.

The Yukon government will study how to better help chronic alcoholics, Health Minister Glenn Hart announced Monday.

It’s about time. The territory received $201,000 from Ottawa to do this work seven months ago.

Yet it appears the government only started the project after it faced blowback from the recent coroner’s inquest into the death of Raymond Silverfox.

Silverfox, a 43-year-old First Nation man from Carmacks, died after spending 13 hours in the drunk tank. During that time he vomited 26 times and soiled himself. Guards offered mockery rather than help until someone noticed Silverfox was no longer moving.

He died a short time later in hospital from acute pneumonia and blood poisoning. Pathologists believe these infections were brought about by Silverfox inhaling his own vomit.

Silverfox’s death helped kick-start a debate about the territory’s inadequate supports for alcoholics. More fuel was thrown on the fire this week, following the death of a man in Whitehorse’s detoxification centre Sunday.

Government representatives won’t say when they started the latest review of programming available to chronic alcoholics.

“Call back in two weeks,” said Chris Ross, a spokesperson for Justice. Pat Living, spokesperson for Health, did not return a call.

But on April 26, the territory issued a tender for contractors to help overhaul the territory’s alcohol and drug services. This contract, which has yet to be awarded, includes an evaluation of existing drug and alcohol programming, expected to cost $200,000.

Seven months earlier, on September 22, the Yukon government announced it would use $200,000 from Ottawa’s Northern Strategy fund to study services for chronic alcoholics.

Not all Northern Strategy projects have been this slow to get off the ground. A February meeting in Whitehorse to discuss challenges in First Nations’ governance was paid for with the same pot of money.

Expanded detox services would be in place by March 31, 2013, according to tender documents.

It remains unclear for now what shape these services will take. The NDP is calling on the territory to build a “wet shelter,” in which alcoholics are allowed to drink.

The Yukon Medical Association, meanwhile, wants to see a bigger emergency room for Whitehorse General Hospital as a first priority. The emergency room’s six beds frequently fill up at night with extremely drunk patients, who take many hours to discharge.

The territory won’t commit to a model until a study is complete, Hart told the house on Monday.

“Last week, I asked my officials to begin exploring options on what it would take to set up a medically based detoxification service that would provide 24-7 supervised evaluation and withdrawal management in a community residential setting – who should be involved, what new legislation may or must be required and what’s the latest research out there, what it says and what are the directions that we should move forward in.

“Even before that, we were in the process of reassessing and evaluating our programming. We know that there are several examples of programs that work here in Canada and the United States, and we will closely look at those options.”

A new study isn’t needed to note some shortcomings with services offered to alcoholics and drug addicts.

The territory’s detox programs, available every other month, are frequently full. And doctors and anti-poverty advocates have lamented for years how there is little programming available for alcoholics once they complete rehab.

Without aftercare, many alcoholics who leave detox find themselves “right back in the same pattern and the same social group,” said Ross Findlater, a founder of Yukon’s Anti-Poverty Coalition.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.