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Confronting the Yukon's drinking problem

The Salvation Army shelter is home to many Yukon alcoholics. And its manager, Judy Lightening, mothers them all. "Over 20 of my boys have passed away as a result of alcohol," Lightening said at a forum on Wednesday night.

The Salvation Army shelter is home to many Yukon alcoholics.

And its manager, Judy Lightening, mothers them all.

“Over 20 of my boys have passed away as a result of alcohol,” Lightening said at a forum on Wednesday night.

“Everyday when I send the kids out to play, I wonder if they’ll come back or not.”

The shelter is considered a patch for Whitehorse’s huge homelessness and alcohol problems.

“I don’t feel like a Band-Aid, I feel like a frayed piece of string,” said Lightening.

“We have 10 beds and every night there are 20 people there looking for a place to sleep.”

Last year, it looked as if the territory was going to do something about its drinking problem.

After all, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

The public outcry over the death of Raymond Silverfox in a Whitehorse drunk tank forced the territory to address the problem - it

announced a study.

The Task Force on Acutely Intoxicated Persons at Risk was co-chaired by Whitehorse physician Dr. Bruce Beaton and Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Chief James Allen.

It assembled representatives from Health and Social Services, Justice, the RCMP, Emergency Medical Services, the Yukon Medical Association, the Salvation Army, the Yukon Hospital Corporation and First Nations.

It also examined how other jurisdictions are dealing with alcohol addiction.

The report was tabled on December 31.

However, the release of the report’s findings on January 11 was overshadowed by the review of the Yukon’s police force, released the same day.

It recommended building a “secure assessment centre.”

Basically, the facility is a glorified drunk tank, with 24-hour medical staff.

This runs counter to many recommendations in the Beaton/Allen report, which considers alcoholism a medical, not a justice issue.

It pushed for a sobering centre, staffed by medical professionals, where alcoholics could sleep it off.

The centre should be located in downtown Whitehorse, it said, near a 24-hour accessible shelter and a well-equipped detoxification centre.

Instead, the $3.5-million secure assessment centre will be built at the prison.

Now, alcoholics leaving the facility will have to walk through Takhini subdivision and down Two Mile Hill to reach the Salvation Army shelter - a dangerous trip at minus 40.

Beaton and Allen were thanked for their report by Social Services Minister Glenn Hart, and little has been heard of it since.

Wednesday’s forum, organized by the NDP, was an attempt to give new life to Beaton and Allen’s findings.

It drew a standing-room-only crowd to the francophone centre.

NDP leader Liz Hanson served as emcee, taking questions and, periodically, reminding those in attendance of the upcoming election and her private member’s bill to protect at-risk alcoholics, which was “very promptly shot down by the current government administration.”

The resulting two-hour discussion involved care providers, those directly and indirectly affected by alcoholism, and politicians, including Mayor Bev Buckway and territorial Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.

Chief James Allen, who now runs 10-day healing camps out on his trapline, discussed his own alcoholism, sleeping on the streets and “drinking the riverbank wine.”

There’s a need for society to afford alcoholics more respect, he said.

They need compassion and a measure of dignity in a non-judgmental, culturally sensitive manner, he said.

Acute intoxication and withdrawal is a significant medical problem, not a justice issue, said Beaton.

In a perfect world, the task force co-chairs would like to see Whitehorse build a program that mirrors one in Winnipeg.

It has a sobering centre (located right next to a shelter) and most of its clients arrive under detention.

But they’re not brought in by the police.

Winnipeg has a system of care workers, called “redcoats” because of their distinctive uniform. They patrol the streets and collect people judged to be intoxicated.

But they can also provide care and advice on the street level.

The program was initially funded by the Winnipeg business community, but is now supported by the province and city.

Beaton and Allen would like a similar intervention team established in Whitehorse working in tandem with a sobering centre and medically capable detoxification centre.

Health and Social Services is considering this, said spokesperson Pat Living.

The department has been meeting internally since getting the report in January.

A departmental planning group and implementation strategy has been established and a project manager identified.

They’re just waiting for a new premier - the Yukon Party chooses one this weekend.

“The minister is aware of it, but the premier has to know what’s going on in the departments,” said Living.

“There were 12 fairly large recommendations contained in that report and, realistically, we have to look at how we can position the department to respond to them and meet some of them.

“Some of these things have a very hefty price tag, so you want to make sure that everyone’s on board.”

No Yukon Party government members attended the forum on Wednesday.

The three leadership candidates also took a pass.

Health and Social Services has introduced interim measures to deal with the problems the report highlighted, said Living.

It has added more nurses to its detox program.

And it has spent $500,000 creating a two-track system at Whitehorse General Hospital’s emergency room.

The temporary system was initially touted as a way to deal all those without a family doctor who had to come to the ER to receive non-emergency attention.

But acutely intoxicated people often wind up at the ER.

The first recommendation of the Beaton/Allen report was to alleviate the staffing and resource crisis at the ER.

With an extra physician there, the emergency department should be better equipped to deal with these issues.

“It’s not going to solve all of the problems, but it will help address some of the issues,” said Living.

“And there are ongoing discussions to see what we can do to help support the hospital.”

Contact Chris Oke at