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

chriso@yukon-news.com

Just Posted

Whether the dust jacket of this historical novel is the Canadian version (left) or the American (right), the readable content within is the same. (Michael Gates)
History Hunter: New novel a gripping account of the gold rush

Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike is an ‘enjoyable and readable’ account of history

XX
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for May 14, 2021.… Continue reading

Copies of the revised 2021-22 budget documents tabled in the legislature on May 14. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Liberals introduce new budget with universal dental and safe supply funding

The new items were added to secure the support of the NDP.

Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters on May 13. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Cap on rent increases will take effect May 15

The rollout of the policy is creating ‘chaos,’ says opposition

Yukon News file
A 21-year-old man is in custody after a stabbing in Porter Creek on May 14.
One man in hospital, another in custody, after alleged stabbing in Porter Creek

A police dog was used to track the suspect who was later arrested in a wooded area.

Safe at home office in Whitehorse on May 10, 2021. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Federal government provides $1.6 million for Yukon anti-homelessness work

Projects including five mobile homes for small communities received funding.

Drilling at Northern Tiger’s 3Ace gold project in 2011. Randi Newton argues that mining in the territory can be reshaped. (Yukon government/file)
Editorial: There’s momentum for mining reform

CPAWS’ Randi Newton argues that the territory’s mining legislations need a substantial overhaul

At its May 10 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the subdivision for the Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s business park planned in Marwell. (Submitted)
KDFN business park subdivision approved

Will mean more commercial industrial land available in Whitehorse

Main Street in Whitehorse on May 4. Whitehorse city council has passed the first two readings of a bylaw to allow pop-up patios in city parking spaces. Third reading will come forward later in May. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Whitehorse council pursuing restaurant patio possibilities

Council passes first two readings for new patio bylaw

Neil Hartling, the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon president, left, said the new self-isolation guidelines for the Yukon are a ‘ray of hope’ for tourism operators. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)
Yukon tourism operators prepared for ‘very poor summer’ even with relaxed border rules

Toursim industry responds to new guidelines allowing fully vaccinated individuals to skip mandatory self-isolation.

A lawsuit has been filed detailing the resignation of a former Yukon government mine engineer. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A year after resigning, former chief mine engineer sues Yukon government

Paul Christman alleges a hostile work environment and circumvention of his authority led him to quit

Former Liberal MLA Pauline Frost speaks to reporters outside the courthouse on April 19. One of the voters accused of casting an invalid vote has been granted intervenor status in the lawsuit Frost filed last month. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Voters named in Pauline Frost election lawsuit ask to join court proceedings

The judge granted Christopher Schafer intervenor status

Most Read