The territory received a visit from Canada’s Governor General Mary Simon over the past weekend.
Along with lighter notes of the visit including the keynote speech Simon delivered at Arctic Arts Summit and the opening of an exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre, the Governor General met with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) members regarding the state of emergency issued over the winter regarding drug-related deaths affecting their community.
C/TFN declared the state of emergency on Jan. 12 following three deaths tied to drugs among its citizens in the first week of 2022. A substance-use state of emergency was declared for the whole of the Yukon eight days later on Jan. 20. The states of emergency reflected a grim tally of overdose deaths: 23 or more in 2021 and as many as seven in the first week of 2022 alone.
Simon visited C/TFN lands June 26 for the purpose of discussing the opioid crisis.
Simon’s meeting with C/TFN representatives was held behind closed doors but she offered some impressions on it in a speech at the reception hall of Haa Shagóon Hídi, the First Nation’s cultural centre and meeting place in Carcross.
She was introduced and welcomed by Robert Wally, executive council member for C/TFN’s Kookhkittaan clan.
“It’s an important day for me because I get to speak to you face to face, and to better understand who you are, what your stories are or what you are feeling today and how you are confronting the issues that you face as a people,” Simon said.
Simon, herself an Indigenous woman hailing from the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, went on to speak about the importance of reconciliation and the importance of equality but also space for Indigenous people.
Simon said one of her focuses during her time as Governor General will be advocating for improved mental health care and services.
“We’ve always focused on physical well-being but not so much our mental wellbeing,” she said.
“It has not been a well-understood part of our well-being because, I think we all know that when anybody has a mental health issue it can be stigmatizing. It can be a difficult place to be if you’re not well, and I think we need to change that because we need to be accepting each of those health issues, physical and mental. I think as a country, we need to be better in that area.”
Taking questions following the speech, Simon said across the Canadian Arctic the twin crisis of suicide and opioid-based drug overdose are both tied to ongoing concerns with mental health. She added that more work is required in overcoming stigma and to make it easier for people to seek help.
“I’m apolitical but I can certainly advocate for improved services, and also able to have frank talks, frank discussions, with Indigenous people or other Canadians, in terms of how we can deal with this area in our social fabric that requires more attention.”
She said collaboration between local and higher levels of government is key to ensuring mental health services reach small communities like Carcross.
Sean McDougall, C/TFN’s senior heritage manager was in on the discussion with Simon.
“It shows a greater unity, and it shows that our voices and are being heard, and to be able to have someone who like the Governor General to be able to hear what our challenges are, but also hear what we’re doing in order to overcome those challenges, and to have the understanding of the support from the government,” McDougall said.
“We’re still working towards more support, and more funding and more accessibility, but to at least have that recognized I think is a step forward in a good direction.”
He said cultural programs, especially for youth, are important as are opportunities for on-the-land healing. Programming or training for different counsellors are important for helping bring more of those opportunities to C/TFN.
While in the Yukon, Simon also met with Premier Sandy Silver and Yukon First Nations leaders as well as touring Yukon University’s Whitehorse campus.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com