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Mayo residents ask for state of emergency on substance use

Multiple deaths have been reported out of the community this year
Mayo’s aging ambulance station. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

The petition showed courage, the attached letter showed the thinking and the wisdom behind it.

On Nov. 17, following a series of tragedies in quick succession, the Yukon legislature received a petition asking that a state of emergency be declared to deal with substance use in Mayo.

Residents estimate six deaths under the age of 40, this year alone, in the town of about 450.

“The feelings of heartbreak, grief, pain, and anger are overwhelming,” reads the letter accompanying the petition. “As individuals we no longer have the strength to lean on each other. We are failing one another and we need immediate support and resources deployed to our community to prevent further tragedies.”

The letter was first presented in October to the joint council in Mayo (which includes chief and council of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun and the Village of Mayo’s mayor and council), and then shared with Yukon MLAs.

The Minister of Health and Social Services, Tracy-Anne McPhee, admitted that substance use and its deadly outcomes are not specific to Mayo, and that “without taking anything away from Mayo — it is a Yukon-wide problem.”

In an interview Dec. 9, she said she has been talking with her federal counterparts, the RCMP, and First Nation Chiefs about different approaches to address the concerns that are affecting all Yukon communities. They are concerned about the black market, the levels of community grief and the death rate.

McPhee says that solutions have to come from the community. The letter that was attached to the resident’s petition called for a state of emergency to address community healing, harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement.

Under each of those five headings lay several recommendations, including a 12-week mental health program, drug testing kits and training, a staffed safe house, group treatment options, withdrawal management and immediate enforcement against drug supply.

References are footnoted and model programs are identified. Heartfelt conversations that acknowledge loss, caring and compassion are requested.

According to John Ogrodniczuk, those conversations are necessary to move forward.

“People need to be able to speak openly about drugs and death. Without this, the issues will remain taboo subjects that perpetuate stigma and serve as a barrier to people reaching out for help,” Ogrodniczuk said.

Ogrodniczuk is a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia with a particular focus on men’s mental health, suicides and drug addiction.

In Mayo, as elsewhere, there seems to be a reluctance to open up about Yukon’s experience with alcohol and drugs. Only a small number of people signed the petition, while 45 signed the letter.

Don Hutton is more outspoken than most. Hutton, the former MLA for the Mayo-Tatchun riding, left the Liberal Party earlier this year with vocal disappointment about its handling of the alcohol file.

He says the government has to start treating alcohol as a drug, not swept under the rug with all the attention to opioids.

“It’s ridiculous to have a bank only open three days a week, and the liquor store open for five days a week. And the costs! We have almost daily medivacs flying to Whitehorse,” Hutton told the News on Dec. 9.

Hutton says he feels for the overworked counsellors in the community and says the mental health unit is understaffed for the magnitude of the problem. Another community member, Karen Nicloux, says that although the male worker is wonderful, the community still needs a resident female therapist for women to feel comfortable with.

Both believe that there is underutilized infrastructure in the community that is overlooked for recovery and healing spaces.

Cameron Grandy, acting director of Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services, who lives in Whitehorse, doesn’t think there is a waitlist in Mayo. He says that services have improved since 2018 when Mayo got a full resident counsellor, and that regular additional visits on alternate weeks from Dawson staff work well.

He says that rural Yukon residents requiring detoxification services in Whitehorse can book a bed before driving from their community, and that a bed will be held for them. Grandy did admit, however, that discharge planning needs improvement.

“A focus on discharge planning with each and every community is absolutely a priority,” he said.

In the meantime, gatherings with different NGOs visiting Mayo have occurred, showing how the community is keeping in touch with Blood Ties, Council for Yukon First Nations and the Aboriginal Women’s Circle. Na-Cho Nyak Dun has created a wellness committee and work has just begun to start with the community safety officer program like the one in Pelly Crossing and with Kwanlin Dün in Whitehorse.

COVID restrictions have not helped.

The government is currently recruiting to fill the vacant nurse-in-charge position in Mayo, and the social worker’s workload is being handled from outside of the community, while the lone community mental health counsellor continues to work hard.

The people from Mayo who spoke with the News had a systems view that included reconciliation, village services and land use policies. They considered drugs in relation to alcohol use, in relation to human harms, and then people in relation to the harms on the land surrounding the community. Many regretted the skewed attention towards industrial interests.

“What a blessing it would be to pause, stop all the approvals and get land planning done,” Hutton said.

As elders have been saying more often, “Heal the land, heal the people. Heal the people, heal the land.”

Contact Lawrie Crawford at