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NDP takes Yukon government to task over unstaffed mental health positions

‘It’s total and utter bullshit’

The fact that the Yukon government still hasn’t followed through with its promise to hire 11 new addictions and mental health workers in the communities has NDP MLA Kate White fuming.

“It’s total and utter bullshit,” she said in an interview following question period in the Yukon Legislative Assembly Oct. 5

“People have to hitchhike if they’re not lucky enough to have a bus ticket to get from Watson Lake to ADS (Alcohol and Drug Services) in Whitehorse, and they’re lucky because they’ve got the Greyhound bus,” she said.

“But what about people in Pelly Crossing? Well, if they’re lucky they can take the Husky bus. What if you’re in Mayo? What if you’re in Old Crow?”

The pledge to hire 11 new addiction and mental wellness workers was a flagship promise in premier Sandy Silver’s budget this April. None of those positions has been filled yet.

In the legislative assembly Oct. 5, Health Minister Pauline Frost said the government was “reaching out to communities” so they would be involved in the decision-making process.

Silver said the government still intends to fulfill its promise.

“It would be inappropriate to hire and design those positions based upon our needs. We need to communicate with communities and determine what their needs are,” he said.

That communication has already happened according the Department of Health and Social Services. Spokesperson Pat Living said consultations with the communities and First Nations recently wrapped up after about eight months of work.

The government says new workers are planned for Old Crow, Carcross, Teslin, Ross River, Pelly Crossing, Mayo, Dawson City, Haines Junction, Carmacks and Watson Lake.

The 11th person will be a “therapist” working out of Dawson City, Living said. She didn’t have any more details on that position.

Each community position might have a slightly different job description depending on what the communities asked for, Living said. She didn’t have specifics for individual positions.

While Silver said he didn’t know when the jobs will be filled, Living said her understanding was “everything should be filled this winter.”

Dawson City, Haines Junction, Carmacks and Watson Lake, will become “hubs” according to the government.

Living said hub communities “are also getting additional new staff over and above the mental health and addictions workers.”

Those staff could include mental health nurses or child and youth counsellors, she said.

Staff in hubs will work with supports that already exist and “fan out to provide services in other communities.”

Frost said there have been four suicides in the communities in the last week.

While the government has been talking about consultation, “the communities have been trying to talk to government since the beginning of time about what they need,” White said.

“So there’s been a change in government but the needs of the communities have not changed.”

Silver said his government is aware of the struggles in the communities. “There’s been some real tragedies right across the Yukon that we have to address and deal with. The money is in place, the community conversations are happening.”

He said the government has filled all the social worker positions in the communities.

“A lot has happened already, a lot will happen and we are firmly committed to this platform commitment.”

Along with her frustration over the 11 empty mental wellness positions, White took the government to task for not filling the two new mental health nurse jobs it promised.

The government only has two mental health nurses — one in Dawson City and the other in Haines Junction — who cover all of the communities.

“Is that reasonable during crisis that you know that the nurse is going to come through next Wednesday? But what happens until next Wednesday?”

The government has promised to hire two more mental health nurses — one in Watson Lake and the other in Carmarks, White said.

“The longer communities wait the more disgraceful it becomes.”

In the legislative assembly Frost told White she would get back to her with an update.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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