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Ratio of Yukon women dying of drug toxicity higher than national average: data

Women who use opioids and other toxic substances face different risks than their male counterparts
Brontë Renwick-Shields, executive director at Blood Ties speaks at Overdose Awareness Day in Whitehorse on August 30. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

Yukon women may be dying of drug toxicity at a higher rate than in the rest of Canada, according to new data.

A Yukon coroner’s report from August says that women in the Yukon accounted for 47 per cent of drug deaths since January.

That’s a higher percentage than the national average of 23 to 30 per cent Canada-wide, according to data released on Sept. 28.

The Yukon has seen a total of 17 drug toxicity deaths this year.

“The reality is that the deaths are predominantly the result of toxic substances; substances that are unpredictable in content and simply more and more powerful,” said Heather Jones, Yukon’s Chief Coroner.

In an email to the News, she said that death does not seem to result from someone “taking too much” of something but instead, we need to acknowledge that people are dying because they have been essentially poisoned by a toxic and fatal combination of drugs.

National data is now referring to opioid and stimulant toxicity poisonings, not overdoses, for this reason.

While the Yukon’s small numbers make it hard to assess patterns, the new data can still point to things that warrant attention or further research.

The News spoke with Aja Mason, executive director of the Yukon Status of Women Council and Brontë Renwick-Shields, executive director at Blood Ties regarding the higher risks that women in the Yukon face regarding substance use.

Both Mason and Renwick-Shields were clear at the onset that the Yukon numbers are small and make it hard to extrapolate data, but agreed that women who use opioids and other toxic substances face different risks than their male counterparts. Determining how different those risks are from women in southern Canada is more difficult.

Mason talked about women’s experience of powerlessness, intergenerational trauma, and victimization and how they are less likely to seek services, or call the RCMP for help, especially if they are pregnant or have children. She said women also face higher rates of incarceration than men with similar circumstances which only increases their reluctance to seek assistance from authorities. Child care responsibilities also make it more difficult for women to seek treatment.

Renwick-Shields raised a point observed in southern research showing that women tend to have less control over their personal drug supply than men. Women are more likely to have their drugs purchased by a male partner which brings gender-based power dynamics into their relationships when it comes to substance use.

These dynamics “give women less control over how much they consume, when they consume and where their drugs are purchased from. And that can put them in a higher risk situation than someone who has that has more autonomy in their situation to make those types of decisions.”

Alcohol consumption affects drug use

Renwick-Shields also said that the high level of alcohol consumption in the territory affects how people are introduced to drugs.

“I can say that for the majority of folks that we work with, alcohol is a drug of choice for them. People’s inhibitions may be lowered when they’re drinking, and they may be more likely to consume another substance to which they are more naive, such as an opiate,” she explained.

“So, if they’re drinking and someone offered them a substance, it’d be more likely to consume it. Whereas if they hadn’t been consuming alcohol, they may not have felt comfortable consuming that drug. The consumption of alcohol puts people at higher risk, potentially, if they are around other substances.”

Yukon’s high levels of alcohol consumption are well documented. Statistics also show that Yukon women drink more alcohol per drinking occasion than women in southern Canada.

Renwick-Shields sees the connection between the territory’s alcohol and polysubstance use, saying, “I think addressing alcohol in the territory is a key part of addressing the overdose crisis as well.”

Extractive industries implicated

Mason, while talking about women’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation or violence, pointed to what she calls “man camps,” set up to house large numbers of mostly men as part of the current practice for industrial mining sites. “There’s these big man camp size mining activities going on — it’s correlated directly with increased illicit substance use and violence,” she told the News.

The Yukon Status of Women and the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society published, Never Until Now: Indigenous & racialized women’s experience working in Yukon and northern British Columbia mine camps in August 2021. The report documents women’s stories about racial and sexualized harassment and violence while working in mining camps. The report also cites the Missing and Murdered Women Report stating: “Industries that create ‘boom town’ and ‘man camp’ environments are implicated in increased rates of drug and alcohol-related offences, sexual offences, domestic violence, and gang violence, as well as sex industry activities in the host communities.”

Mason believes that “there is a responsibility on behalf of the Yukon government to recognize the level of risk that’s associated with each community, when they’re giving that approval on that impact assessment, or when they’re giving the green light for these big man camp style developments. At the end of the day, we know that women in particular for communities, indigenous women are the ones who are going to be the most vulnerable to the social impacts of those kinds of activities.”

Both Mason and Renwick-Shields agree that that many of the issues surrounding polysubstance use are systemic, and that the topic of gender and the drug toxicity crisis needs further research and study.

“In terms of research, and I think that more data needs to be collected on this in order to draw conclusions on what is happening in our territory,” said Renwick-Shields.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at