The territorial opposition parties don’t sense urgency or real action in the Yukon government’s response more than a year and a half after declaring a territory-wide substance use health emergency. An advocate is hoping for courage and promptness.
“When governments declare an emergency, we expect that their actions will match the urgency of an emergency,” Yukon NDP Leader Kate White said by phone on Aug. 23.
“The question I have is what actions is government taking today to save lives as opposed to what actions are they planning into the future?”
The government made its substance use health emergency strategy public earlier on Aug. 23. The strategy contains 43 recommended actions including continuing education campaigns, financially supporting communities in coming up with their own wellness plans and opening a sobering centre and a sober shelter. It has no timelines or implementation plans. It has not yet been costed out.
Health and Social Services and Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee told reporters that the Yukon government has identified 14 top priorities of those recommendations, but those priorities had not been provided to the News by press deadline.
Meanwhile, the territory continues to lead Canada in the per-capita rate of opioid toxicity deaths, per the strategy. Emergency rooms saw 69 visits due to drug poisoning in 2022 and 125 in 2021.
During a press conference to release the strategy, McPhee said the substance use health emergency is the government’s highest priority.
“Knowing that the minister has said that gives us the ability to hold them to account,” White said.
Multiple Yukon First Nations such as Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun have declared their own states of emergencies in response to substance use and its impacts.
“They’ve had very specific asks, you know, and they’re not reflected in this,” White said.
White said the document lays out what will be done in the future, but not what’s going to happen right away. She wonders how long it will take the government to follow through on the recommendations.
Within a year, however, White is confident the government will establish a managed alcohol program, which is a recommendation in the strategy and an obligation under the confidence and supply agreement signed Jan. 31 by the Yukon Liberal and Yukon NDP caucuses.
The Yukon Party wonders where the Yukon NDP will draw the line.
“The NDP caucus is the only thing that is keeping this Liberal government in power,” Brad Cathers, who is the Yukon Party health and justice critic and MLA for Lake Laberge, said Aug. 24 by phone.
“It does make you question whether the NDP will use their power and position to insist on action from the government or continue to support the Liberal government and their continued lack of action on the substance use crisis.”
Cathers said the length of time the government took to put out the plan since declaring an emergency is “appalling.”
He described the strategy as a general framework that’s missing timelines for real action.
Cathers is hopeful to see the government paying lip service to prevention, treatment and enforcement, which the Official Opposition has pushed for, instead of focusing “almost exclusively on harm reduction.”
“We believe that in any substance use health emergency plan or strategy, number one should be helping as many people as possible break free of their addictions and live healthy lives,” he said.
“We realize that that will not be possible for all people, but it should be a much higher priority than it clearly is for the Liberal government.”
Per the government, Blood Ties Four Directions Centre played a part in informing the strategy.
While program manager Jill Aalhus couldn’t speak to the centre’s involvement, the centre is excited about the focus on harm reduction in the final product.
In an Aug. 24 phone interview, Aalhus positively referred to recommended actions related to expanding access to opioid treatment services such as opioid agonist therapy, exploring decriminalization and expanding the hours of Whitehorse’s supervised consumption site, which the centre operates.
“We would need extended funding, and it may take some time to recruit staff and get everybody trained, but I think it’s great to see that commitment and hopefully we can implement it in the coming months,” Aalhus said.
On the other hand, Aalhus wanted to see more emphasis on safer supply and raised concerns about the portion related to the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods (SCAN) Act and unit.
“I think displacing people from their homes does not solve community safety concerns and the reporting can be discriminatory towards marginalized communities,” Aalhus said.
“When people are unhoused, and their lives are disrupted through eviction by SCAN, it really increases overdose risk and I think can really escalate things further with a crisis. So, we’d like to see other mechanisms for creating safety that are more centred in respecting the dignity of people who use drugs and providing support versus displacing people from their homes.”
Aalhus shared some sentiments with the opposition parties.
“We would like to see specific timelines for these actions and a plan to hold ourselves and our partners accountable to these promises, and we hope that the government will work with like urgency and efficiency in implementing it,” Aalhus said.
“Given that it’s a state of emergency, I think we all have to act bravely and quickly to ensure that goals are accomplished.”
Contact Dana Hatherly at email@example.com