First Nations in BC have seen a 93% increase in overdose deaths during pandemic

Jul 6 2020, 3:41 pm

The toll of the illicit drug toxicity crisis on BC First Nations individuals is rising again this year, erasing previous gains, according to data released today ​by the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA).

According to the FNHA, suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths spiked between January and May this year, and it was during this period that 89 First Nations individuals lost their lives. Officials said this equates to a 93% increase in deaths compared to the same period last year.

In their data, officials noted that First Nations people represent 3.4% of the province’s population yet accounted for 16% of all overdose deaths in British Columbia from January to May of this year.

Put another way, First Nations individuals have died at 5.6 times the rate of other BC residents, while in 2019 the ratio was 3.8.

“These data demonstrate that the opioid crisis continues to disproportionally affect vulnerable BC First Nations people,” said First Nations Health Council Chair, Charlene Belleau, “Properly resourced treatment centres and culturally safe harm reduction strategies will be critical moving forward. Now, more than ever, our people need this support.”

In its data, the FNHA said COVID-19 safety measures “have disrupted the drug supply, making the current supply more toxic.”

In addition, public health measures such as physical distancing and staying home “may be having unintended negative consequences for people who use substances. People may be less likely to access harm reduction services and supports and may be using alone when they otherwise would not have.”

The FNHA said the number of First Nations people dying from illicit drugs has increased significantly each year since 2016 when BC declared the public health emergency – except in 2019 when there was a 44% drop in overdose deaths. In 2019, 113 First Nations individuals died of an overdose; in 2018, the figure was 201 First Nations individuals.

“This is truly devastating to all of us,” said Judy Darcy, BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Indigenous Peoples are over-represented in this crisis and we are committed to working together with First Nations communities and leaders to create mental health and addictions services that are culturally safe and community led, so that more families don’t have to keep experiencing these unimaginable and preventable losses of the people we hold close in our lives.”