VANCOUVER — First Nations in British Columbia are three time more likely to die of illicit drug overdoses but data released Thursday are a year old and don’t cover the period when deaths increased substantially provincewide.
Preliminary findings reveal 60 First Nations people fatally overdosed between January 2015 to July 2016 though the death toll is believed to be higher because the numbers exclude people who did not register as status Indians or those who are Inuit and Metis.
Dr. Shannon McDonald, deputy chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority, said First Nations make up 3.4 per cent of B.C.’s population but 10 per cent of the province’s overdose deaths.
“We recognize the root cause of where we are today, and that root cause rests in colonization, displacement, connection that has been broken,” McDonald told a news conference. “That disconnection from culture, family and community is extremely important.”
First Nations people were also five times more likely than their non-First Nations counterparts to overdose during that time period, McDonald said.
She said the limited information, which has been compiled since June 2016, will help identify emerging trends to support communities, including those in rural and remote areas that lack reliable 911 access and basic health services.
“We’ve had some challenges in getting First Nations-specific data,” she said, adding information that’s forwarded to the health authority from various sources including the BC Coroners Service is taken back to communities affected by the crisis before it’s released publicly.
“We’re the only ones in Canada who have something called the First Nations Client File,” she said about a combination of health data from various sources including Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and vital statistics from the province.
McDonald said information-sharing agreements that include the provincial coroner have allowed the data to be made publicly available and work is underway to provide it sooner through an increase in resources.
She said the health authority has trained people to use the overdose-reversing drug naloxone in over 110 First Nations communities and about 70 health centres are registered to provide kits and training to members.
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said about 1,700 people have died of overdoses provincewide since the beginning of 2016 and that the BC Coroners Service is working to increase resources to meet demands in First Nations communities and elsewhere.
“We’ve been slammed, frankly, by the number of deaths,” Lapointe said. The province declared a public health emergency in April last year when the death toll started to climb.
McDonald said about 71 per cent of all fatal opioid overdoses have involved men but the crisis has affected First Nations men and women almost equally, with deaths among 52 per cent of men and 48 per cent of women.
She doesn’t know why there’s a gender difference among First Nations but said the women experience more trauma.
“We know that there are unspeakable experiences that young girls, young women, are having, that in poverty and with trauma they end up in lifestyles that put them at significant risk,” she said.
“We’re talking about a pain problem, and people are taking care of the pain in the way that they think is best at the time.”
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said First Nations’ perspectives must be central to the government’s response to the overdose crisis.
“That means incorporating First Nations perspectives on health and wellness and healing. That begins with families, that begins with individuals, that begins with community,” she said.
Darcy, who was appointed to the new ministry when the NDP was sworn in last month, said she has been to various parts of the Vancouver area to learn about the opioid overdose crisis from people who are directly affected and that she hopes to also visit First Nations communities.