B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy speaks during an announcement at the site where a new mental health and addictions centre will be built, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

First Nations people in B.C. four times more likely to die of an overdose

As B.C. sees an overall plateau in high rates of fatal overdoses, First Nations deaths still on the rise

First Nations people in B.C. are four times more likely to die of an overdose than the rest of the province, according to new data from the dedicated health authority.

Of the 1,514 deaths last year in B.C. caused by illicit fentanyl and other opioids, 193 were Indigenous, according to a report from the First Nations Health Authority released on Monday.

READ MORE: First Nation chiefs call for B.C. to declare state of emergency over opioid crisis

This means the death rate of First Nations due to illicit opioids rose 21 per cent, from 159 people in 2017, despite the province-wide rate of fatal overdoses per month of non-Indigenous people seeing a plateau.

During a news conference in Vancouver, health officials pointed to intergenerational trauma due to the historical oppression of First Nations as a key factor of higher substance abuse within their communities.

“There’s a strong association between trauma and the propensity for a substance use disorder,” said Dr. Evan Adams, the health authority’s chief medical officer.

“Whether that be intergenerational trauma that has impacted families and communities and ultimately individuals, or if it’s the ongoing trauma of people’s lives. What alarms me the most is how the gap is widening.”

The new data also showed that unlike non-Indigenous men accounting for nearly 80 per cent of all overdose deaths, Indigenous men and women were more equally impacted.

Just under 40 per cent of all fatal overdoses for First Nations are among women, compared 17 per cent for non-First Nations deaths.

“It is distressing to see the continued disproportionate impact of this crisis on First Nations people and particularly women,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“We know that when women are so affected it means families and whole communities are disrupted. We need to address the underlying causes of the pain and trauma that lead to drug use and addiction.”

First Nations still facing barriers to accessing health services

Indigenous people continue to be over-represented in death rates despite community-driven response to the crisis, officials said.

Since 2017, the health authority has given 55 communities a total of $2.4 million to develop First Nation-based responses to curbing overdoses, both on and off reserves.

Other programs include medication return-it events, which have collected more than 242 pounds of discarded medications. As many as 3,600 naloxone kits have also been distributed.

But while these initiatives have increased education and overall services offered, health officials are seeing challenges with First Nations not accessing these services to the same degree as other British Columbians.

READ MORE: B.C.’s First Nations leaders suspect high rate of overdose deaths

OPINION: Without safe injection sites, more opioid users will die

In March, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs called on the province to declare the opioid crisis a state of emergency, similar to during floods and wildfires. In 2016, as illicit fentanyl infiltrated the supply of street drugs, the government declared the crisis as B.C.’s first provincial health emergency.

“This is no longer just a short-term emergency, it is a long-term public health crisis that requires a long-term response,” said Grand Chief Doug Kelly.

“Because of the complex underlying causes that result in First Nations’ over representation in this crisis, increased resources and efforts are needed to address the widening gap between the general population and First Nations.”

The report called for greater cultural safety and humility when offering health services, as a way to rid of systemic racism and stigma faced by First Nations who suffer from addiction.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said addressing the root causes and underlying factors of addiction is key to successfully responding to the crisis.

“Together, we are making significant new investments to expand on First Nations-led treatment services so they are accessible to First Nations individuals, families and communities across B.C.,” she said.

Overdose deaths by city
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