At least 254 First Nations people fatally overdosed in British Columbia in 2020, according to new research from the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA). That number represents a 119 percent increase from the previous year, and the highest rate since BC declared the opioid-involved overdose crisis a public health emergency five years ago.
The data underscore how the crisis has disproportionately impacting Indigenous communities during the pandemic, with First Nations people in the province fatally overdosing at 5.3 times the rate of non-Indigenous residents.
“The collision of the pandemic, the poisoned drug supply and Indigenous-specific racism is at the root of the crisis we see today,” said BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson in a statement.
Post-mortem toxicology analyses detected the presence of fentanyl in 86 percent of BC overdose deaths in 2020. And while Indigenous people comprise just 3.3 percent of the overall population, they accounted for 15 percent of 2020 overdose deaths. Thirty-two percent of the overdose deaths among Indigenous people were women—double the proportion of fatal overdose among non-Indigenous women in BC.
“We continue to be disproportionately represented in both COVID-19 and toxic drug events,” said Colleen Erickson, chair of the First Nations Health Authority, in a statement. “This reflects the persistence of root causes and the inequity in the provision of health care services and supports for First Nations people in BC.”
Tracey Draper, program coordinator at the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Services (WAHRS), urged examination of the social determinants of health that lead many people to self-medicate. WAHRS provides outreach, healing circles and other harm reduction services to Indigenous people—supports that have been especially scarce during the pandemic. People “had access to a toxic drug supply, and they were using alone,” Draper said. “Put all these things together.”
The data arrive as First Nations communities in British Columbia are still grieving a different tragedy.
The stark new data arrive as First Nations communities in British Columbia are grieving a different tragedy: the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children in a mass grave at the site of a former residential school. Kamloops Indian Residential School was part of the cross-Canada network that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes and families with the purported goal of making them “assimilate” as staff physically, sexually and emotionally abused them. It operated until 1978.
Trauma on this scale exacerbates the need for adequate social supports—in the days following the announcement of the mass grave’s discovery, calls flooded BC crisis lines and emergency services. Organizations like WAHRS do their best to provide services, combat stigma and incorporate cultural practices for Indigenous participants, but a vast increase in government resources is needed to begin addressing the harms from drug prohibition and generational trauma among First Nations communities.
Those solutions include accessible medications for opioid use disorder, safe supply and compassionate detox programs. While Vancouver, BC’s largest city, is working to decriminalize the possession of state-banned substances, the plan has attracted criticism for platforming police over people with lived experience.
“Decriminalization will help, but the [Vancouver] model that is going forward won’t,” Draper said. “It will further colonize a colonized situation.”