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British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority says Indigenous people accounted for nearly 15 per cent of all toxic drug deaths last year although they represent 3.3 per cent of the province’s total population.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr. Nel Wieman said 254 Indigenous people died from toxic drugs in 2020, which is nearly a 120 per cent increase compared with 2019.

The death rate began to rise after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a public health emergency, she said at a news conference Thursday.

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“We continue to lose more people in B.C. to the toxic drug crisis than to COVID-19,” Wieman said.

“Yet, the issue is not receiving the attention that it deserves. We need to change the narrative and work together to address stigmas surrounding toxic drug use, and people who use drugs.”

First Nations women were especially affected, she said.

Women accounted for 32 per cent of toxic drug deaths among Indigenous people, which is twice the rate of non-Indigenous people in B.C.

There were 1,716 overdose deaths in B.C. last year, a record death toll.

The pandemic has led to the closure of the border with the United States, which officials have said disrupted the usual flow of illicit drugs and more toxic substances have taking their place.

Wieman said systemic racism was one of the barriers to accessing culturally safe mental health and addiction treatment, and harm reduction services.

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“First Nations people often have intergenerational trauma and other traumas that result in high degrees of distress,” she said.

“When that distress becomes intolerable, people turn to using substances at times.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the pandemic has revealed inequities that affect Indigenous people.

“We need to advance the calls that we’ve put out from our office for several years around decriminalization,” Henry said.

“We know that it is that cycle of criminalization that leads to the stigma and shame that keeps people from reaching out for the help that they need, and then help that we want to give them.”

The health authority has launched and expanded a range of accessible treatment and healing options and supported expanded access to prescription alternatives to help fight this crisis.

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Wieman said the authority launched virtual help after the pandemic was declared because overdose prevention sites either stopped offering services or significantly altered how they were offering them.

“We are advocating to promote culturally safe services, increased partnerships with Indigenous service providers and health system partners to address cultural safety, and systemic anti-Indigenous racism in the health services that are provided to Indigenous people,” she said.

Henry said the province also authorized registered and psychiatric nurses in B.C. to prescribe safer drugs for people at risk.

“That is something that we are expanding,” she said. “It’s not yet available in enough places around the province, so that’s something we are working on and will continue to work on.”

Wieman said the way out of the toxic drug crisis is by redoubling efforts and encouraging conversations.

“We need to build hope that we can turn things around and prevent more deaths,” she said.

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“We build hope by recognizing that just as with the COVID-19 pandemic, our only way out of this toxic drug crisis is together.”

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