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Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and chief coroner Lisa Lapointe announced the grim findings in Vancouver on Monday.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

The number of Indigenous people who died from drug overdoses in British Columbia climbed by one-fifth last year, making the demographic now four times more likely to die from such preventable deaths than non-Indigenous people.

First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) chief medical health officer Evan Adams, First Nations Health Council chair Grand Chief Doug Kelly, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and chief coroner Lisa Lapointe announced the grim findings in Vancouver on Monday.

At least 193 Indigenous people died of drug overdoses in B.C. in 2018, a 21-per-cent increase from the year before (159), according to the new data. Indigenous people accounted for 13 per cent of all overdose deaths, up from 11 per cent in 2017.

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This makes Indigenous people in B.C. 4.2 times more likely to die of an overdose than non-Indigenous people.

Dr. Adams said such deaths have become an “enduring threat” to Indigenous people.

“This isn’t just data; these are lives. These are the lives of our family members, these are deaths of people deserving of our help, deaths that have affected our families, our loved ones, our very selves,” he said.

“Race-based outcomes such as these, where there is a great and increasing inequity between one group of citizens versus another, is unconscionable.”

Indigenous women accounted for 39 per cent of Indigenous overdose deaths, whereas non-Indigenous women accounted for 17 per cent of all non-Indigenous overdose deaths.

As well, more than half of the women in provincial correctional facilities are Indigenous, Dr. Henry said, and the “vast majority” of those women are there for low-level drug offences.

“It’s partly because of our prohibitionist and, frankly, racist policies around the criminalization of people who use drugs,” Dr. Henry said. “We can do better, and we need to do better.”

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Dr. Adams cited several reasons for the widening gap between Indigenous people and the general population, including trauma stemming from colonialism, lack of social support, childhood experiences and little access to safe spaces.

There is a strong association between trauma – including intergenerational trauma and the continuing trauma experienced by marginalized people – and substance-use disorder, Dr. Adams said.

On Friday, Mr. Kelly announced that the FNHA and the B.C. government would each contribute $20-million to build two new Indigenous treatment centres and renovate existing ones.

Indigenous-led treatment services incorporate elders and traditional healers into patient care, along with physicians, nurses and addiction specialists.

Last month, Dr. Henry tabled a report calling for the urgent de facto decriminalization of people who use drugs, saying it is a “fundamental underpinning and necessary next step” in the response to the overdose crisis.

However, B.C. Public Safety Minister and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth dismissed the idea within 90 minutes of the public release of the report, saying it would not be appropriate for him to direct B.C. police in how they conduct their operations.

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Asked about this on Monday, Dr. Henry said she was disappointed in the government’s response but that the report’s release was only the start of the conversation, and that the idea is still in the works.

“The conversations continue. They continue within government, but they also continue in a more open way with a number of different organizations,” she said.

“As a matter of fact, there’s much more happening, quietly, in some places, but it will be louder. I believe it is the right thing for us to do.”

Ms. Lapointe said that the BC Coroners Service in recent years began collecting comprehensive data on overdose victims to get a better sense of who is dying. Among the findings: Almost half of those who have died in recent years had sought help for pain in the year prior to their deaths.

“These are people who are suffering, for whatever reason – whether it’s physical pain, emotional pain – and looking for support from traditional, medical methods,” she said.

“These are not criminals. These are people who are struggling, and they deserve our support in whatever way we can provide it.”

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More than 4,200 people have died from illicit drug overdoses in B.C. since Jan. 1, 2016.

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