Amid Record Overdose Deaths, Canada’s North Opens First Safe Drug Consumption Site

Yukon had Canada’s highest overdose death rate in the first quarter of 2021.
September 29, 2021, 4:39pm
A volunteer at a safe injection site in Toronto prepares syringes with Naloxone in 2018.
A volunteer at a safe injection site in Toronto prepares syringes with Naloxone in 2018. Photo by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail via The Canadian Press

WHITEHORSE, Canada - A new and much-anticipated safe drug consumption site opened in Whitehorse, Yukon, this week—the first space of its kind in all of Canada’s North. 

The Whitehorse safe consumption site offers a supervised, warm, clean space for people using drugs who choose to orally consume, inject, or snort their supplies, as well as drug testing. 

The site—a modest, recently refurbished building in the city’s downtown core—was launched in partnership with Yukon’s Liberal-led government (supported by an NDP coalition) and Blood Ties Four Directions Centre, a Whitehorse-based nonprofit that focuses on eliminating barriers to health care. 

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“Through this site, we have the chance to make this neighbourhood safer, safer for people who use drugs and—as we've seen at sites like this across the country—safer for people who don't use drugs as well,” NDP downtown MLA Emily Tredger said. “Because when people get the services, it means they do better in their lives. When we lift up those who are facing addictions, we lift everyone in our community.”

From January to August, 14 Yukoners are known to have died from opioid-related overdoses. Although that number appears small, Yukon, with a population of 42,000, had the highest death rate among provinces and territories in the first quarter of 2021, according to the Canadian government, even higher than fentanyl-devastated British Columbia. That is up significantly from 2020 when Yukon had a slightly lower than average death rate from opioids. 

“Across Canada, we are facing a devastating opioid crisis, and the Yukon is no exception,” Yukon’s Minister of Health and Social Services Tracy-Ann McPhee said during a media open house. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this crisis.”

Brontë Renwick-Shields, the executive director of Blood Ties, said the site is now one of 37 safe consumption sites across Canada. Safe consumption sites have remarkably better health outcomes for drug users due to the presence of trained staff, and access to drug and alcohol education, the opioid antagonist naloxone, and oxygen. In a community setting, even when naloxone is administered, there can be damage to the person’s brain and overall health “if they’ve been down a long time,” Renwick-Shields said. 

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Of the 14 deaths in Yukon so far this year, six people were of Indigenous or First Nations. McPhee said that although she is not First Nations and didn’t want to speak on their behalf, Indigenous peoples in the territory she had spoken to were concerned about overdoses, and acknowledged a need for a “safe space” for drug consumption in the community.

People accessing the site will be encouraged to hang out in the “chill-out room” for at least 30 minutes prior to consumption, which is equipped with a television, a computer, and comfy chairs. 

At the moment, however, the site cannot support people who choose to consume their supply via “inhalation” (i.e., smoke)—a notable issue, as this is the most popular and common method of consumption in Yukon, Renwick-Shields said. 

Equipment and regulations are in the works to allow for this method to be supported at the site in the near future, she said, but there needs to be workarounds to meet legislation prohibiting indoor smoking. A separate room for people choosing this method of consumption has already been installed in the building, complete with a censor designed to detect cessation in movement—a potential sign of overdose—although a viewing window still needs to be put in. The building also needs a specialized, high-quality air filter before it can support smoking—something the pandemic has made a high-demand item, and therefore all the more difficult to acquire in far-flung Yukon, Renwick-Shields added. 

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When these requirements are met and the site can support inhalation as a method of consumption, Renwick-Shields said she expects to see more people making use of the space. 

Labour shortages have also been a problem for the site, which was originally supposed to open in August but was delayed due to the need for further renovations and difficulty finding staff. At the moment, the facility will only be able to serve “a few people” at a time due to the staffing shortage, but when fully staffed will be able to support more. 

At present, due to supervision and COVID-19 regulations, the site has a maximum capacity of 10 people, including staff. 

Health and social-service connections such as mental wellness, housing services, and addictions counselling can also be accessed through the site, although users are not under any obligation to use them unless they want to, Government of Yukon spokesperson Matthew Cameron said. 

Although northern communities face many of the same issues around overdose as some southern jurisdictions, the nature of the North creates unique social and infrastructure challenges, especially when it comes to treatments and overdose prevention. Small populations spread out over vast rural areas, expensive and often poor cellphone and internet services outside of select city centres, and limited health services and medical facilities make dignified care and support for people with drug and alcohol dependencies especially difficult.

“Solutions that work in the North… may not be solutions that work in the south, and that’s something we definitely took into consideration when building this site, and [if it will work] for our community,” said Renwick-Shields. “For example, there is still a lot more stigma [around drug use] than there may be on the lower mainland, and so having an open tent and an open site with really visible access may not work for a lot of individuals.”  

Blood Ties, which also runs community services such as an outreach van in partnership with Kwanlin Dun First Nation, needle-clean up services, and a tiny home program for the “hard-to-house” population, is the only harm reduction organization in the North. Although “we recognize that harm reduction looks different in all the territories,” Renwick-Shields said they are currently working with partners from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut on how to best serve those populations with similar safe consumption services. 

“As harm reduction initiatives and supervised consumption site interest grows, the other territories will be able to provide our lessons learned and our feedback from building this site to [their] communities and help them build more initiatives,” said Renwick-Shields. 

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