It's Hard to Get Drugs in Canada's North. It's Even Harder to Get Help

Communities in Canada's territories may be small, but they can have big-city problems with drugs and alcohol.
​Crack cocaine is the drug of choice for users in Yellowknife and Whitehorse. Photo by ermingut/Getty Images​
Crack cocaine is the illicit drug of choice for users in Yellowknife and Whitehorse. Photo by ermingut/Getty Images

On September 2, 2015, the body of 25-year-old Christopher Brisson was found at the bottom of a ravine by a mushroom picker in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Two and a half years later, Darryl Sheepway, also of Whitehorse, was convicted of second-degree murder in Brisson's death. Severely addicted to crack cocaine and out of money, Sheepway—by his own confession—met Brisson, his dealer, with the intent to rob him. Instead, he fatally shot Brisson with a 12-gauge shotgun, robbed the body for money and drugs, and disposed of it at Miles Canyon, a popular recreation site along the Yukon River he himself visited with his family a few days later.


Sheepway was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 13 years. His murder trial was largely concerned with whether or not the murder was pre-meditated and to what degree his addiction influenced his actions.

Whitehorse is the kind of small town where you never wear sweatpants to the grocery store, as you will invariably run into someone you know. Only 27,000 live here, and Vancouver, its nearest metropolitan centre, is some 2,500 kilometres away. When someone dies violently, the entire community feels it, and murder—especially one so brutal—is jarring for its residents.

That drugs, however, were the driving force behind the murder, isn't a shock. Drugs—and the social and economic issues they can cause—in small communities are nothing new; Canadians who live in small cities face a higher risk of opioid overdose than their metropolitan counterparts and the busiest supervised consumption site in North America is in Lethbridge, Alberta. The territories are no exception to issues with drug trafficking and addiction.

But while the three territories of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut are geographically, historically, and socially distinct from one another and should not be lumped together as "the North," they all share one feature: they are huge land masses with relatively small populations; combined, the territories have around 120,000 people spread over an area twice the size of Mexico. This creates special issues not just around drug trafficking and enforcement, but also around harm reduction and care for users.


Unlike in the provinces, where drugs, along with the organized crime units that traffic them, often come from within, illicit drugs trafficked into the territories are sold by organized crime groups based in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, and British Columbia, say the three RCMP detachments in the territories.

In Yukon, "a significant portion of criminal activity is largely driven by the sale of illicit drugs, which brings with it a culture of violence and intimidation," says Coralee Reid, media representative for Yukon RCMP, resulting in "shootings and violent offences associated with the drug trade."

Trafficking and drug-related crime are not limited to the territories' city centres, but are also evident in small, remote communities.

Aerial shot of Inuvik, 2014.

Earlier this year in Inuvik, pop. 3,200, police seized 330 grams of crack cocaine. File photo by Tawna Brown/The Canadian Press

Take for example, Inuvik in NWT. With a population of 3,200, Inuvik is an 18-hour drive from Whitehorse. Much of this drive is up the Dempster Highway, a largely unpaved road known colloquially as the "Tire Smasher" and "Eater of Cars," upon which the most common advice given to tourists who would traverse it is "bring at least two spares"—and that's in the summertime. There are no major towns, cell service is spotty or non-existent, and many service areas are closed in the winter. You can also fly into Inuvik from Whitehorse, but flights are limited and expensive; a summer time flight on Air North, the Yukon's local airline, on August 25 would be $525.

On June 14, RCMP in Inuvik seized 330 grams of crack cocaine and laid trafficking charges following an investigation into an assault.


But for the most part, charges are rare. Between June 2014 and December 2018, RCMP in Nunavut, the most isolated territory entirely without road access to the rest of Canada, made only seven cocaine seizures and laid only two charges for cocaine possession and three for trafficking—less than one charge a year. Yukon RCMP laid 61 charges for cocaine trafficking and NWT RCMP 328 in the same timeframe.

Crack cocaine is the drug of choice

Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, which runs a street outreach program for vulnerable people, said crack cocaine is the drug of choice for users in Yellowknife.

Patricia Bacon, executive director of the Yukon-based Blood Ties Four Directions Centre—an NGO that, among several services, provides a safe needle exchange, safer crack use kits, naloxone kits and fentanyl testing in Whitehorse—said the same was true for Yukon.

This reflects a nationwide trend, as Canada is reported to have the second-highest cocaine use in the world.

Prices too seem to be on par with those reported in other city centres in the country, including Toronto. In Yellowknife a source who, for safety and privacy reasons asked to remain anonymous, told me that the price of cocaine there is $80 a gram, or $200 for three grams. This matches informal, anecdotal pricing in Whitehorse—although the quality of the product in the territory is questionable and a common complaint.


No data for pricing was available on remote northern communities, but in 2018 in Nunavut, a Manitoba man was convicted of possessing 400 grams of cocaine for the purposes of trafficking. Its street value was stated as $80,000, which would make it worth $200 a gram.

Reid noted there is a "growing demand for heroin" in Yukon. As of June, there have been 19 official opioid-related deaths reported in Yukon since 2016. Yukon's low population means it's actually much more significant than it appears; per capita, the territory ranks third in opioid deaths in the country, falling in line behind Alberta and B.C.

In 2016, Yellowknife experienced a spate of fentanyl-related overdoses. That same year, the Federal Investigations Unit (FIU) undertook "Project Green Manalishi," which resulted in the conviction of 27 people involved in a cocaine trafficking ring in Yellowknife. More than 1,200 fentanyl pills were seized in that operation, and the availability of fentanyl has since "plummeted" in the territory, said RCMP representative Marie York-Cordon.

Both Denning and Bacon noted that alcohol is the legal substance of choice for most abusers within their respective communities. Alcohol abuse in Nunavut was cited as the source of 95 percent of RCMP calls in the territory in a November 2017 article by The Walrus. Yukon consistently leads the country in per-capita alcohol sales and alcohol related hospitalizations are six times the national average in NWT.


There are no safe consumption sites

While substance abuse is a problem across all three territories, Denning says there are "gaps" in the services available in NWT, especially around supervised consumption for alcohol and crack cocaine. There are no safe injection or consumption sites for illicit drugs in any of the territories.

Denning is also critical of the belief that "southern models" of harm reduction can be made to "fit" northern communities. The "tons of resources focused on opioids" is not necessarily useful or "make a lot of sense" in Yellowknife, she said. Opioids "are not what we are seeing and dealing with on the ground," she added.

Until recently, Yellowknife Women's Society was running a safe crack kit program, but that program has been "put on hiatus" due to staffing issues.

"It was a response to what we were seeing on the street and in home visits," Denning said. "Unsafe paraphernalia, pens and burnt-out pop cans used as pipes, that sort of thing."

Yukon is "a bit ahead" of the other territories for delivering user support and care, says Bacon, although its "harm reduction tool box" is more limited than major metropolitan areas that have specific, tailored approaches.

"Whitehorse is a small town with the issues and challenges of the big cities when it comes to addiction," she said.

Although most people in Yukon live in Whitehorse, bringing services to people living in the communities s a "particular challenge," especially in terms of getting access to therapies, information about safe drug use, and supports for people who want to quit, she said.


"It's always about more than getting someone a clean needle," Bacon added.

Obtaining information on drug and alcohol services in Nunavut was substantially more difficult than the other two territories. The government webpage on substance abuse noted only that "alcohol and drugs can be addictive" and that while "drinking in moderation is fine," people should "learn to drink safely and responsibly."

Both links to more information were broken as of publishing.

There are no dedicated withdrawal services within Nunavut, said Alison Griffin, a media spokesperson for Nunavut Department of Health, although the hospital in Iqaluit and local health centres offer counselling and can help patients experiencing withdrawal. The government presently funds out-of-territory treatment, meaning people must leave their communities to access drug and alcohol-related treatment.

"One of our top priorities is having an inpatient treatment centre developed by and for the people of Nunavut," Griffin said. Having a centre with programming based on Inuit values and forms of learning/healing that is located in the territory would be invaluable."

Both Denning and Bacon say there is still a significant amount of social stigma around addiction in their respective territories, which can be barriers to accessing care and services.If "someone who is a settler (binge drinks) it's 'a weekend,'" Denning said. "But if (an Indigenous person) does it, it's a 'problem.' (People) will happily 'tsk-tsk' a person drinking on the street but not examine their lives themselves."

In an optimal system, a person could access counselling and medical care with the expectation they would not be known by the caregiver. However, in small towns in the North, "neutral" care of this kind "simply doesn't exist," Bacon said.

Denning says one of the most important things that needs to change is the idea that people need to hit "rock bottom" before they can access addiction and care services. "We need to improve on that," Denning said, because "sometimes (rock bottom) is death."

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