Indigenous Women Are Overdosing Eight Times More than Non-Indigenous Women in BC
Feathers memorialize overdose death victims at a rally in Vancouver. Photo by Jackie Dives

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Indigenous Women Are Overdosing Eight Times More than Non-Indigenous Women in BC

First Nations make up 3.4 percent of BC’s population but 10 percent of overdose deaths.

Indigenous people in British Columbia are overdosing and dying at rates well above the general population, according to new data released by the First Nations Health Authority in partnership with BC's coroner and provincial health authorities.

First Nations make up 3.4 percent of BC's population, but are accounting for 14 percent of overdoses and 10 percent of OD deaths. In other words, they're five times more likely to overdose, and three times more likely to die from it.

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These are the findings of a preliminary "snapshot" of illicit drug overdose events affecting Indigenous people released Thursday.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, deputy chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority, told Vancouver reporters it's "very clear" Indigenous people are being disproportionately impacted by the opioid crisis. She said access to emergency and harm reduction services in rural areas, as well as a legacy of unresolved trauma, have contributed to the divide.

"We have communities that do not have reliable 911 access, and we're working on that," she said. "We're blessed in our urban communities where access to emergency service is counted in minutes… others are lucky if an ambulance is half an hour down the road."

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, First Nations health council chair, added addiction is not a new problem in Indigenous communities, an issue rooted in colonization and displacement. "Alcoholism was here long before the opioid crisis. Youth suicide was here long before the current crisis," he said. "All of those issues have similar causes—unresolved trauma, unresolved grief."

Indigenous women were even more disproportionately impacted by overdoses compared to non-Indigenous women. Women make up 29 percent of recorded overdoses in the general population, and 48 percent of overdoses in First Nations communities. That means Indigenous women are eight times more likely to overdose than non-Indigenous women, and five times more likely to die from it.

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Dr. McDonald said health authorities do not have a clear answer on why First Nations women make up a greater portion of overdoses and deaths, but suggested a "pain problem" plays a role. "Many women are traumatized by unspeakable experiences," she said. "Living in poverty and with trauma, people may end up in lifestyles that put them at significant risk. But we can't say any one of those things is the cause of the difference."

Among First Nations, men aged 30 to 39 had the highest rate of overdose and death. Men were 2.5 times more likely to die. Vancouver Coastal Health region had the highest overdose rate among First Nations, though the nearby Fraser Health region, including Surrey and surrounding suburbs, had the highest death rate.

Though the "snapshot" is the most comprehensive data on Indigenous opioid overdoses in the country, McDonald acknowledged the findings' limitations. The data doesn't point to geographic centres for overdose within health authorities, or account for non-status card First Nations.

The most recent numbers on overdose deaths are also more than a year old, and the stats on overdose "events" only go up to November 2016. That's well behind the monthly updates BC's coroner has been providing since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016. The rise of synthetic opioid analogues like carfentanil have escalated the urgency of the crisis since.

Overdose data for First Nations outside of British Columbia are even more limited. In Ontario, the latest available numbers are from 2015, and even those are "preliminary" and "could change" according to the province's coroner.

BC's new NDP government has appointed a minister of addiction and mental health, who has pledged to listen to communities and propose new funding to fight the overdose crisis in September.

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