This declaration is too little, too late

Last week, the Yukon government decided to declare a substance use health emergency.

When I heard the news, the only word that came to mind was: finally. The government finally felt enough shame to admit what we all already knew. The Yukon has been living with this emergency for years. 

Families who are grieving knew. First Nations governments who called their own states of emergency knew. The people in Mayo who signed a petition asking for a state of emergency knew.

After all of the loss our territory has suffered, this declaration from the government is too little, too late. For years before it came to this, the Liberal government witnessed this crisis. They had every opportunity to do the right thing.

But they ignored the problem.

In 2016, the Yukon NDP called this a health crisis. I talked about the way folks were faced with serious and fatal risks when fentanyl began spreading throughout the territory. Frontline workers and community organizations saw the effects it had on our loved ones. They were doing the work every day, while the people in power ignored the problem. 

In 2018, we called it a crisis again. The Yukon was third in the country for opioid-related deaths. And still, the Liberals refused to admit the scale and the severity of the crisis. They handed out naloxone kits and patted themselves on the back. 

In 2020, after the first wave of the pandemic, mental health was at an all-time low. Substance use became a tool to cope for many Yukoners. The number of lives lost to overdoses grew higher and higher, and the government issued a few meaningless statements.

In 2021, the Yukon NDP got the Liberals to do the right thing and commit to a supervised consumption site and a safe supply of opioids for Yukoners. Because after years of delaying action, the problem has only gotten worse.

Even with a written commitment, the government dragged its feet every step of the way. Safe supply is not yet available to communities. It should be. It should have been a long time ago.

In the last month, there have been more deaths. People with full lives and families and stories that were still being written. These deaths could have been avoided. 

Finally, after a weekend of Yukoners taking the streets all over the territory, the government woke up and called a press conference. But so far, the substance use health emergency has been a hollow statement. The government is recycling promises they already made but didn’t do, hoping we don’t notice.

But we have noticed. There are so many things missing from this plan.

Communities and schools across the Yukon need consistent access to mental health services and counselling. Folks who use substances need options for supervised consumption, drug testing, and a safe supply – wherever they live.

We need to make nasal naloxone spray freely and widely available. When folks are ready to enter treatment, no one should be turned away. We need more detox beds, and more health care providers in communities. We need a managed alcohol program.

Right now, the government has done none of these things. What this declaration of emergency has shown is that the government only responds when public outcry is so loud, so grievous, and so angry, that it can no longer be ignored by those with the ability to make changes.

I encourage Yukoners to stay loud and keep the pressure on the government – because pressure is the only way we can force them to keep their promises.

Kate White
Leader of the Yukon NDP