Thirty people gathered for a sombre vigil in Carcross, Yukon, Saturday afternoon to remember those they’ve lost to opioids and support the grieving families they’ve left behind.
The Carcross/Tagish First Nation declared a state of emergency last week after three of their members died from drug use.
Lyndsay Amato, the vigil’s organizer, said it’s a way to mark these losses, but also a time to pressure the territorial government for more harm reduction support outside of Yukon’s major centres.
“I come out here and everybody is affected,” Amato told CBC News.
“We lose one person, we lose a part of us. When you come home and there’s another person gone, what are we coming home to? Pretty soon, we’re going to have nothing left.”
Such vigils sprang up across the territory this weekend, including in Whitehorse, Teslin, Mayo, Pelly Crossing and Carmacks.
‘He’ll be super proud of me for doing this’
People gathered around fires to pray, listen to drumming and light candles for the dead.
During the ceremony in Carcross, Amato said she took the time to remember her older brother, who she lost to an overdose four years ago.
It’s still difficult for her to talk about, she said.
“He was a very strong person in my life,” Amato said. “I never really recovered from that loss. I don’t think I ever will.
“I know he’ll be super proud of me for doing this.”
Sean McDougall, who works for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, said the state of emergency call should be considered a cry for help.
“We’ve tried the best that we can, but we also need outside help,” McDougall said.
Still, McDougall said it’s hard to know what needs to be done to permanently change his community for the better.
One possible next step, he continued, could be to fund programs that allow people to heal within their own cultures, instead of imposing a “real Western way of doing things.”
‘I want them to live on’
A small group quickly grew to roughly 100 people marching through the streets of downtown Whitehorse on Saturday.
The march was led by the family of Travis Smarch. His family says the 27-year-old died of an overdose just last week at the Chilkoot Trail Inn, where the event started.
His family carried a bright pink poster bearing his name and photo.
Families and their supporters eventually gathered at the healing totem on Front Street, where they shared their heartbreaking stories of coping with the loss of their loved ones, and an overall rallying cry for solutions.
Organizer Nicky Myke said the goal was to make sure the families felt heard.
“I want the people who have passed away not to have died in vain,” Myke said. “I want them to live on, and to make a change for other people.”
Myke made 23 ice candles for grieving family members so they could light them at the end of the event in memory of their loved ones.
Those candles are still burning bright along the waterfront.
Twenty-three people died from illicit drug use in 2021, new numbers show
The vigils come as Heather Jones, Yukon’s chief coroner, gave CBC updated numbers into how many have died from opioid and drug-related deaths late Friday night.
Twenty-three people died from illicit drug use in 2021, a statement from Jones said. Of these deaths, 22 involved opioids. Three more cases are waiting for toxicology reviews, but Jones said these cases are “almost certain” to add to 2021’s total.
Jones’s statement also confirmed that three people died in the first week of 2022 from illicit drug use. Two of those deaths involved fentanyl.
Officials say more information from a toxicology report about a fourth death in that time frame will be coming next week.
Jones is also warning about benzodiaphrenes, a type of animal tranquilizer, present in the Yukon’s drug supply. They were a factor in at least six out of the eight illicit drug deaths recorded in the last four months of 2021.
This tranquilizer, she confirmed, has not played a role in the 2022 deaths.
Government commits to February wellness summit
Organizers said they invited Yukon government officials to come to the vigils, but they did not.
Yukon Premier Sandy Silver and Tracey-Anne McPhee, the territory’s health minister, released a joint statement late Friday expressing their “deep sadness” for the people lost to overdoses in the last week.
“Our thoughts and heartfelt sympathies go out to all of the families, friends, and communities mourning and navigating these troubling times,” the statement reads.
“They are loved ones, our family, our friends and our neighbours. This is a health emergency.”
In that statement, the government committed to plan “phase one” of a mental wellness summit with Yukon First Nations in February. The focus will be on addressing substance use, the opioid crisis and suicide prevention.
Amato and Myke said they are putting together a petition to the Yukon government to call a state of emergency over these deaths.
The people of Mayo tried to do so in November, but McPhee refused their petition. Their version also called for additional local supports, such as a detox centre, and to fill vacant health-care positions.