‘You become numb to it’: Residents of Mayo, Yukon, want state of emergency declared over substance use deaths

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Some Mayo, Yukon, residents want the territory to call a state of emergency over the number of recent deaths from substance abuse and suicide.

The Yukon NDP tabled a petition in the Legislature last week on behalf of Mayo residents urging the government to “declare a state of emergency … in order to deploy an immediate response and develop … trauma and culturally informed resources in the community to address substance abuse.” 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Trevor Ellis, the village’s mayor, told CBC News. “We’ve lost probably, I believe six members of our community — all young, under the age of 40.” 

The remote town, approximately 400 kilometres north of Whitehorse, has a population of just 457.

Yukon officials — including the chief coroner, chief medical officer, First Nations leaders, and the RCMP — have all spoken out in the past about the territory’s opioid crisis and have warned that it’s getting worse. In response, the territorial government in September opened Yukon’s first safe consumption site, in Whitehorse.

But while officials have released death toll figures related to overdose, little to no personal information has ever been released about the deceased, including where they live.     

CBC News confirmed Yukon’s chief coroner was aware of at least five deaths involving people connected to Mayo in 2021, noting that her office would not be aware of any others that took place outside of Yukon.

Chief Coroner Heather Jones told CBC News in an email that the coroner’s service has not investigated any opioid-related deaths in Mayo, but confirmed there have been two opioid-related deaths and three other investigations related to substance use this year “which appear to be of Mayo residents.”

“We currently only formally track deaths by place of death. Some of these five do not claim Mayo as residency however we are aware of the association,” Jones said.    

‘People are at the point of disassociation’

This summer, Mayo residents started calling for action on social media — but didn’t know what that should look like.

Former resident Laurie Menelon said she wanted people in Whitehorse to understand the problems in her hometown, so she started a petition calling for a state of emergency and gathered roughly 50 signatures from residents. 

“People are at the point of disassociation,” said Menelon, who grew up in Mayo and recently moved to Ontario for school. “When there’s so many [deaths], you become numb to it.

“We see [the petition] as a way to generate an immediate response. It can’t be … 10 years down the line we figure this out.” 

‘They were loved’

Kate White, Yukon’s NDP leader, tabled the petition in the Legislature last Wednesday. 

White later told reporters she went to a funeral for a person who died from an overdose in the community this summer. While there, she spent time listening to the stories of that family and others affected by the crisis. 

She said it’s moving that so many signed a petition for the emergency, despite the stigma that still exists around drug and alcohol use. 

NDP leader Kate White scrumming with reporters after the first sitting of the Legislative Assembly. White says it was moving to see so many Mayo residents sign a petition about the opioid crisis, considering the ongoing stigma against drug use. (Wayne Vallevand/ CBC)

“These were people. They were loved and they loved people,” White said. “So those losses are real … they’re loss of that potential of that person, of what they did in and for their communities.” 

Declaring a state of emergency, White and Menelon said, would mean bringing more on-the-ground resources for those in the throes of addiction.

For example, Menelon said residents coming back from detox treatments in Whitehorse don’t have a safe space in Mayo — so they end up with the same crowd of people, and tend to relapse.  

There are some resources in the community, like a local social worker, Mayor Ellis said, but they’ve been “stretched really, really thin” because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Ellis said Mayo’s village council hasn’t considered declaring a state of emergency, but he supports the ideas brought up in the petition. 

“We have to be quite pragmatic about what the village can do,” Ellis said. “We need a lot more mental health, drug and alcohol workers in the community … but it’s difficult to find those people to come to a community like Mayo.”

Ideally, Ellis said he would like to see full-time resources in the local schools, to identify who would be at risk early and give them the help they need. 

Former Mayo MLA left Liberals over inaction on addictions 

What’s happening in Mayo is a microcosm of substance abuse issues across the territory. 

Fourteen people died from opioid-related deaths in the Yukon before August of this year, according to the chief coroner.

She told CBC News in a statement that updated opioid numbers will be coming sometime this week. 

Yukon’s chief coroner Heather Jones speaking at a news conference earlier this year about Yukon’s opioid crisis. She said updated information about opioid-related deaths in the territory should be coming this week. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Don Hutton, Mayo’s former MLA, left the Yukon Liberal caucus earlier this year because he was “deeply disappointed” with the government’s inaction on alcohol abuse and addictions. 

“Our communities deserve better than what they’ve been given by this Liberal government,” Hutton said in a letter written to his constituents at the time. 

Tracy-Anne McPhee, Yukon’s health minister, said it’s not true that the government hasn’t done anything to combat substance abuse-related deaths in the territory. 

“People are losing their lives … and we have brought forward a number of new responses but they’re not in all the communities,” McPhee said.

“They’re not the answers to the questions that communities have, so we need to work with them.” 

A summit on how to deal with substance abuse is being planned for sometime in January, McPhee continued. That comes after a “very extensive” discussion at the most recent Yukon Forum. 

McPhee wouldn’t say whether the governing Liberal Party would agree to call the state of emergency, because there’s still time to review the petition.



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