Youth panelists discuss Yukon’s culture of substance use

·5 min read

Ed. Note: The following story contains mention of sexual assault which some readers may find distressing. Rapid access counselling is available in the Yukon at 867-456-3838. The Yukon government line to request help with alcohol and drug addiction is 867-456-3838 or toll free in Yukon 1-866-456-3838.

Two Yukon youth are decrying the inaction that has followed the government’s declaration of a substance use emergency.

Lydia Wilks, 21, and Henry Gilson, 23, were youth panelists at the recent Indigenous community safety summit on Aug. 3.

They spoke alongside Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill and Karen Nicloux on a substance use panel moderated by Grand Chief Peter Johnston.

Wilks and Gilson told the audience that the Yukon government’s emergency declaration in January has done little to quell substance use in the territory.

“It’s a call to awareness, but not a call to action,” Wilks said. Gilson called the declaration “just words.”

Speaking with the News after the summit, both Wilks and Gilson reflected on the testimonials they heard at the summit and their own experience watching peers fall into addiction.

Wilks, who grew up in Whitehorse and is working with Shakat Media as an artist and videographer, expressed that alcohol is a larger problem than drugs.

“I think we’re desensitized to it in the North. It’s so normal to drive past people downtown. To hear your buddies talking about partying too much. It’s so ingrained in the culture,” Wilks said.

Gilson spent most of his youth in Ross River. He knows kids in his community who swore they would never drink, but how that commitment seemed to end at 13 when they decided it was more important to fit in.

In a small community, he said, to be sober means you lose your friends.

He described how one thing leads to another, and then these kids are drinking very heavily. Then they get offered harder drugs and that’s where it starts, he says. The harm doesn’t stop with the person doing the drinking and drugging.

Wilks spoke about the things that small communities need — sewing clubs, recreation centres, things to do that don’t involve drinking or traveling to Whitehorse. She said people need things to do and places to connect.

Both seemed slightly in awe of fellow panelist Karen Nicloux who spoke as a surviving alcoholic-addict and who works with people staying at the Whitehorse shelter. Nicloux had spoken of the challenges chasing the resources she needed to learn to live clean and sober; challenges which Wilks and Gilson appreciated.

Gilson said that Nicloux’s story really amazed him “because, not many people are willing to go through that. Addiction, it gets a hold of you. And it’s so easy to fall back.”

He accused government of "making a boatload of money" from alcohol sales. He said drug dealers are profiting enormously from sales in the north — much more than they make in the south. “That’s why they’re coming up here; they have a way higher profit margin, and the cops don’t do anything. It’s just as simple as that.”

Gilson also pointed his finger at the mining industries, which he says bring people who use hard drugs to Yukon’s rural communities.

“They want a party and next thing you know, they’re inviting other people, and it just keeps on growing. They have free range. And what’s really happening is young girls are getting taken, and they’re getting raped. And that’s the truth behind it,” he said. “It’s not just addiction. It’s a lot of harm that comes into this.”

Both Wilks and Gilson believed access to land and cultural teachings is one answer to the crisis.

“We need elders on the land with us,” said Gilson. Wilks thought that “life skill coaches [would] help identify feelings and help people work through what’s going on for them.”

Gilson thought about the importance of boats and group river trips. “That’s something simple. It’s nothing like all we’re gonna build a centre, and we’re gonna put somebody in a room and we’re gonna fix them. No, it’s just simply sending them down the boat in the river.”

Wilks thought people needed guidance.

“People will eventually find out that they want to help themselves. And that’s truly what it comes down to,” Wilks said.

The declaration

The substance use health emergency declaration was issued by the Yukon government on Jan. 20.

It came months after the deaths of young people in Mayo provoked a request for a state of emergency from the community; after an emergency declaration by the Carcross/Tagish First Nation on Jan. 12; after marches and vigils held all across the territory Jan. 15; and just as the coroner confirmed eight overdose fatalities in the first three weeks of January.

As of Aug. 5, the chief coroner reported that there have been 17 deaths from illicit toxic drugs so far in 2022, with confirmation pending on three more.

In a statement following the Aug. 3 summit, Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said the conversations were challenging and necessary.

“It is important to hear the perspectives of those in our territory who continue to be impacted by the substance use health emergency,” she said in an email.

On Aug. 10, the minister hosted the second Substance Use Health Emergency Ministerial Advisory Committee meeting since the emergency was called. The committee consists of elected officials from around the territory. A second mental health summit is being planned for the fall.

Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Yukon News