The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Canada needs more independent media. And independent media needs you.

Did you know that most news organizations in Canada are owned by just a handful of companies? And that these companies have been shutting down newsrooms and laying off reporters continually over the past few decades?

Fact-based, credible journalism is essential to our democracy. Unlike many other newsrooms across the country, The Tyee’s independent newsroom is stable and growing.

How are we able to do this? The Tyee Builder program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip into our editorial budget so that we can keep doing what we do best: fact-based, in-depth reporting on issues that matter to our readers. No paywall. No junk. Just good journalism.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to be Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.
Rights + Justice

Poisoned Drugs Claimed the Lives of 254 First Nations People Last Year in BC

The toll of the crisis is felt more in Indigenous communities, on and off reserve.

Moira Wyton 28 May 2021 |

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Deaths of First Nations people in British Columbia from toxic drugs more than doubled last year, claiming 254 lives.

That’s 14.7 per cent of the 1,723 people who died in 2020, the province’s deadliest year on record. In 2019, 116 people from First Nations died, 11.8 per cent of the 985 lives lost.

New data from the First Nations Health Authority released Thursday shows First Nations people, who make up just 3.3 per cent of the B.C. population, are more than five times more likely to die from poisoned drugs.

Dr. Nel Wieman, who is Anishinaabe from Little Grand Rapids First Nation in Manitoba and an acting chief medical officer for the FNHA, said government responses to the pandemic and poisoned drug crisis have played a role in the large increase in deaths.

“Unequal responses to these crises have had a significant negative impact on toxic drug overdoses and deaths overall, especially for First Nations people in B.C.,” said Weiman.

The disproportionate impact of the toxic drug crisis on First Nations individuals is at its greatest since 2016.

And First Nations women are nearly 10 times as likely to die of toxic drugs than other women.

“The messaging for the pandemic has been that we’re all in this together, but this is not the case for the toxic drug crisis,” Wieman said.

The First Nations Health Authority has decided to use the term “toxic drug crisis” rather than “overdose crisis” because it reflects the reality of an increasingly poisoned illicit drug supply that makes using a predictable amount of drugs impossible, Wieman said.

“We need to change the narrative and work together to change stigmas for people who use drugs,” she said.

The pandemic brought restrictions on harm reduction services, isolating people who used substances from the support networks that allowed them to use more safely.

For First Nations people, a lack of culturally-safe support and treatment options, limited access to primary care and anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system deter them from seeking support or being able to access it at all.

And intergenerational trauma from past and ongoing colonial violence, including the Indian Residential School system, can cause some to use substances to cope.

“When that distress becomes intolerable, people turn to using substances at times,” said Wieman.

While men continue to make up the majority of deaths, First Nations women were almost twice as likely to die as a result of poisoned drugs as their non-Indigenous peers.

First Nations women deal with substandard housing, low income, limited access to culture and language and culturally-safe health care, FNHA acting chief medical officer Dr. Shannon McDonald said.

The combination of racism, sexism and misogyny First Nations women experience, as outlined in the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls final report, creates layers of trauma, fear and limited resources “that all get in the way of people accessing care when they need it,” said McDonald.

The First Nations Health Authority has been working on expanding Indigenous-specific, culturally safe harm-reduction and treatment services in First Nations communities and for those living in urban areas across the province.

These include distributing naloxone kits to First Nations communities and building opioid agonist therapy access in 21 communities with an expanded number of prescribers.

But both Wieman, McDonald and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the best way to save lives is to decriminalize substance use and create a safe and regulated supply of drugs.

It has been eight months since the province said it would expand safe supply without further details. On the fifth anniversary of the overdose public health emergency, the province said it would request a federal exemption to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs, something Henry said was possible without Ottawa in 2019.

“We need to advance the calls that we put out from our office for several years around decriminalization,” said Henry. “We need to create a safer drug supply and that is one of the things we continue to push.”

Wieman and McDonald stressed that the toxic drug crisis needs the same urgent and large-scale government response as the pandemic has received to truly end.

According to reports from the coroners’ office, 2021 is currently on track to surpass 2020 as the most fatal year on record, with 498 people dead in the first three months of the year.

“Just as with the pandemic, the only way out of this toxic drug crisis is together,” said Wieman.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Do You Think the Injunction at Fairy Creek Will Be Reinstated?

Take this week's poll