Current Problems

Health (18-24)

First Nations people in B.C. continue to be hit harder by toxic drug crisis, statistics show

February 27, 2024

‘They’re not just numbers, they’re people,’ says FNHA chief medical officer

A woman with round glasses and purple earings sits in an office chair and smiles at the camera.
Dr. Nel Wieman is the chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority in B.C. (Jackie McKay/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: First Nations people continued to die from toxic drugs at a higher rate than non-First Nations people in British Columbia in the first six months of 2023, according to the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA). 

First Nations people died at six times the rate of non-First Nations people from January to June 2023 while the number of First Nations people who died from toxic drugs increased by 24.7 per cent compared to the same period in 2022. 

“It’s painful to talk about these numbers because they’re not just numbers, they’re people, people who are loved and people who had potential futures ahead of them,” said Dr. Nel Wieman, chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority. 

The FNHA plans, designs, manages, and funds the delivery of First Nations health programs and services in B.C. Ten years ago it assumed the programs, services, and responsibilities formerly handled by the federal government’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch in B.C.

The First Nations Health Authority has not yet released total numbers for 2023, but Wieman said more than 400 First Nations people died due to toxic drugs last year. The FNHA says 373 First Nations people died in 2022. 

Data released from the B.C.Coroners Service in January said in 2023 there were at total of 2,511 suspected illicit drug deaths, making an average of nearly seven deaths per day. 

First Nations people make up just over three per cent of the population of British Columbia but made up 17.7 per cent of toxic drug deaths in the first six months of 2023, according to the FNHA. 

Wieman said the demographics of the toxic drug deaths differ among First Nations people compared to the rest of the population. 

First Nations women are disproportionately impacted by the toxic drug crisis, dying at a rate 11.9 times higher than non-First Nations women in B.C. in the first six months of 2023. The rate of toxic drug deaths among First Nations men was 4.6 times the rate for non-First Nations men. 

Among non-First Nations people in B.C., men make up about 77 per cent of toxic drug deaths. Wieman said among First Nations people, it is about a 50/50 split between male and female. 

“In some places, actually, females die at higher rates than males,” said Wieman. 

WATCH | B.C. coroner on safe supply:

Safe supply backlash ‘terrifies’ B.C.’s chief coroner

28 days ago

Duration 16:13As she heads into retirement, B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe says she worries that the political winds have turned against drug decriminalization, and that people who oppose it don’t understand how safe supply saves lives.

Wieman said efforts to tackle the toxic drug crisis are underfunded compared to other medical crises, something she blames on stigma about people who use substances.

“The COVID pandemic was a public health emergency for… three years and when you look at the resources that were thrown into the COVID … the numbers don’t compare in terms of funding,” said Wieman. 

Last year Health Canada enacted a three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act allowing adult drug users in B.C. to carry up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy for personal use.

Wieman said decriminalization is meant to reduce stigma and keep people from using alone. 

“We need to keep people alive so that they can consider their choices,” said Wieman. 

WATCH | James Harry does outreach in Vancouver:

A sandwich for the hungry, with a side of Haisla hospitality

2 months ago, Duration 3:46:

James Harry started bringing lunches to people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside during the pandemic, but he knows he’s delivering more than food. He shows CBC’s Wawmeesh Hamilton how he’s also bringing a little bit of Haisla First Nation culture and hospitality.

James Harry, executive director of All Nations Outreach and a member of the Haisla and Homalco nations, works with people who are struggling in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 

“We’re losing so many people,” said Harry. 

At least once a day Harry makes his rounds near the corner of Main Street and East Hastings handing out food and talking to people. A lot of what Harry does is keeping track of Indigenous people living in the Downtown Eastside.

For six years, Harry worked as an outreach worker for the Haisla Nation to keep track of people who were from their community but recently moved full time to All Nations Outreach. 

“I believe this outreach is a missing link in our communities,” said Harry. 


Jackie McKay, Reporter

Jackie McKay is a Métis journalist working for CBC Indigenous covering B.C. She was a reporter for CBC North for more than five years spending the majority of her time in Nunavut. McKay has also worked in Whitehorse, Thunder Bay, and Yellowknife.