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    Sandy Silver interview April 8, 2022 CHONfm

70 percent of recent opioid deaths in the Yukon have been First Nations citizens

Heather Neumann was in her twenties. Myranda Charlie was in her thirties.

Heather Neumann is one of nine people who died from opioids in the first two months of 2022 (photo from Facebook).

Carcross/Tagish First Nation citizen Guna – Megan Jensen, of the Dahk’laweidi (Killer Whale) clan remembers her cousin Heather Neumann as a fighter, harder worker, shining star, and a kind, loving soul.


“I grew up with her,” Jensen told CHONfm.


“I have a vivid memory of picking wild blueberries with her,” Jensen added.


Neumann was only in her twenties when her life was cut short this past January after an accidental overdose from being exposed to opioids and fentanyl.


“It’s just a hard one to accept. I’ve experienced a good amount of loss in the last few years of my life but this one’s a different kind of thing. You don’t want to accept it and you know it shouldn’t have happened,” said Jensen.


According to Jensen, Neumann “didn’t have an easy life,” losing her mother to an overdose when she was a teenager. Despite what the universe threw her way, Neumann was determined to overcome.


“She pushed and worked so hard to live a good life and to heal,” said Jensen.


“When you’re on that healing journey and you’re so vulnerable and you’re exposed to the wrong space, that can set you back and that is what she experienced. She never gave up on wanting to get clean and to heal and recover,” added Jensen.


Jensen said that something needs to be done and drug dealers must be held accountable.


“I’m angry. You know, in the eyes of her family, they consider that murder. She did not want to die,” said Jensen.


“People are saying, ‘you know, I just want our whole community to put their hands up and be like, no more, get out of here’,” Jensen continued.


Justice for Myranda Charlie

Mryanda Charlie was 34 when she died from opioids (photo submitted by Chantal Tizya).

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation citizen Myranda Charlie was 34 when she passed away from an overdose at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter in January. That night she died alongside Cassandra Warville.


Charlie’s younger sister Chantal Tizya remembers her as a hockey player and a role model to the young people of Old Crow.


“She put on a bunch of baseball games and she was always there for the youth. She was just an all around good person. She was never angry or anything. She was always happy,” Tizya told CHONfm.


“She meant a lot to me,” Tizya added.


On March 3, Tizya penned a letter to the Yukon’s Minister of Health and Social Services Tracy-Anne McPhee calling on the government to do more to fight the opioid crisis. In the letter she said that she has complained to the RCMP about a known drug dealer at the shelter who she alleges sold to Charlie and Warville.


The letter goes on to detail Tizya’s first hand experience with addictions. She said she has spent some time at the shelter, an experience she described as “nothing but bad”. Tizya said that staying sober was challenging as the people around her were often using. At the time she was homeless and didn’t have family to take her in. She also didn’t have much knowledge of the resources that were available to help her get clean and when she did try to get better she felt “lost and alone.”


Tizya tried to get in to the detox facility in Whitehorse but she was often turned away because there were no beds available when she needed help the most. When she eventually got in she felt “scared and uncomfortable.” Now she wants counsellors to be more easily accessible to those in detox, more on the land healing options, more undercover cops to take down drug dealers, and more resources for those experiencing homelessness.


As of March 21, Tizya says she hasn’t received a response from minister McPhee.


“They just sent an email saying that they will respond soon,” said Tizya.


“I’m upset,” she continued.


“I want justice for my sister,” added Tizya.


Opioid crisis gripping the Yukon

A vigil was held in Carcross on January 15 to remember those lost to drugs (photo provided by Lyndsay Amato).

Neumann, Charlie, and Warville’s deaths are just some of the raindrops in the river of drug related fatalities that are gripping the Yukon. According to a report from the territory’s corner released last November, the Yukon is leading the country in opioid deaths at a rate of 48.4 deaths per 10,000 people. That’s more than double the national rate of 19.4.


Since that report, Yukoners are continuing to lose loved ones. In the first two weeks of this year, there were at least eight drug related deaths reported in the territory. Three of those people were Carcross/Tagish First Nation citizens, prompting the First Nation to declare a state of emergency, and vigils and protests to be held across the Yukon.


Related – Vigils to be held across the Yukon to remember those lost to drugs and demand action January 13, 2022


Now the Yukon Coroner’s service is confirming that between January 5 and February 22 of this year there have been nine opioid-related fatalities in the Yukon and a tenth is pending toxicology results.


70 percent of those lost were First Nations citizens. The coroner said that more Indigenous people are being impacted by the opioid crisis.


According to a press release from the coroner issued last week, fentanyl played a role in all nine confirmed deaths. Cocaine was confirmed in five cases and benzodiazepines were confirmed in three.


The release also brings an update to the number of deaths that occurred in 2021. That year saw 24 Yukoners lost to opioids. 67 have died since 2016.


Read the full release issued by the Yukon Coroner’s Service on March 17, 2022


During question period in the legislature on the afternoon the coroner’s release was put out, NDP MLA for Vuntut Gwitichin Anine Blake called for an inquest in to the deaths of Charlie and Warville


“In January 2022, multiple individuals died while at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter. This is a government-run facility, which means the government is responsible for what happens in the shelter,” said Blake.


“I think I need to defer, in relation to that question, to the coroner and her advice about what should or should not happen as a result of any particular matter in which she is involved as primary investigator,” responded minister McPhee.


In January, the government of Yukon declared a substance use health emergency.


“Far too many are dying in our communities and here in Whitehorse,” said minister McPhee at a virtual press conference alongside politicians, First Nation Chiefs, and community leaders.


McPhee went on to tell reporters that the emergency declaration does not give the government more authority or power to deal with the crisis. She did however say that the government of Yukon will implement a public education campaign to teach people about the territory’s increasingly dangerous drug supply which is contaminated with fentanyl and benzodiazepines. Plans were also announced to expand drug testing and safe supply to rural communities and to provide more support to the supervised consumption site in Whitehorse. McPhee also said that the government will work towards increasing on-the-land treatment options, and developing a new “Opioid Action Plan.”


Related – Minister of health and social services declares a substance use health emergency January 20, 2022


To gather perspectives and figure out the new action plan, last month the government of Yukon hosted a two-day virtual mental wellness summit. Presenters talked about the role reconciliation and Indigenization plays in advancing mental health for Yukoners, as well as harm reduction, culture-based interventions, and preventative measures among other topics.


The event also saw Kwanlin Dün First Nation citizen Gary Bailie share his story of losing his daughter Stacity to an opioid overdose, his brother Darcy to a cocaine overdose, and his wife to suicide.


“I’m in a position now where I have my granddaughter Essence, who is Stacity’s girl, she’s been with me through all of this and she’s like my last chance to break the cycle. So, I’m basically dedicating my life to raising her in a good, healthy way and to try and get her to be a caring individual and to peruse healthy lifestyles and just try and treat her life as a gift,” said Bailie.


Mental wellness summit is the “bare minimum”

Minister of Health and Social Services Tracey-Anne McPhee delivers opening remarks at the government’s mental wellness summit (screenshot from

A press release from the government of Yukon issued after the event is tilted “Mental Wellness Summit sparks momentum for real change,” but Jensen said holding a conference doesn’t cut it.


“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that but I think it’s the bare minimum and it’s something that’s been done before,” said Jensen.


“Everybody knows that it’s not enough and it shouldn’t be treated as enough,” added Jensen.


“Don’t get me wrong, I fully respect and I hold my hands up to some of the people that were a part of that panel for that summit to share their stories. They deserve that space and they should be heard,” Jensen continued.


Tizya agrees with that sentiment.


“I don’t really think it helped anyone,” said Tizya.


Honouring Heather and healing through art

Heather Neumann (top) plays with her cousin Guna – Megan Jensen (bottom) as children (photo provided by Jensen).

Jensen says being sad about losing her cousin isn’t enough, now she wants to honour her life.


Jensen is designing some art that she plans to have printed on t-shirts and posters to sell as a fundraising effort to buy resources to help people in Carcross heal. The money will go towards purchasing equipment like wall tents and backpacks to support people getting out on the land. Jensen said the idea was inspired when her aunt gifted Neumann’s father a tent after she passed away.


“As much as someone could perk up after losing a child, he did – seeing that wall tent, and I started to think about how beautiful it is to just give that to someone who is struggling,” said Jensen.


After having a healing experience on the land with an Elder who has had struggles with addiction, Jensen said she wants other people to able to connect with the earth.


“He talked about how this particular hike that I was able to be on with him, he said that healed him in a way that no recovery institution could,” said Jensen.


“There’s incredible, inexplainable healing that happens to our people when they’re on the land and when they’re given space to do that healing. We all know it, and I think it’s one of the most powerful, potent sources of healing that we have,” added Jensen.


Meeting with ministers

Jensen recently met with ministers from the government of Yukon to discus the opioid crisis (photo provided by Jensen).

Recently Jensen met with ministers from the government of Yukon to discuss the opioid crisis, the stigma surrounding drug use, as well as her art campaign.


Jensen said that the meeting went well. Multiple ministers attended though she mainly spoke with minister Jeanie McLean.


“It went excellent. They were completely on board. It was a conversation like ‘how should we partner? What do you envision?’” said Jensen.


Jensen said the ministers have agreed to help her find pockets of funding to get the project off the ground. Now the plan is to have another follow up meeting to get the ball rolling.


As the campaign gets going, Jensen is keeping the history of government involvement with First Nations in mind.


“The relationship with the government and Indigenous people since the beginning has been messed up and oppressive and abusive,” said Jensen.


“I’ve been very mindful of that as well, thinking about the government participating in this project – to be done in a way where it’s not going to impact the trust of the community that it’s supposed to serve,” Jensen added.


In the meantime, Jensen is refining the design of her art before revealing it to the public.


“It just needs to be right. It needs to induce the right feelings,” said Jensen.


Jensen hopes to get the shirts and posters printed as soon as possible and would like to see the project become a reality in the coming weeks and months.


“I’m hoping they can do something”

Myranda Charlie died at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter alongside Cassandra Warville (photo provided by Chantal Tizya).

As for Tizya she has sent her letter to the local media and has some interviews lined up.


She hopes spreading the word about her sister will prompt change.


“I’m hoping they can do something,” said Tizya.


This Sunday she is hosting a skate at the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse to mark Charlie’s birthday and to serve as a memorial.


Published March 21, 2022.


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Written by: Dylan MacNeil

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