Canada’s Governor General visits Yukon community hit by drug deaths

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon is visiting Yukon for the first time since being sworn into her position in July 2021. One of her first stops included Carcross/Tagish First Nation. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC)

By Sissi De Flaviis

In her 1st official visit to Yukon, Simon spoke about addressing mental health needs

A three-day visit to Yukon for Gov. Gen. Mary Simon began at the Carcross/Tagish First Nation’s Haa Shagóon Hídi cultural centre on Sunday.

Simon — who is visiting the territory with the purpose of strengthening relationships while focusing on reconciliation, mental health and the opioid crisis — spoke with Yukon First Nation elders, youth and leaders about the difficulties the community has faced recently in terms of mental health and drug-related deaths.

“It’s really important for me to connect to Indigenous communities,” said Simon, who wants to address both the challenges and positive remarks in communities.

On Sunday, Simon spoke to a group of Yukon First Nations elders, youth and leaders at the Haa Shagóon Hídi Great Hall, formerly known as the Carcross/Tagish Learning Centre, in Carcross. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC)

Earlier this year, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation declared a state of emergency in the wake of drug-related deaths in the community. Soon after, the territory declared a similar emergency.

In 2021, Yukon had a 53.5 rate per 100,000 population of total opioid toxicity deaths, according to federal statistics.

Simon said she’s been hearing similar scenarios from communities across Canada where mental health cases have been on the rise since the pandemic began.

“Suicide rates continue to be very high in different parts of the Arctic. These are an indication that my people are in mental distress,” she said, citing a variety of factors such as residential schools, colonization, the trauma experienced in families and problems through intergenerational trauma.

She said one of the solutions to address difficulties in communities include giving more ownership to Indigenous people as well as increased mental health resources and support.

For many, her visit outside of the territory’s capital was significant.

Gordon Reed, a member of Teslin Tlingit Council and a park ranger, said he has attended visits by past governors general to the territory.

“What I see happening this time is reaching out beyond Whitehorse. The fact that she’s here is an honour,” he said.

Reed said the opioid crisis hits close to home, but having Simon speak on it gives him hope.

“We’ve lost a lot. Too many. But when I hear kids talk about how many friends they’re losing and that somebody in a position of power and influence is taking note of it, I’m hoping that that, in a way, provides the support that’s needed to talk to the right people to make a difference,” he said.

This is Simon’s first official visit to the territory since being sworn into her role in July 2021. This is part of a larger objective of visiting each province and territory to engage with Canadians from across the country to build better relationships.

“We really have to understand each other’s stories. I think that’s part of the process that we’re embarking on in terms of reconciliation,” Simon said.

Simon, centre, and her husband Whit Fraser, left, stand with Sean McDougall, heritage manager at Carcross/Tagish First Nation. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC)

Over the next two days, the Governor General will be meeting with elected officials, such as Premier Sandy Silver, Yukon First Nations leaders and students from Yukon University.

She will also attend the Arctic Arts Summit, which brings together Indigenous nations of the circumpolar region.

Mental health a top priority

As the country’s 30th governor general, Simon said she wants to focus on mental health and well-being.

“I think we all know that when anybody has a mental health issue, it can be stigmatised,” she said during her public remarks in Carcross. “I think we need to change that. We need to be accepting of each of those health issues, physical and mental.”

To address it, Simon said she’s advocating for increased mental health services.

“I think as a country, we need to do better,” she said.

Aliya Grant is an 18-year-old youth leader based in Carcross. On Sunday, she received the Outstanding Youth Achievement Award for her efforts on mentorship and advocacy. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC)

Aliya Grant is a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the recipient of the Outstanding Youth Achievement Award given out at Sunday’s event by the Yukon’s Commissioner Angélique Bernard.

Grant said she would like to see more support for youth from the government.

“At our potlatches, we always say children get served first. So why is that not happening with our mental health or health system?” she said.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Mental health in Arctic Canada – Can community programs make the difference?, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Climate change worries Finland’s young reindeer herders, Yle News

United States: Lack of village police leads to hiring cops with criminal records in Alaska: Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Public Media

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