Strung out drug addicts huddled in doorways, spent liquor bottles crammed into snowbanks, empty mouthwash containers laying in the gutter — media images of the North’s substance abuse crisis highlight the dire circumstances of a few individuals.
The rest of us enjoy a couple of drinks or the occasional joint and think we’ve escaped the ravages of abuse.
Unfortunately, this is not the whole story. Everyone pays for the North’s bad habits.
In 2014, the economic cost of substance use in Canada was $38.4 billion, or about $1,100 for every Canadian, states a new report released on Nov. 15 by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
The report found the costs of substance abuse in the territories were much higher than in the rest of the country.
Nunavut spent about $96 million, which was about $2,652 per person; the Northwest Territories spent $102 million, or about $2,329 per person, and the Yukon spent about $71 million, which was about $1,929 per person.
Most of these costs were associated with healthcare: doctor’s visits, drug prescriptions, specialists and surgeries, lost productivity; premature mortality, long-term disability and impaired performance on the job and; criminal justice — policing costs, court costs and the crimes people commit to feed their addictions.
It remains to be seen what sort of impact cannabis legalization will have on the North, potentially a negative one but according to the study almost 70 per cent of the total costs of substance abuse were associated with alcohol and tobacco. Cannabis contributed a mere 7.3 per cent of the total.
So it seems clear that ordinary Northerners are paying a terrible price for consuming substances that are widely and legally available at liquor stores and grocery stores.
This demonstrates how addiction is a disease, not a crime and that the North’s substance abuse crisis is, more deeply, a symptom of colonialism.
Many of the problems we associate with addiction go hand-in-hand with the awful legacy of residential schools.
According to a 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 3,201 children died while attending these residential schools, which were financed by the government and run by churches.
But the terrible crimes perpetuated in these institutions for almost a century have led to multi-generational trauma.
Various levels of government have taken positive steps in recent years to address addiction in the North.
In Yellowknife, the downtown sobering centre and day centre offers a safe space for people struggling with homelessness and addiction.
But the NWT no longer has an addictions treatment centre, which means people who need rehab need to go south.
A southern rehab centre might not address the underlying trauma that afflicts Northerners so an appropriate facility in the NWT is badly needed. The funds invested in such a facility would more than cover the terrible price that addiction has extracted from the North.
For now, healing starts at home and if people need help, they should take those first few courageous steps to reach out to a friend, a family member, a health-care worker or a teacher.
Addiction doesn’t have to last a lifetime and to improve the odds for people who are looking to get clean, we need to recognize their efforts and applaud the people who take those first few heroic steps toward recovery.