Advertisement

Better dental services in Dawson City, Yukon, would help entire region, residents say

A dentist's office in Whitehorse. The territorial government says it's been struggling for nearly a year to bring dental services to rural communities.  (Dr. Kenny Liu - image credit)
A dentist's office in Whitehorse. The territorial government says it's been struggling for nearly a year to bring dental services to rural communities. (Dr. Kenny Liu - image credit)

A Yukon man's painful experience trying to pull his own tooth with a set of pliers has some in the territory calling for better dental services in rural communities.

Michael Najman of Dawson City, Yukon, attempted his self-dentistry earlier this month when one of his fillings fell out and his tooth broke. He was in terrible pain, and his only other option was an expensive six-hour drive to find a dentist in Whitehorse. Dawson does not have a resident dentist.

Yukon NDP Leader Kate White called Najman's experience "an indication of how horribly broken the health system is" in the territory.

"Dental care is a part of health care," White told CBC News.

"To know services in rural Yukon are so unaccessible, or so patchy that people are willing to pull out their own teeth is awful."

White said rural Yukoners should never have to resort to something that extreme to save money.

"We believe that with the referral of a doctor that it is an emergency, that Yukon Health should pick up the travel," she said.

NDP Leader Kate White.
NDP Leader Kate White.

'Dental care is a part of health care,' said NDP Leader Kate White, seen here in a file photo. (Julien Gignac/CBC)

In a written statement to CBC News, the Health department said it's been struggling to bring dental services to rural communities for nearly a year.

"Since March 2023, the department has not been able to identify a dentist to serve Yukon communities. This is despite taking a number of steps to try and attract a dentist for this role," the statement reads.

White said it's the government's responsibility to find a workable solution.

"Government often talks about prioritizing health and saying how important it is," she said.

"How they respect rural Yukon, and how they want to support rural Yukon. But when it comes to action we've seen the action hasn't quite lived up to their words."

Retired dentist says he offered service in Dawson

Helmut Schoener, a retired dentist living in Dawson City, told CBC News in a recent interview that he had approached the former premier, Klondike MLA Sandy Silver, in the past about offering dental work for Dawson residents in need, in between visits from other dentists.

According to Schoener, he was told that "would be unfair toward other communities if Dawson had dental emergency services."

Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers called that response "bizarre."

"We haven't heard their [Yukon Government] side of the story," Cathers said. "So we would call on them to explain that publicly, and particularly for Mr. Silver to explain why as MLA, according to the doctor, he declined this offer of services."

Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers speaks with reporters outside the Legislative Assembly October 31, 2023.
Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers speaks with reporters outside the Legislative Assembly October 31, 2023.

Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers, seen here in October, says the territorial government should explain if and why it declined an offer from a retired dentist to offer care in Dawson. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

Cathers said if someone is qualified to provide an essential service that is lacking, in any community, the government should support them, for the betterment of the community.

CBC News requested several times to speak to Silver but instead received the written statement from the health department.

"Dentists interested in providing services to the residents of Dawson could arrange to use the dedicated dental care space located in the Community Hospital," the statement reads.

Mayo would welcome a dentist in Dawson

The Village of Mayo is 230 kilometres away from Dawson City and 406 kilometres away from Whitehorse.

Mayo's Mayor Trevor Ellis doesn't think it would be "unfair" if Dawson had some form of consistent dental services — in fact, he believes that would be good for Mayo, too.

"You know it's a two-hour drive to Dawson, and a four-hour drive to Whitehorse ... So I would welcome Dawson getting a dentist," Ellis said.

"Anything that's in the North and in a rural community is welcome."

Mayo resident Sue Laberge also thinks a dentist in Dawson would be a great idea.

"Emergency dental services in Dawson would benefit the entire northern region," she wrote to CBC News, on Facebook.

Another Mayo resident, Donald Hutton, agreed.

"It would be great for people from Mayo, Pelly Crossing and Old Crow," he wrote, also on Facebook. "As well as the good folks of Dawson of course."

'Really, really sad,' says Whitehorse dentist

One Whitehorse dentist said he was shocked and heartbroken when he heard about Najman's ordeal.

"I am friends with a lot of dentists," said Dr. Kenny Liu. "Every time we see a story like this we all feel really, really sad."

Liu is originally from Vancouver and has been practicing dentistry in Whitehorse for the past two years.

A Whitehorse dentist says many of Yukon's communities are under serviced when it comes to dental health care.
A Whitehorse dentist says many of Yukon's communities are under serviced when it comes to dental health care.

Whitehorse dentist Dr. Kenny Liu says establishing a full-time practice in Dawson City would not be financially viable. (Dr. Kenny Liu)

Liu said he is among the group of dentists who travel to communities to provide dental exams specifically to school-aged children, under the Yukon Children's Dental Program.

"Providing access to rural communities is very important and I try to be involved as much as I can," Liu said.

"But I think at the end of the day, it is up to each individual dentist to see if they can fulfil that service."

When asked about starting his own practice in a town like Dawson, Liu said it would be a beautiful place to work, but it wouldn't be financially viable.

"Because I am a new grad, I have other financial obligations," he said. "Including high student debts. The cost of living is going up. I don't think I would be able to sustain a full-time practice in Dawson City."

Lui said despite different government programs to provide dental care, and the best efforts of himself and his colleagues, some Yukoners can still fall through the cracks.

"I feel sad that we have neglected some of these people. Especially now that we have the new government program that gives, I think, $1,300 dollars to people under a certain income," he said, referring to a territory-wide dental care plan launched a year ago.

"So situations like this should not happen. I'm very saddened to know about this. I think we should do a lot better as a society to just to provide at least the basic costs so people aren't living in pain."