Faith without works is dead
“Where is our new addiction treatment centre?” — Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty
“What’s truly surprising and shocking is that this issue did not come out during our mandate priority setting exercise, not a word about an addictions or healing centre at that time.” — Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green
Having an addiction is a curse. But the territorial government is in denial. The GNWT refuses to admit it has a problem. It clings to a questionable model for its recovery services like a booze hound on a bottle.
The GNWT believes a geographic cure is best for alcoholics and drug addicts in its care. As with Hollywood celebrities, the government ships the physically sick and psychologically wounded drunks and druggies away to fancy rehab centres for what promises to be a miracle cure of some set period of time, often 28 days. Maybe longer.
Go away, get the cure, come back and yer all set. Aftercare is, often, a threadbare afterthought.
Indigenous people often from small, remote communities — often used to used to traditional lifestyles — are bundled onto a plane to faraway centres, near Edmonton, in Calgary, in Nanaimo, or in Toronto. Some offer Indigenous-based approaches, others are for, well, others.
Many are seeking recovery after doing a stint in jail. So imagine that scenario — flying from the North Slave Correctional Complex to a “serene and caring environment in beautifully resorted heritage homes,” at the “world-class” Renascent addiction centre in Toronto.
Sounds expensive, no? Amazingly, it’s not.
Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green spoke confidentially in the Assembly last week about the cost savings per bed night as opposed to earlier failed northern treatment centres. The GNWT closed the last one, Nats’ejee K’eh Treatment Centre on the on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, in territorial government in 2013.
Nats’ejee K’eh had an annual $2-million operating budget, costing $522 per day per client.
“In contrast, the department’s current contracts for treatment range from $180 per day to $452 per day,” Green told the Assembly.
Green said in Nats’ejee K’eh’s final full year of operations, 133 people attended treatment. In contrast, over the past six years, since the GNWT started using southern facilities, an average of 228 people attend treatment each year.
The current fiscal year budget for out-of-territory addictions treatment is $2.1 million, said Green, with an anticipated spend this year of $2.3 million.
Said Minister Green in the NWT Legislative Assembly on Tuesday:
“Nats’ejee K’eh worked at a 38-per-cent capacity in the last three years it was opened, and we’ve been able to double the number of people who get residential treatment for the same money over the last six years.
“What we understand is: the hitch at Nats’ejee K’eh and other northern treatment centres is confidentiality. I think we all know that everybody knows everybody, and they don’t necessarily want to restart their sober lives in the NWT.”
Now that’s true. A crucial aspect found in many recovery programs is to dig down deep and make “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” and then make an honest confession to yourself and another person. And in Alcoholics Anonymous, also to make an honest confession to God or your Higher Power of one’s choosing.
If you’re in a rehab centre in, let’s say, a regional centre in the NWT, chances are you’ll have a friend or relative in the same place. That could make it quite awkward to speak freely.
But that wouldn’t apply to everyone, especially people who perhaps haven’t grown up in the North, or have done so in Yellowknife.
So I can see the benefits of having the option of sending someone ready for a clean and sober new life away for the initial grounding in the basics of living sober. However, for many others, having the option of staying close to family and friends when they start what can be a terrifying process of living sober would serve them better.
It would also be of great benefit to have a facility in the NWT for quick and intensive aftercare if or when a slip occurs. A place to have a sobriety tune-up, if you will. It could also act as a mothership for partnerships outside of the facility, with programs in the communities and out on the land.
It could develop into a proud brand for health, sobriety and sanity — not a sad shameful place.
Why the political focus lately of addictions? It was the main topic in the Assembly’s Oral Questions sessions over the last couple of weeks.
Well, things are getting worse under the GNWT-imposed sheltered COVID-19 lifestyles. The pandemic has also provided fresh free cash from the federal government — the NWT punched above its weight when it came to Canada Emergency Response Benefit claims this year — and that has led to increased boozing, drugging and all around mayhem in some communities. Combine that with reduced employment opportunities and you have a recipe for human misery.
But before looking forward any further, let’s learn from the past.
In August 2016, writer Meagan Wohlberg wrote in The Edge about plans to revive the Nats’ejee K’eh Treatment Centre into a wellness centre, without being laser focussed on addiction recovery.
And that indeed happened in 2019, with the opening of the 16-bed Dene Wellness and Development Centre, offering healing workshops, along with training opportunities for those working through the impacts of colonization — whether it be from residential school, addictions, or other forms of trauma, including sexual abuse.
In Wohlberg’s excellent story, she discovered that Northerners working in addictions counselling in the ’70s and ’80s would be sent by the GNWT to Alberta for training. But in the early 2000s, the GNWT decided to bring in southern mental health professionals to replace local Indigenous wellness workers, who they determined were not properly certified to offer counselling.
Thus began the downfall of the Nats’ejee K’eh, as attendance dropped along with success rates. It was difficult to attract certified staff from the South, which historically is the reason the GNWT has used to explain why a northern centre wouldn’t work.
Another issue for any potential treatment centre in the NWT is the range of programming that would need to be offered. The NWT’s population is pretty much evenly split between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. And the overall demographic is also close to 50-50 male and female.
Under the current plan, the GNWT can send recovering alcoholics and addicts to the centre that would best suit their needs. But there are often waitlists of weeks or months. Which is a HUGE problem.
They then return and need aftercare. That’s where the GNWT could set up a centre that could better do — or more effectively augment — what is being provided now.
So how would the GNWT set up a treatment in the NWT with enough capacity and range of programming — not to mention certified staff that could work with all those groups — without it soon becoming economically unfeasible? Well, a start would be to train counsellors at the NWT’s new polytechnic university that is in planning stages.
I must point out at this point the GNWT has quickly found tens of millions of dollars to put towards the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of this writing has killed not a single person. This is a major thorn in the side for some MLAs. Alcohol and drugs continue to take many lives and make the entire population worse off with the side-effects of crime and general misery that comes along with living with or near someone whose life is in tatters.
But I digress.
There is also the fact that many people don’t need residential treatment. After they sober up — either through a medical detox or just by hitting their own rock bottom — they can enter recovery through a personal psychologist (expensive) or through a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous (free). Or some other form of more culturally appropriate setting, such as the well-regarded Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation’s urban healing camp behind the Multiplex.
Back to the Dysfunctional Diorama known as the NWT Legislative Assembly.
In recent days, many ideas have been floated, placing the newly minted Health and Social Services Minister — the left-leaning MLA from Yellowknife Centre, Julie Green — on the defence. She has made statements in the Assembly trying to give MLAs and the public information on policies and resources.
However, she still faced a barrage of questions from Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokelby, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn and others.
Green noted that when she was an MLA on the Standing Committee for Social Development in the previous Assembly, she was on a tour of some of the treatment centres in the South and the most pressing problem facing NWTers there was housing when they returned home.
“They wanted to not return to overcrowded housing, housing over which they had no control of their environment. They were living on a couch and that kind of thing. What they really wanted was a house of their own. Not necessarily even a house but an apartment of their own.
“That seems to be one of the key factors in making aftercare work, and there is, in fact, some language in the mandate about trying this approach to see if, in fact, it will assist people to return north, first of all, and to maintain their sobriety.”
Great Slave’s Nokleby exposed the fact the GNWT amazingly doesn’t collect and compile statistics on relapse following those trips to southern treatment programs.
“What the department does collect is that people have finished their program,” said Green. “They don’t go back to them to determine whether they have relapsed in their program.”
Green noted that a survey is planned early next year for people who visited the treatment centres to determine “what has worked for them and what hasn’t worked for them and try and build some best practices out of those responses.” Good grief. We haven’t been doing that already? For years?
Green repeatedly pressed the fact the on-the-land healing fund. Her department has made $1.8 million annually available for on-the-land healing programs. But Indigenous leadership has only tapped into part of that cash.
“It is a very flexible program. People can use it for on-the land, individuals, after-care, family based treatment. It is allocated to Indigenous organizations.
“It is easy to get, and it is very much a community-based program where people can decide on their priorities and how they want them implemented, whether they want to hire staff and so on and so forth.
“This is on offer to all communities, all Indigenous governments in the NWT, and I encourage them to apply for it.”
I applaud the MLAs for bringing this issue to the fore, but why wasn’t this issue included in discussions when the mandate of this Assembly was structured after the 2019 election?
One reason could be the structure of the mandate development process. The finished document, 2019-2023 Mandate of the Government of the Northwest Territories, states it “reflects the 22 priorities set by all members of the Legislative Assembly based on what members heard from their constituents.”
How many homeless alcoholics did the candidates hear from during their campaigns? Did many drug addicts show up for town hall debates? Who funded the candidates’ campaigns or provided advice and motivation? Who are the community power brokers behind each of the newly elected MLAs?
While the general issue of homelessness and poor public housing options was discussed at a couple of community election forums I attended in the summer of 2019 — and I did see some advocates for street people in the audiences — I doubt if many of their clients were on the list of electors.
But now, after some high-profile crimes and pressure on shelters and society due to COVID-19 regulations from the GNWT and cash initiatives available from the feds, the MLAs have decided to make addictions and recovery their cause du jour.
Addressing the root causes of addictions is something that will take years, after already taking years. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action has provided an albeit ambitious framework to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of restoring of relations between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada.
Call to Action No. 21 states:
We call upon the federal government to provide sustainable funding for existing and new Aboriginal healing centres to address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harms caused by residential schools, and to ensure that the funding of healing centres in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories is a priority.
Nunavut has already taken advantage of new federal cash made available to address some of the Calls to Action and nabbed $47.5 million for a recovery centre located in Iqaluit to provide residential treatment and outpatient services. In addition, staff will be locally sourced and trained to run the centre.
The Nunavut Recovery Centre, stated a news release from August 2019, will provide a range of treatment and healing interventions that will address both addictions and trauma, and will be founded on Inuit cultural practices and values. Clinical counselling services will also be incorporated. The Recovery Centre will be part of a system wide approach that includes on the land treatment and healing, as well as support for Inuit workforce development and capacity.
Stated Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan in 2019:
“Today we move towards improving access to culturally safe and appropriate health services closer to home that are effective and sustainable. This partnership highlights how we can work together to improve the health of Inuit.”
When someone discovers they have an addiction — either innate or acquired — they will need to first admit they have a problem. This usually comes after some form of intervention, either from friends, family, employers or the justice system.
Then a person has to hit their own version of an emotional bottom. They have to admit to themselves they have a problem and want a shot at a clean and sober life.
It’s a nightmarish proposition. It’s impossible to imagine life without the comfort of booze and dope. But if a decision is made, help is immediately needed. Some severe addicts will need medical detox. No waiting lists. No bureaucracy.
When I lived in Winnipeg in the ’90s and had some years of sobriety under my belt, I visited detox wards in hospitals to work with those in recovery. They can be very sick. It isn’t pleasant. Booze and drugs weaken your body. And the associated lifestyles are also usually not healthy in any way. But there is hope for them.
If someone is in jail, sobriety is imposed on them and some programming is available. Programming, by the way, is not one-size-fits all proposition. It can be clinically based, culturally focussed, or a 12-step concept, based on a belief in a Higher Power.
But when a person is released from jail or prison, they might be physically detoxed, but still not emotionally prepared for a life of sobriety. Many just return to their communities and back to their old dangerous ways of living. Same with people returning from residential treatment in the South. They might feel great, if the program caught on, but many will need to start a lifetime of emotional work to stay sober.
That’s why, when a person returns from a residential program, they need safe housing. Improved housing across the NWT needs to be a GNWT priority. It’s in the current group’s mandate, so get at it folks. There is federal cash available right now for fast construction of housing.
And when a person does get sober, they want and need something productive to do. For some, that could mean getting out on the land and forging a traditional life for themselves and their families. For others, they will need a paying job or a community project.
But for all recovering addicts, they need effective aftercare that works for whatever culture they might hail from.
That’s where a NWT treatment/healing centre could help a lot. Or maybe, as MLA Martselos suggested, one centre in the three major regions.
They could be one-stop shops, offering a residential option for those seeking recovery in the NWT, short-term transitional housing for those returning from centres in the South, a venue for outside 12-step meetings, guided help through the transition back to their home communities and resources for individuals to start recovery programs anywhere they are wanted in the NWT.
Covering courts for Cabin Radio has exposed me to the horrible ways that alcohol and drugs have permeated society for generations in the NWT. Almost everyone appearing before a judge has a sad story of addiction to tell. The cycle needs to have a stick stuck in its spokes.
Will it be the 19th Legislative Assembly that takes the issue by the horns and gets some good work done?
From the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
“The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept he house in turmoil.
“Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions.
“We feel that elimination of our drinking is but a beginning. A much more important demonstration of our principles lies before us in our respective homes occupations and affairs.”