Hay River public meeting on addictions focused on call for N.W.T. treatment centre

Hay River and area residents spoke with N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green, second from right at head table, about their concerns around recent drug issues and violence in the community. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)
Hay River and area residents spoke with N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green, second from right at head table, about their concerns around recent drug issues and violence in the community. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)

Hay River, N.W.T., has been rocked by drugs, deaths and violence over the past several months. Drug deaths, drug busts, the spread of fentanyl and carfentanil, break-ins, and murder have all combined to leave the community on edge.

N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green visited the community Thursday evening for a public meeting on addictions and safety. The mood was sombre as about 40 residents gathered at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre. Green was in Hay River on the invitation of the two MLAs for the district: RJ Simpson and Rocky Simpson. They wanted Green to hear directly from the community about their concerns.

Most of the meeting centred on the question of an addictions treatment centre — and the lack of one in the N.W.T.

Some took aim at Green's previous repeated resistance to a brick-and-mortar N.W.T. addictions treatment centre. Green recently said in the Legislative Assembly that treatment centres "don't work" in the N.W.T. But according to some at the meeting, Hay River's Nats'ejee K'eh Treatment Centre — closed in 2013 — was successful until staff with lived experience were replaced by staff with university degrees.

"You can't take an intellectual approach to recovery," one woman said at the meeting. "You need to have people who are in recovery working with people who are in recovery."

She said Nats'ejee K'eh had a great program, and she remembers high occupancy numbers in the early years. She said trained counsellors are important in treatment centres for mental health and other issues but ultimately it needs to be balanced with people who have lived experience.

Beatrice Lepine is a concerned elder. She also said the N.W.T. needed a treatment centre. Lepine also brought attention to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action number 21. It calls on the federal government to provide funding for new and existing Indigenous healing centres and calls Nunavut and Northwest Territories priority areas.

Lepine said this is because the North has the highest per-capita number of residential school survivors. She said she wants to see Hay River organize another meeting between residents to come up with community-based solutions.

"We have a lot of experts … some of these people in this room worked in that treatment centre and have interests and expertise in that field," she said in an interview after the meeting. "So we need to get those people together. Not government agencies — people."

Green agreed with a lot of the points that were brought forward. She said she understands that people who have been through their own addictions have an affinity for people who are just starting their recovery, rather than people who have clinical qualifications.

"I think that this is maybe a pendulum that has swung from people who have lived experience to people who have clinical qualifications, and we're going back again," Green said.

She said the government is looking at different treatment centre models. She noted they don't have the budget to build multiple treatment centres so they need to evaluate the best way to deliver culturally-based programming that works for everyone in the North.

She said she has a lot of empathy for what people are going through in Hay River in relation to drug and addiction issues.

"I've learned a lot about the fear and anxiety that people feel about this drug situation, that they feel in some cases overwhelmed by it and they are looking for solutions," said Green.

Lepine listened to what Green had to say, but in the end she said she felt less confident than ever that the territorial government would make a treatment centre a priority.

"I didn't feel assured by anything the minister said … I really believe it comes from the community, I mean the GNWT can provide money but this push to create change needs to come from the community," Lepine said.

Local leadership felt meeting was necessary to find solutions 

In an interview after the meeting, MLA RJ Simpson said that any solution must be community-driven. He believes the meeting was important to show the department the very real concern that Hay River residents have.

"That's why I wanted to get the minister down here so she could hear from the people on the ground, on the front line. So they would have a better sense of how to support the community," he said.

He said if they can get the department on board, whether it be through funding or policies, that's where they're going to make some progress.

Simpson said another important take away from the meeting was the need for aftercare and detox programs. Those were the two components that everyone seemed to agree upon and he said they will look at how they can support that moving forward.

"I know there are some groups in town who are working on putting together proposals for those types of things, so how do we support those groups?" said Simpson.

Simpson said it's hard to classify the meeting as positive when it comes to talking about addictions, saying that the town has been hit hard over the last year. He said people really kept their emotions in check but wouldn't blame them if they didn't.

"Everyone is feeling this, this is affecting everyone in the community, whether or not you're suffering from addictions, a family member, a friend. It's at the point now where everyone in the community one way or another is feeling this," he said.