Popular N.W.T. tourist attraction becomes on-the-land healing camp

·3 min read
Aurora watchers take in the lights at Aurora Village on March, 11, 2011. Recently, the tourism destination became an on-the-land healing camp for people experiencing homelessness, but the project only has funding for 60 days. (Aurora Village - image credit)
Aurora watchers take in the lights at Aurora Village on March, 11, 2011. Recently, the tourism destination became an on-the-land healing camp for people experiencing homelessness, but the project only has funding for 60 days. (Aurora Village - image credit)

One of Yellowknife's most popular tourist attractions began welcoming guests again a week ago for the first time in months.

But unlike the tourists that have come to Aurora Village to take in the Northern Lights, these guests are here for a different reason: to heal.

"We're so used to people coming here to see Aurora, the spirits of the sky," said Aurora village owner and former N.W.T. premier Don Morin. "Those people aren't coming. Now the people coming are here to find their spirits."

Aurora Village has just taken on a new purpose: providing shelter, nourishment and healing to people experiencing homelessness.

It's a collaboration between the Dene Nation and several Indigenous partners, including the Crazy Indians Brotherhood, the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation and Aurora Village.

The partners held a news conference in one of the village's teepees on Thursday to explain the project.

Clara Pasieka/CBC
Clara Pasieka/CBC

The camp's first guests began arriving last week, said Michael Fatt of the Crazy Indians Brotherhood, and he can already see the difference. He hears laughter coming from teepees, and hears of others going on the land, he said. Those who have been there longer are helping guests who arrived this week.

Fatt, who has experienced homelessness in the past in several cities, said talking is important in healing.

"I know I would only talk to people who share my experiences," he said.

To be among those who experienced residential schools or the Sixties Scoop mattered in his own healing process, Fatt said.

The camp is not exclusively for Indigenous people experiencing homelessness or people from the Yellowknife area, but the core idea behind the camp was Dene people helping Dene people. Morin said some guests are from other parts of the Northwest Territories and some from Nunavut.

The reviews from guests each morning so far? They talk about how peaceful it is and say they feel a healing spirit when walking around, Morin said. The most common remark is that they got a good night's sleep.

The project has received $1.3 million in federal funding, said Trevor Teed, director of Lands and Environment for Dene Nation.

Aurora Village
Aurora Village

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya emphasized that the federal money is allowing the project to do things using Dene values, traditions and ways of doing things, rather than imposing a way of structuring a program for the individuals.

"The days of doing it for us are over. The Indigenous people on our land: we can do it with good partnership," he said.

(Yakeleya spoke even though he's in the midst of a campaign for re-election, and some Dene leaders have suggested he should have stepped down months ago, at the end of his term, when the election for chief was initially supposed to take place.)

Teed observed that the new guests are helping shape the structure of the program as they go.

60 days to go

The project has received the money it needs for 60 days, until approximately January 23rd, said Teed.

This has him worried about what happens to the clients afterwards.

"When they come here we offer them respect," he said. "We offer them love and they receive it. And you can see the difference in them in such a short time.... It really bothers me that we're going to send them back on the street in January."

"We're dealing with people's lives."

Fatt said he cannot express the transformation he has witnesses in individuals so far.

"We cannot string them along to give them an ending," he said.

The group is trying to find additional federal money to turn the camp into a year-round project, said Teed.

The territorial government has so far disappointed them, the partners said.

The project asked for medical personnel and made a financial ask to assist with healthcare components of running the camp that were out of the scope of their expertise, but a week into running the camp, they have still received no assistance or any promise of assistance, said Teed.

CBC News reached out to the territorial government and did not receive a response.

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