In the early 1980s, it was still taboo to talk about alcohol and addictions in the North, says former counsellor David Poitras. And yet, people were dying.
A psychologist from the south would visit Fort Smith once every three months, but it was clear that someone who actually lived in the community needed to step in if it was going to deal with the abuse, illness and suicides linked to drinking.
That’s when Poitras and his wife Martha — both former alcoholics — decided to enter the fray.
“Those issues don’t wait for an educated person with papers,” he says. “We kept a lot of people alive at the time, preventing suicide.”
“The GNWT gets health money from Canada on behalf of treaty people but we don’t have a say in how it’s used.”
The couple spent the next two decades helping people in the North get sober, ultimately basing themselves at the Nats’ejee K’eh Treatment Centre in Hay River.
But that all changed in 2002, when the territorial government stopped recognizing Indigenous-trained addictions counsellors. In one move, the Poitras were no longer certified in the eyes of the GNWT.
The warm, inviting rooms of Nats’ejee K’eh on the K’atl’odeeche First Nation (KFN) have sat empty since the institution’s 2013 shutdown, but during its peak, according to Poitra, the place was packed with individuals of all cultures and backgrounds at varying stages of healing .
“There were up to 42 people there in 1998,” he recalls. “We had weekly intake at the time and it worked really well. The people who had been there for three to four weeks would start helping the new ones. It was peers helping each other.”
Today, KFN Chief Roy Fabian is hoping to once again fill the space with that kind of energy.
The territorial government recently approached the First Nation asking for a proposal for what they’d like to see done with the old treatment centre. After hosting a meeting last week with dozens of “people involved in the healing movement for the last 40 years,” KFN is recommending that the building be reopened as a Dene wellness centre, focused not specifically on addictions treatment, but on general programming that will support the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health of people in the North.
Dave Poitras in 2012 | Photo by Meagan Wohlberg
“We don’t want to call it treatment. It’s a Dene healing centre where we can use the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework and base the whole treatment on Dene concepts,” Fabian says, referring to the document developed by the Assembly of First Nations and Health Canada in 2014 that lays a path for addressing Indigenous mental health issues.
Fabian says the proposed wellness centre would provide a variety of programming, from grieving workshops to art therapy, to traditional skills like moosehide tanning and drumming for healing.
“In the end, it’s basically about making Dene people Dene again, so we can regain integrity as Dene people, our culture and language and capacity, but also be able to participate in modern society,” he says.
While the territorial government has said they cannot support another northern treatment centre —opting instead to send Northerners with addictions issues south for detox — the wellness centre proposal harkens back to the early days of Nats’ejee K’eh, which built its treatment plan on Dene culture, concepts and ceremonies.
“We’re not going to abandon the treatment centre idea completely,” Fabian says. “People are suffering because of poor mental wellness and we’re sending them south. Alcohol and drug treatment is something we can do, but it is not the only thing. We can have treatment programs that help people with their issues through our own Dene wellness concepts.”
Of course, he says, the proposal will require GNWT approval and funding.
“The government is going to have to step in. They’re spending a lot to send people south so we’re going to ask that some of that be redirected,” Fabian says. “And the GNWT gets health money from Canada on behalf of treaty people but we don’t have a say in how it’s used, so we pointed that out. Increased wellness means reduced costs of health.”
Sober since the 1970s, Poitras started helping people with their addictions first at Fort Smith’s friendship centre. In 1987, he and many other Northerners working in addictions counselling would be sent by the GNWT to Alberta to train at the Nechi Institute, an Indigenous centre offering certification in wellness promotion and addictions treatment.
Poitras spent the next two decades working in Fort Smith and Hay River to help people enter treatment and stay sober, including eight years at Nats’ejee. During that time, he recieved accolades from psychologists, who encouraged people in Fort Smith to keep working with him because of his effectiveness as a counsellor.
“It became too intellectual. It got watered down when non-Aboriginal people started to run it. They took the culture out.”
But in the early 2000s, the territorial government started making changes, bringing in southern mental health professionals to replace local Indigenous wellness workers, who they determined were not properly certified to offer counselling.
“When I worked at the treatment centre, people were allowed to deal with their whole being — the spiritual, emotional, physical and mental. That’s what a lot of Aboriginal people liked. We would deal with residential schools, domestic violence, sexual abuse issues, abandonment issues,” Poitras says. “But it became too intellectual. It got watered down when non-Aboriginal people started to run it. They took the culture out.”
People like Poitras were eventually phased out, and many believe that’s when occupancy levels and the ability to find staff for the treatment centre started to go downhill.
While Nats’ejee once had an 80 percent occupancy rate and a 43 percent success rate — well beyond what some top-notch centres in the south can provide — Fabian says the changes meant “Dene people were no longer willing to go where their wellness was not taken care of.”
The First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework is based on the central idea that culture has to be the foundation of health and wellness for Indigenous peoples.
“The cultural values, sacred knowledge, language, and practices of First Nations are essential determinants of individual, family, and community health and wellness,” the framework states. “Cultural knowledge about mental wellness does not narrowly focus on ‘deficits’. Rather, it is grounded in strengths and resilience. Culture is the foundation for a ‘good life’, and the knowledge contained within culture applies across the lifespan and addresses all aspects of life.”
A focus on wellness instead of illness is at the crux of the KFN proposal.
“The problem with the medical model is that it deals only with mental illness, not wellness,” says Fabian, who was a Dene representative on the AFN health committee that helped design the framework. “When we’re dealing with health, we’re dealing with everything. Not just alcohol and drugs, but how healthy we are spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally. You can’t ignore the other three areas. That’s the point we’re making, that we need Dene mental wellness.”
“The experience we gained as alcoholics is not recognized; it seems like it has no value. But if you have papers and you read about it, that’s better?”
“The colonization process was the most devastating process that has taken place. It weakened Dene mental wellness. It was to make people not Dene,” he says. “The whole idea here is to strengthen the Dene people so they can have a sense of hope, purpose, meaning and belonging.”
During his own therapy and training, Poitras was forced to confront trauma from residential school, a history of shame, violence and addictions. That personal experience, Poitras believes, is what equipped him to help people get sober.
“The experience we gained as alcoholics is not recognized; it seems like it has no value. But if you have papers and you read about it, that’s better? I never believed that,” he says.
Now with a new proposal on the table, Poitras is optimistic that he and his wife will once again be able to lend a hand to those struggling with mental health and addictions issues in an official capacity, if required.
“As children, we learned we didn’t have much to offer. But as adults, we know we have lots to offer, even if the territorial government says no, our certificates aren’t good enough,” Poitras says.
“But we’re Elders now,” he adds with a chuckle. “So if they say they recognize traditional healing, they can’t stop us from helping people.