Julie Green, the NWT's health minister, appears at a news conference in 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The NWT government says it will “convene some discussions” this fall after continued calls for a fresh attempt to run a northern addictions treatment centre.
The territory has had treatment centres in the past but each was considered a failure and shut down, prompting a succession of health ministers to reject calls for the idea to be revisited.
Current health minister Julie Green and Glen Abernethy, who held the position from 2013 to 2019, have each argued that treatment centres in the NWT struggle to attract enough suitable staff and willing clients to remain operational.
Green and Abernethy have also said there are confidentiality issues when northern staff already know the identities of incoming patients and those patients’ social circles, given the tight-knit nature of small NWT communities.
But no matter ministers’ insistence that northern treatment centres are destined to fail, various MLAs and Indigenous groups have argued that such a centre is an obvious, common-sense solution to one of the territory’s biggest health concerns – and there must be a way to make it work.
“We need a northern-based treatment centre,” then-Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, now the Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief, told the NWT legislature in 2020. “One that respects where our people come from. One that respects who we are. One where our language is a part of our working language. A treatment centre linked to the land, linked to our culture, linked to our Elders.
“Northerners demand an end to the sad state of affairs. Northerners demand healing for northerners, by northerners, in a northern setting.”
This Saturday, facing a range of local leaders at the NWT Association of Communities’ annual meeting, Green said the strength of feeling was such that she was prepared to have a new conversation on the issue.
Green spoke in response to a question read out by Rebecca Alty, association president and mayor of Yellowknife, on behalf of one of the association’s member communities. The question noted that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 21st call to action, which urges “sustainable funding for existing and new Aboriginal healing centres” and orders the federal government “to ensure the funding of healing centres in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories is a priority.”
The health minister said the NWT was not currently in contact with the federal government regarding money for a treatment centre.
However, Green said work on a territorial alcohol strategy had involved considerable feedback from community and Indigenous leaders “that we need to revisit this issue.”
“We are planning to convene some discussions this fall,” she said, “to try to understand how to not replicate the problems we’ve had in the past – where we’ve had one treatment centre but not everyone wants to use it, because of where it is or the culture it represents – but still be able to provide in-territory service to people who are trying to achieve sobriety.”
Last centre closed in 2013
Those discussions, when they take place, are understood to be extremely preliminary in nature. The NWT has made no commitment to construction of any new treatment centre.
But the suggestion that a fresh conversation should be had represents movement where previously ministers had depicted a door being firmly closed.
In recent years, the NWT has instead tried to improve the aftercare people receive once returning to northern communities from treatment centres in the south. The idea of “relapse centres” has also been suggested, facilities that are not fully fledged treatment centres but would act as a form of circuit-breaker for people in need.
This time last year, the GNWT said a survey that asked more than 400 people about addictions recovery reported “conflicting feedback” on the need for a territorial treatment centre.
The territory said people who called for an NWT-based facility cited reasons like “a need for families to be able to attend or participate together” and the need to reflect the culture of those who attend.
But the territorial government said it would be impossible to build a single treatment facility in the NWT that checked those boxes for all residents, given the vast distances and many peoples involved.
“One single NWT treatment centre would not address this need for all NWT residents,” the report stated. “Based on responses to this survey, it appears that the needs of residents of the Northwest Territories may be most effectively met by continuing to expand on-the-land and community-based treatment opportunities, and looking to existing resources in the regions to develop regional treatment options that will better meet the needs of local populations.”
According to a statement by Green in 2020, four NWT-based treatment centres have opened and subsequently closed in recent decades.
The latest was the Nats’ejee K’eh treatment centre on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation reserve, which closed in 2013.
At the time, occupancy of the centre had been reported at lower than 50 percent for the preceding two years. By September 2013 only one counsellor remained employed at the facility, which Nats’ejee K’eh’s board raised as a “safety issue.” The GNWT closed Nats’ejee K’eh at the end of the month.
That centre cost the territory $522 per day per client to run, Green has said, while the territory spends $180 to $452 per day sending a resident to one of six southern treatment centres.