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‘Losing a generation,’ Gwich’in Tribal Council races to reopen wellness camp

The Gwich'in Wellness Camp buildings as seen in a photo attached to a 2022 regulatory submission.
The Gwich'in Wellness Camp buildings as seen in a photo attached to a 2022 regulatory submission.

“We could talk all about economic development opportunities and projects. But until we start tackling the mental health and addictions challenges we face in our communities, it’s dead in the water.”

Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik says work to reopen a wellness centre south of Inuvik is an example of his Indigenous government taking action to address a northern crisis in youth mental health.

Speaking at Inuvik’s Arctic Development Expo on Tuesday, Kyikavichik and the council’s director of nation-building and self-determination, Sharla Greenland, said work to refit the wellness centre buildings is under way.

The federal government provided $2.3 million last year to help the camp reopen.

When it first opened in 2008, the GTC used the site as a healing and cultural centre, offering language, traditional knowledge and mental health programming.



But in 2012, high costs and insufficient funding forced the centre to close its doors. The centre’s dependence on diesel power accounted for much of the money spent.

This time around, work is taking place to install biomass furnaces and improve the camp’s solar array.

Modular accommodation that Kyikavichik likened to an “executive-style oil camp” is being brought in, and a commercial kitchen on-site will help the centre to cater for events holding up to 150 people at its main gathering area. A newly acquired boat will ferry supplies and people to and from the site, about 10 km south of Inuvik.

A Gwich'in Tribal Council map shows the wellness centre's location.
A Gwich’in Tribal Council map shows the wellness centre’s location.

“We are losing a generation before our very eyes and instead of sitting here talking about what we could be doing, we’re actually out there getting that camp retrofitted,” Kyikavichik told expo attendees during a leadership roundtable alongside Greenland.



“We are still finishing up the infrastructure phase,” Greenland added.

“We’re just redoing the system upgrades from an environmental and sustainable lens. We’re looking at programming, plans and strategic planning being ready later this winter.”

Renaming lies ahead

The conference, which is a descendant of the annual oil and gas show hosted by Inuvik in its boom years, lasts for two days and attracts circumpolar interest in fields like resource extraction, Arctic science, satellite operations – Inuvik has two satellite stations – and Indigenous economic development.

But Kyikavichik took pains on Tuesday to stress the mental health concerns that Gwich’in and others are dealing with, saying he considers that issue to be an even greater threat than climate change to the well-being of Gwich’in people.

Once its retrofit is complete, the wellness camp will become a leading tool with which the Gwich’in Tribal Council can confront that crisis.

“We’d like people to be proud of the facility. If they are unwell, they know that they can go there to try to get well,” Kyikavichik said.

Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik of the Gwich'in Tribal Council in his Inuvik office
Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik in his Inuvik office. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio

“We’d like to have a facility that’s operating for the better part of the year, so if people need to detox or they need to get some help, there are counsellors out there with an Indigenous lens, they can go and cut some wood, they can go and set a net, they can get back to their on-the-land activities – because our people know that we get well back on the land – until such time as they can get to an accredited treatment facility or something of that nature.”

And when people return from a southern treatment centre, Kyikavichik continued, “they’ll be able to have some level of aftercare with the wellness camp, so that they can transition back into the region.”



Furniture, flooring and half a million dollars of equipment like snowmobiles, ATVs and side-by-sides are now arriving at the site, which Kyikavichik hopes can also take on the role of eco-tourism destination.

“We have the opportunity to market that … packaging experiences for people and visitors to the Beaufort Delta region,” he said.

“How cool would it be, in the winter, to be able to drive down an ice road and have a meal out at the wellness camp on the weekend? These are some of the things that that camp allows us to do. It’s just a matter of prioritizing wellness first, but you will also have economic development opportunities as well.”

The centre is also likely to be renamed.

Kyikavichik said a committee would be struck to make naming decisions, with an emphasis on language preservation and recognizing people who have passed away.