Support from northerners like you keeps our journalism alive. Sign up here.

Advertisement.

Advertisement.

Wheels begin to turn on new NWT trauma healing lodge

Jean Erasmus at an Indigenous counsellors' graduation ceremony in 2022. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
Jean Erasmus at an Indigenous counsellors' graduation ceremony in 2022. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

Work has begun on a feasibility study for a trauma healing lodge in the Northwest Territories, though a location has yet to be chosen.

The project, announced earlier this year, is the work of Dene Wellness Warriors, an Indigenous counselling group led by Roy and Jean Erasmus.

The two presented an update on the proposed lodge – which aims to provide residential school survivors with trauma aftercare – at this week’s Gwich’in Assembly.

“We’re here in the middle of a mental health crisis in the North,” Jean Erasmus told delegates in Inuvik, “yet there are no residential trauma treatment centres here in the NWT.”

A project manager has been hired and a consulting company has been assigned to carry out the feasibility study, the two said, using a grant received from Indigenous Services Canada.

Advertisement.

Advertisement.

Roy Erasmus noted that work is beginning in Nunavut on a treatment and recovery centre that will receive around $10 million in annual operations funding from the same federal agency. That centre is expected to open in 2025.

In the NWT, multiple past treatment centres have been deemed failures and shut down, prompting a succession of health ministers to reject calls for the idea to be revisited. They say such centres struggle to attract enough suitable staff and willing clients to remain operational.

But the Erasmuses point to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 21st call to action, which urges the Canadian government to “ensure that the funding of healing centres in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories is a priority.”

Nunavut’s centre is receiving $42 million from the federal government, according to an August news release.

Advertisement.

Advertisement.

“The federal government has made a commitment to implement all of the calls to action. The territorial government has also recognized that,” Roy Erasmus said.

He told delegates the trauma healing lodge project has been “very well received” and there has been support from Indigenous governments, the Dene Nation, Gwich’in Tribal Council, and both the territorial and federal governments.

A presentation slide from Dene Wellness Warriors during the 2023 Gwich’in General Assembly.

To proceed with the project, the group will consult Indigenous governments, other treatment centres in the south, and people who have experienced trauma, he said.

The original plan was to launch the lodge in a former treatment centre on Kátł’odeeche First Nation land, but that changed when a wildfire caused damage and forced nearby communities to evacuate.

“Unfortunately, when the fires hit the community, it became clear that the First Nation was going to need the building for other reasons, indefinitely,” Jean Erasmus said.

Dene Wellness Warriors is now looking region by region for a place to set up the facility.

The group proposes a facility that would offer people a space to stay for six to nine weeks. Roy Erasmus said the lodge won’t offer quite the same service you’d find at an addictions treatment facility, as it will focus on care after recovery from addiction.

“People drink to cope from the effects of trauma, from the effects of residential schools,” Jean Erasmus said, explaining the distinction between trauma and addiction.

Advertisement.

Advertisement.

If traumas are left untreated, she said a person who has attended an addictions treatment centre is more likely to relapse.

Despite their opposition to an NWT-based treatment facility, territorial ministers have long accepted that aftercare within the territory is crucial and those services must be improved.

Roy Erasmus said the facility would support residents’ mental, spiritual, emotional and physical health.

“We want to build a program that embraces our northern, Indigenous cultures,” he said.