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NWT will try on-the-land camps for teenagers

Yellowknife's Ranney Hill lies blanketed in snow
Yellowknife's Ranney Hill blanketed in snow. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

The NWT government is launching on-the-land camps for teenagers whose problems might previously have seen them sent to facilities like Fort Smith’s Trailcross.

Trailcross offered residential mental health treatment and therapy for people aged 12 to 18 until it closed in October last year.

The territory’s health authority said Trailcross was operating at about 15-percent capacity for much of the time. Finding an operator for the facility had previously proved difficult.

Meanwhile, the territorial government has been shifting to a philosophy in which group homes for teens are considered a “last resort” rather than the standard model.

As a result, two pilot camps – each two weeks long, with up to eight teenaged participants – will be held at the Camp Connections site, northeast of Yellowknife along the Ingraham Trail, in November and December this year.

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Kristy Jones, the health authority’s executive director of child, family and community wellness, said residential treatment was “not necessarily producing the outcomes that we want to see.”

“The shift with this particular program is everything is rooted in culture. That’s a big, significant shift,” Jones told Cabin Radio.

Jones said broader work to reinvent the NWT’s approach to youth mental health is continuing, but staff worried about waiting too long without introducing anything new to replace services that closed.

“We can no longer just sit while we’re doing our research and not offer something, because we know that we need to respond to the needs of child and youth mental health,” said Jones.

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“Yes, we still have services out of territory, but we need something close to home.”

How the camps will work

The on-the-land camps will be led by Donald Prince, who served as executive director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation’s urban healing camp while it was being established behind Yellowknife’s fieldhouse.

Prince’s BC-based Four Roads Consulting has been contracted to manage the camps. He says around a dozen staff will play some part in that.

Prince says he has been doing this kind of thing since he was first asked to set up an on-the-land healing camp in BC in 1996.

“We don’t make people jump through hoops, we fit the hoop around them,” he said, explaining his philosophy.

“We have a set program, but we’re always adjusting, or changing, or whatever it needs.

“We don’t push people too hard in the sense that, for example, if you go to counselling, a lot of places have 50 minutes to get to some issue here. We try to gradually move people to that.”

One of the camps’ main methods of doing that is a range of activities.

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“You get up and do things outside – go and build a tipi, for example – and you talk about what it was like for them when they were growing up. Did they learn any of that? What was missing in their life?” Prince said.

“From those activities, we can find out a lot about a person. Where they’re from, who their role models are, what has happened to them, what they have lost, what they have learned. The damage, I guess.”

He says the approach is similar to the one employed when he and others worked to set up Yellowknife’s urban healing camp. “You don’t come to the camp and get counselled. No, you come out to the camp and when you want to talk, you can talk.”

More: At Yellowknife’s healing camp, a coffee served by someone who’s seen both sides

Youth are normally referred to the camps through social workers or educators, Jones said, but families can be in touch directly as well. Information packages have been distributed to communities – the Tłı̨chǫ Government shared an FAQ online earlier this month – and Jones said “there is no wrong door” for referrals.

Prince said one of his colleagues had already noticed one youth having “a really hard time even going through some of the information” while filling out the form to take part, “because it’s certain to pull all that trauma out.”

“That’s a good thing. That’s what we want,” Prince said. “We want to help them deal with these things that have happened to them.”

Aftercare ‘until March’ at least

However, Prince warned the program isn’t complete without aftercare, an area in which the territory has not always succeeded.

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Aftercare means the provision of help and supports when people get back home after treatment, when the danger could exist that they fall back into the same circumstances that were causing or aggravating trauma in the first place.

“We need aftercare” for the program, said Prince, who feels at least half a year of aftercare is necessary to help someone “stay on a good road and keep going in a positive manner.”

In this case, participants in November and December will receive tailored aftercare until at least March, Jones said.

An aftercare plan for each participant will connect them with “resources in their community, their family, local supports, language, all of those pieces,” she said.

“This is a starting point. There’s still going to be potentially years of healing for them to do, but that aftercare is really what’s going to help sustain them. We’re starting till the end of March with the aftercare, but we know that this is the starting point for many.

“We really, really will not give up and continuously look to engage and build those connections at their community level for them.”

Jones promised the health authority will learn from this fall’s pilot camps and work to make sure they “get better and better.”

Meanwhile, she said a broader assessment of mental health services for youth encompassed so many areas that it would “not be quick,” and residents could expect public engagement to follow.

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“That’s why we said we have to do something now, because we can’t just wait till we finish,” she said.

Prince hopes the opening camps help teenagers to begin fixing the damage, learn some skills and build their knowledge.

“A big thing about Indigenous youth, especially, is that lack of identity. Where do they belong in life? Where do they belong in their community, in their family, in their school, in the system?” Prince said.

“We can help them to feel good about themselves, identify good things about themselves. And the negative things? We can deal with those negative things and we’re more likely to have positive outcomes.”

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he concluded. “People ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I say, ‘As soon as everybody’s OK.’

“I just keep doing it because I like doing it, and I know it works.”