Dene Nation turns to Alkali Lake for inspiration in alcohol fight

The Dene National Chief wants the NWT to use the example of Alkali Lake to fight alcoholism. An addictions counsellor from Alkali Lake explained what that will mean.

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya held two news conferences last last week, using one of them to state he had contacted the British Columbia community for assistance.

On Thursday, Yakeleya had called for Indigenous governments to problem-solve together during the Covid-19 pandemic.


A day later he called reporters together for a second time, at short notice, following a fatal accident on Highway 3 outside Behchokǫ̀ – an accident in which RCMP said drugs or alcohol were probable factors.

Behchokǫ̀ lifted its liquor prohibition in 2016. Even before then, its proximity to Yellowknife and easy access to alcohol has been a decades-long struggle.

Yakeleya used the Friday news conference, and the tragic news of the crash, to ask that various levels of government be “ready as our partners” to plan better addictions treatment in the North. 

“We can also learn from the people of Alkali Lake … and the hard trail they have taken to be an inspiration to all Aboriginal communities,” said Yakeleya.

“As a matter of fact, I have called one of them today to ask if they would help us and to guide us on the trail of sobriety.”


Success is in the cards

Addictions counsellor Ken Johnson was born and raised in Alkali Lake, a community of approximately 330 people in the BC interior.

Johnson has been sober since 1978 and a counsellor in the community – where he still lives – for more than 30 years. 

“I became an alcohol and drug counsellor here from 1984 to 1991,” he said. “And then [in] 1998 people started relapsing and young people started hanging out on the streets of Williams Lake, so I was asked to come back and work in this field again.”

Williams Lake is the nearest larger community. The city of 10,000 people is about a 45-minute drive north of Alkali Lake.


The Esk’etemc First Nation recently opened a wellness centre in Alkali Lake with beds for half a dozen people. Johnson said the success of any program is founded on support from the entire community, both during treatment and beyond.

That needs to be replicated in the North, he said.

“With my clients, when they go to treatment, the second week into their program I get people [in the community] to sign cards,” said Johnson.

“They would sign cards with inspirational messages and I would send that to the treatment centre to the client. Because I know how hard it is to go to treatment.

“Every time I asked people how they felt when they got that card, they would say, ‘I had tears. I cried.’

“They would say, ‘I wanted to leave, but when I got the card I decided to stay. Because I saw on the cards how much support I had.’”

Bootleggers out of business?

In 1998, Johnson recalled, he decided to work from the bottom up by spending time with children in the community.

“Now we don’t even have any young people on the streets of Williams Lake,” he said. “And a lot of the young people who have become alcohol and drug-free, a lot of them are gone to university.”

Yakeleya thinks new forms of northern treatment won’t just improve conditions in Dene communities. He believes treatment can help put bootleggers out of business.

Responding to concerns about mid-pandemic bootlegging voiced by the Dene Nation and others, the territorial government recently restricted liquor store sales to $200 per person each day, including a maximum of six mickeys (375-ml bottles) of spirits.

“We know there will be no bootleggers if there are no customers in our community,” said Yakeleya, describing how reducing alcoholism could end the problem.

“Just like any business, if nobody goes to a certain store, you’ll [eventually] see on their sign: in bankruptcy, out of business. We know that.”