Residents of Behchokǫ̀, Gamètì, Whatì, and Wekweètì tuned in to the 16th Tłı̨chǫ Annual Gathering this week, watching live online for the first time.
Video conferencing software was used in response to restrictions brought on by Covid-19. “Who would’ve thought of this? The Elders would be amazed if they were still alive,” said Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels from the gathering at his community’s sportsplex.
Four annual reports were presented at the gathering, related to the Tłı̨chǫ Government, Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, Tłı̨chǫ Investment Corporation, and investments made on behalf of the Tłıchǫ Nation.
Topics discussed at the two-day assembly included the Whatì all-season road, tourism, and education. Of particular focus were concerns with addictions, health, and housing.
“Our people need our help,” Jocelyn Zoe told viewers of this year’s annual gathering.
“Every single month we lose someone due to alcohol and drugs,” said Jocelyn Zoe in Behchokǫ̀. “How many more people do we need to lose?”
She said while people are sent south for addictions treatment, they often face challenges when they return home. She would like to see a healing camp and on-the-land cultural programming.
“Our people need our help,” she said. “Being out on the land is so peaceful and refreshing. Teach them the tools to recover and heal from things they don’t talk about.”
Zoe said apartment buildings could be one solution to a lack of adequate housing in the community.
“Why are we putting people in rundown houses? Why are we letting people live with mould? Do we care about our people?” she asked.
A report commissioned by the Tłı̨chǫ Government found that housing and homelessness is a “severe” issue in the region, with Behchokǫ̀ being “ground zero of the crisis.” The report attributed housing problems to the ongoing impacts of colonialism, socio-cultural shifts, the welfare system, and past and current housing policies.
‘We see it every day’
Chief Daniels agreed that addressing addictions in Behchokǫ̀ should be a priority.
“We heard you, and we see it every day,” he said. “We hear about it every day.”
Daniels said community leaders are working on a feasibility study regarding the possible future creation of a local treatment centre.
“We know that in the past, a lot of these treatment facilities have failed,” he said. “If we’re going to invest in one, we don’t want it to fail. We want it to succeed.”
Daniels questioned why Behchokǫ̀, the largest Tłı̨chǫ community, had “lost out” on government funding to improve housing. He noted communities in the Tłı̨chǫ can’t access the same federal funding provided to First Nations on reserves.
“We’re doing what we can with what we have,” he said, “and it takes a while sometimes to do things.”
Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels says addressing addictions should be a priority.
Tammy Steinwand, the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s director of culture and lands protection, said many of the same issues were raised during a youth gathering in 2018. She said her government is working to increase its language and cultural programming, especially on the land, but staffing numbers are limited.
“We know this is an area where there is much need,” added Shannon Barnett-Aikman, the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency’s chief executive.
Barnett-Aikman said addictions services like trauma-informed counselling and individual and family counselling are already offered. The agency is now exploring opportunities for on-the-land healing.
‘We hear you loud and clear’
Ted Blondin, chair of the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency’s board, said a plan to develop how the agency handles grieving, trauma, and addiction has been presented to the Tłı̨chǫ Government.
That plan includes on-the-land programming. Blondin said public meetings must be held, focused on how best to address addictions in each community.
“We hear you loud and clear,” he said.
“Our Elders have told us in the past that wellness is dealing with the physical, the mental, and the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of every individual. Elders know more deeply what all those areas involve and mean.”
Joseph Judas, in Wekweètì, asked how the increased need for healthcare services in communities is being handled during the pandemic.
Addictions, housing, and health were topics at the forefront of the gathering.
Barnett-Aikman said a community health nurse based in Behchokǫ̀ is travelling to Wekweètì every month and a doctor is scheduled to visit Wekweètì every four to six weeks, depending on the number of patients.
Blondin said there isn’t enough money for a permanent doctor in every community, but using virtual technology could be one solution.
“New technology today is the way of the future,” he said, “and I think this is what we have to latch on to.”