Jackson Lafferty, MLA for Monfwi, in the Legislative Assembly.
In a series of legislature clashes extending a years-long debate, the NWT’s health minister maintained that southern, live-in treatment centres better meet northerners’ needs than NWT-based facilities.
Jackson Lafferty, the MLA for Monfwi, has risen five times in the legislature this month to push the territory toward investing in at least one residential treatment centre based in the North.
While that request has significant popular support in the territory, it has been rejected by successive governments. Ministers have said the evidence shows northern treatment centres – which existed in the past, but each ultimately closed down – don’t help people.
“We need a northern-based treatment centre,” Lafferty told the legislature in his latest plea, on Thursday.
“One that respects where our people come from. One that respects who we are. One where our language is a part of our working language. A treatment centre linked to the land, linked to our culture, linked to our Elders,
“Northerners demand an end to the sad state of affairs. Northerners demand healing for northerners, by northerners, in a northern setting.”
Newly appointed minister Julie Green, though, echoed the views of previous health ministers in pointing out the territory’s past treatment centres did not work.
Green said four NWT-based treatment centres had closed down in the past few decades.
The latest – the Nats’ejee K’eh treatment centre on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation reserve, which closed in 2013 – failed due to a lack of suitable staff, inability to take in clients at any time, and confidentiality issues, Green said.
That centre cost the territory $522 per day per client to run, Green added, while the territory spends $180 to $452 per day sending a resident to one of six southern treatment centres. The territory’s annual budget for southern-based addictions treatment is $2.3 million.
“We feel that it’s better value for money to have the facility-based treatment in the south,” Green said on October 15.
Earlier this week, Lafferty noted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had called for the federal government to invest in Indigenous healing centres, particularly in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. He said Nunavut has secured federal funding to open a residential treatment centre, and questioned why the NWT wasn’t doing the same.
Green said she understood there to be a difference between a healing centre and an addictions treatment centre. The minister said such centres were not only the responsibility of the territorial government, and Indigenous governments and organizations had a role to play.
Those groups “could band together to write a proposal for federal funding for a healing centre, and to have some focus around what kind of services they want in that centre and where the centre will be located,” she said.
NWT has funding, few groups applying
Instead of building a residential treatment centre, Green said the NWT government is focused on providing other options to residents. That includes on-the-land programs, apps, telephone services, and peer support programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
Her comments were similar to those of then-health minister Glen Abernethy in 2019, who at the time said improving aftercare in the NWT would have a far more lasting impact than attempting to launch a new treatment centre.
Green said the territory’s budget for on-the-land healing programs is $1.8 million, an increase of $700,000 from last year, but only a few Indigenous organizations have applied for funding.
The territory is also working on preventative measures, she said, like developing an alcohol strategy, a managed alcohol program, and a medical detox model.
“I recognize that addictions and recovery is an issue in almost every family and every community. It robs people of their health and potential. It is a disease that results in too many deaths. I want to change the story, and I know that the member for Monfwi does, as well,” Green said on Tuesday.
“I am convinced that the path forward is to provide NWT residents with a wide variety of supports, to meet them where they are in their healing journey, and to assist them in continuing on.”
Lafferty said that while he and other politicians debate the issue, northerners are dying. Acknowledging the importance of aftercare in the North, the Monfwi MLA said those supports remained lacking.
“While they might step off the plane sober, they do not remain sober,” Lafferty said. “Because of the failure of southern treatment, they fall off the wagon again, and again, and again.”
This year, Green said 50 NWT residents have been approved to attend treatment centres. Of that number, six chose not to go, 10 left before completing treatment, 20 completed programming (including three who completed extended programming), and 14 are still in treatment.