“We have a choice: do nothing, or do something.”

At 8pm on the evening of Wednesday, January 31, in Fort Simpson’s library, Ray Pidzamecky will discover if his blunt message cuts through.

Pidzamecky, a social worker who has counselled northern residential school survivors for the past eight years, is trying what he believes is a new way to address the community’s issues.

Once each month, without fail, he will ask any and all interested residents to show up. He wants the meetings to inspire hope. He wants people who come to “learn to care for everyone.” He wants fewer drugs, less despair, and no more suicides.

It starts on Wednesday.

“The alcohol and drug abuse is epidemic, I don’t have another word for it,” Pidzamecky told Cabin Radio. “And now cocaine and crack are coming into these communities.

“People get lulled into a sense of complacency because we have treatment, but that’s just a word. It doesn’t describe what’s really happening. We’re not winning. We’re not saving people.”

Maintaining a dialogue

Pidzamecky is pitching a broader strategy to the territorial government, based on groups of community members committing to regular meetings that form a network of what he calls ‘assets’ – people with the skills to support, to intervene, and to save.

“We’re not promoting strength from within the community,” he said. “What we mostly do is say what’s wrong with people. How about we bring people together, talk about what makes us strong, and how we can develop?

“Here’s what normally happens: there’s a crisis, there’s a town hall meeting, everyone expresses their disgust and frustration, and then it goes away – until the next suicide. We want to tap into community strengths and make it a sustainable piece. We’ve made a commitment: we’ll do this every month. We will keep the dialogue going.”

An aerial view of the community of Fort Simpson - Pat Kane
Fort Simpson, which has a population of just over 1,200, experienced four suicides in a period of four months in 2017. Pat Kane/patkanephoto.com

Pidzamecky has Fort Simpson mayor Darlene Sibbeston’s support and met with a range of community members this week. Among them was Robert Firth, a former addictions counsellor who, in his words, “knows a fair bit about cocaine through personal experience.”

Firth expressed qualified support for Pidzamecky’s plan, but he noted Fort Simpson has “been down this road a few times” when it comes to community meetings.

“I’m psyched up about it now but I had some reservations when we first started talking about it,” said Firth.

“There are hardworking people here who are trying to make a difference in the community. The community counsellors don’t get enough credit for the work they do and the support they provide in the community. They can only do so much.

“I know that cocaine use and drug use in the community is a really big issue, the elephant in the closet that’s not being talked about.

“We know family members are being affected who may not know where to turn. From that point of view, I’m very positive about that.”

‘Here’s an opportunity’

Fort Simpson has a Lights On program of weekend and after-school events, targeted in part at preventing drug use among youth, and the First Nation had some success finding local residents prepared to talk about their addiction and recovery for National Addictions Awareness Week.

But Firth says previous community meetings on similar topics have been poorly attended, if at all.

A poster for a meeting in Fort Simpson to address the community's issues, uploaded to Facebook by Ray Pidzamecky - Ray Pidzamecky-Facebook
A poster for a meeting in Fort Simpson to address the community’s issues, uploaded to Facebook by Ray Pidzamecky. Click to expand the image. Ray Pidzamecky/Facebook

“I’ve scratched my head and tried to figure out what I was doing wrong – and maybe I wasn’t doing anything wrong at all,” he said. “I don’t have an answer to why people are not willing to get involved.

“What we’re looking for this time is to make it more community-driven and not driven by the same people who always step up to the plate and want to make a difference. If there are not leaders in the community who want to step up and own this, then we’re not going to go with it.

“We will see what happens at the first meeting.”

On Monday, Pidzamecky published a photo of four empty beer cans, five empty bottles of spirits and eight empty vodka colas, arranged on a table. “This is what I found after a couple left their room with their baby,” he wrote next to the image. “This cries out for help.”

He hopes meetings like the one scheduled for Wednesday can also help to address the cries for help he finds online, posted by desperate residents. “I’m reading this stuff on Facebook,” he said, “and it dawned on me there is no protocol for responding to community members who are in crisis on social media. Here’s an opportunity for us to intervene in a timely manner.”

Cabin Radio has approached the territory’s Department of Health and Social Services to discuss the merits of the plans Pidzamecky is advancing. Pidzamecky says a similar scheme in an Ontario community ran successfully, with twice-monthly meetings, for a decade.

If all goes to his plan, the meetings will help to address feelings of loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, and recklessness that result from – and then deepen – some residents’ suffering.

“I hope people will start feeling hope to deal with all those feelings,” he told us, “by giving them a sense of belonging, so that they are not spectators but contributors. When we rely on the government, we’re just spectators.”

Firth concluded: “We’re going to give it another go and see where it goes. A lot of people have paid lip service and talked a lot, and then that’s the end of it.

“Maybe this is the one. If this is not the one, obviously the community’s not ready.”