A woman who grew up fighting addiction to alcohol and drugs in the NWT community of Tulita says vulnerable youth need more access to community Elders.

Tanis Niditchie, now in her early twenties and sober for two years, spoke at the Days of Pink Gala in Yellowknife on Saturday.

Growing up in Tulita, Niditchie was subjected to sexual assault and attempted suicide while attempting to overcome addiction.

She was twice sent to a treatment centre in Alberta by her uncle before her 19th birthday, eventually – after a series of relapses – receiving the help she needed at another centre in Nanaimo.

Read: Tanis Niditchie’s story, as told to CBC North

One obstacle to her recovery was the lack of support she received each time she returned to Tulita.

“Being exposed to it young made me want to follow the footsteps of the people I looked up to, that I witnessed drinking, and that’s what I did. Eventually it became this coping mechanism for me to not deal with my life and my emotions,” said Niditchie.

“[On returning from treatment] I had this belief in my head that I was OK doing it on my own, and clearly that didn’t work. I had this delusion of separating my addictions – because I went to treatment, my head was in this mindset that I was good, I was fixed. So I started hanging around alcohol settings and eventually slipped.”

Asked how she would redesign the NWT’s support system if given the chance, Niditchie said contact with Elders, rather than government money or buildings, would have made a difference to her as a child.

“When I went home, there wasn’t very much support. Looking back, I wish I could have used the support systems of our Elders,” she said.

“They hold so much knowledge and they are dying to pass it on. Now, with my perspective, that’s who I go to. That’s where the healing happens.

“There are people who went through residential school in my community that don’t drink and have started their healing process. After moving back, I wish I could have reached out to them and used them as my support group. They are so strong and powerful, and there is so much knowledge there we can access, too.”

Socially isolated

Barb Hood, outgoing executive director of the NWT Seniors Society – which supports Elders across the territory – said connecting Elders with youth would help to conquer the isolation many older people face.

“We often don’t see the older adults in our community,” said Hood. “As you get older, it feels more like you become invisible.

“Wanting to see Elders involved is a really positive thing. Social isolation is a huge problem. For many Elders, to have someone in their youthful years who wants to have them involved, that would be a good way to start having inter-generational interactions.”

Suzette Montreuil, who takes over from Hood as the society’s executive director this month, said working harder to bring Elders and youth together would benefit both groups.

“It’s really something that’s good for both ages. It’s good for the adults to have youth in their lives, and it’s very good for the youth,” said Montreuil.

“When we think of centres for Elders, we need to build them with the sense of bringing kids into them. One of the best models I have seen is building a daycare and residential centre in the same building, so it’s easy to go back and forth. Part of our job will be to help people think that way whenever they have projects.”

‘Smokescreen’

Niditchie said her Elders had reconnected her to the values she now uses to manage her mental and physical health.

“For my healing, it’s a lot in my traditional knowledge. That’s where my strength comes from, wanting to carry my traditions, live my traditions, and live strong in my culture,” she said.

“That’s what inspires me to stay sober and want to be sober. This smokescreen of addiction has kept me distracted from my culture – now the smokescreen is not there and it has opened my mind to see how important our culture is and wake up.”

In recent years, the NWT has considered – and some activists have lobbied for – a return to operating at least one treatment centre within the territory. The Nats’ejee K’eh treatment centre on the Hay River Reserve closed in 2013, though there have been moves to reopen it as a Dene healing centre.

The territory has in the past said a northern treatment centre is not cost-effective, cannot attract and maintain the staff to adequately serve clients, and does little to help residents when they return home to their communities.