Robert Washie, from Behchokǫ̀, has worked at Yellowknife's urban healing camp for a year and a half. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio
It’s not yet 8am, and staff at the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation’s urban healing camp in Yellowknife have been working for more than an hour.
The organization has run an on-the-land breakfast program for more than two years. Every weekday from 7am to 9am, staff welcome visitors – often people experiencing homelessness – to the camp, where they’re offered coffee and served hot food.
The camp runs a shuttle service, driving downtown to pick people up and bring them to the camp. When the meal is over, they are given rides back.
“They’re the kindest people,” said staff member Patricia Ross of the camp’s guests. “They take care of each other out there. They look out for each other.
“When one’s not seen for a few days, they send a little search party. They always take extra stuff to give to the clients downtown. That’s how they are – they don’t just look out for themselves, they look out for others, as well.”
Wilbert Cook, the foundation’s executive director, said the breakfasts allow people to start the day differently.
“A lot of people experiencing homelessness, they’re awakened from the shelters, and they’re given a lot of times a cold breakfast,” he told Cabin Radio. “They’re just kind-of shuffled out the door quickly.
“We thought we would provide them with a very caring atmosphere and have them start the day off in a good way. What better way to start the day than with a full stomach?”
The camp, behind Yellowknife’s fieldhouse, also provides traditional counselling, on-the-land programming, and cultural activities.
“These skills, these people – when we do it out on the land, it’s healing, because they begin to veer away from all this hustle and bustle of the city, technology,” said William Greenland, a traditional counsellor at the camp. “They’re sitting around a fireplace, being out of the camp. It’s just quiet.
“You’re not on concrete … you feel you’re out on the land, even though you’re just three, four minutes away from downtown. It gives you that sense of connection with yourself and connection with Mother Earth and the Creator.”
In Yellowknife, Indigenous people disproportionately suffer from homelessness and housing instability.
The city’s last point-in-time count – a rough assessment of how many people are staying in shelters, using short-term housing, or sleeping rough over a period of two or three days – counted 338 people experiencing homelessness.
Ninety percent of those surveyed identified as Indigenous. Indigenous people make up 23 percent of Yellowknife’s overall population.
Greenland attributes the over-representation of Indigenous people in the count to the ongoing impacts of colonialism, residential schools, and intergenerational trauma.
“If you look around, you’re driving through the city in the downtown area, and you see a lot of our homeless wandering the streets,” Greenland said. “There was a lot of shame – ashamed of what happened to us.
“When I was into my addiction, I wasn’t doing anything about it. I was just wandering around, going in circles downtown, just lost.
“Bottom line, there is a lot of shame of what’s going on, and people really need somebody to listen to their story – really listen to them, and not assume that we know what to do for them.”
‘It makes me happy’
Many of the camp’s staff experienced homelessness or struggled with addiction.
Robert Washie has been working for the foundation for about a year and a half. He helps with the meal programs and maintaining the grounds.
Washie, from Behchokǫ̀, struggled with alcohol abuse in the past and had difficulty maintaining stable housing and income.
He was offered a job at the camp after running into Greenland at a local mall.
“I have a good home now,” Washie explained. “With this job I can pay my own rent, buy my own groceries. I love it.
“People used to point me out, back in the 70s and the 80s. Now they come to me and they say, ‘Robert, it’s good to see you doing good, doing what you’re doing. We’re really proud of you.’ It makes me happy.”
Ross, who joined the healing camp in February as the cook, said her new job had “saved me in so many ways.”
“It’s a blessing to be here,” she said, “because I was so early in my recovery still at the time, and it wasn’t like them just to hire anybody without at least more clean time and stuff like that.
“I love it every day. I love waking up at five o’clock in the morning to get ready to come to work.”
Ross previously cooked at the former Arnica Inn for the Spruce Bough transitional housing program, run by the Yellowknife Women’s Society.
Before that, she spent nearly seven years battling an addiction to crack cocaine and has been recovering since getting sober in 2019.
Ross said being in recovery herself helps her empathize with people who need the camp’s services.
“It helps us stay humble and want to help them, because we were there before,” she said.
“I always tell the staff to look at these people,” Greenland said. “When you look at them, think about yourself. Where were you when you were sitting across from somebody and looking for help?
“Now look at these people like yourselves and help them the way you wanted to be helped at that time.
“Some of them are angry and violent … we don’t give that back to them. We’ll just take it because we know that they’re hurting, and they need as much help as they can get. We’re doing the best we can.”
Complications of Covid-19
Covid-19 pandemic has both illuminated the problem of homelessness in Yellowknife and created a host of new challenges.
Capacity restrictions at overnight shelters meant a temporary shelter was needed, but it closed at the end of May and services have stuttered since, with a bid to run some programming outside an apartment building abandoned once it became clear the territorial government didn’t have the right permit.
Cook and Greenland acknowledge on-the-land healing like that provided at the camp can’t alone solve Yellowknife’s housing crisis.
However, they argue the camp takes aim like no other program at some underlying issues like addiction and mental health, allowing people to find solid footing.
“It’s one of the solutions, and actually one of the best solutions,” Cook said. “Our people feel grounded when they’re on the land. That’s where our ancestors lived, and we get a lot of healing and a sense of belonging while on the land.”
“Some of these individuals came from a traditional lifestyle before coming into the city and getting into their addiction,” Greenland said.
“You’re walking around in the city and you don’t feel like yourself but then, once you get out here, you really feel a difference. You’ll just say, ‘Oh my God, this is so amazing. I want to do this more often.’
“We want you to come out – and not just come out for an hour. Come out and make coffee with us. Help us to work out some things, help us fix things and chop some wood.”