The Dene Nation has launched its own on-the-land healing camp, providing a safe space for people experiencing homeless to stay for extended periods.
The camp has been created at Aurora Village, a tourism operator based 20 minutes outside Yellowknife, and is federally funded until the end of January. The Dene Nation hopes to find more cash to extend the camp’s life.
The Crazy Indian Brotherhood, Aurora Village, and the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation are partners in the establishment and running of the camp.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said a camp on the land offers people a chance to heal.
“It’s an easy concept but it’s challenging to do,” he said.
“There are nearly 350 people under-housed in Yellowknife, our own people. These people are beautiful people and they have gotten the rough end of the stick in life. This camp is here to show them they are loved and respected, and they’re special and beautiful.”
Don Morin, the former NWT premier who owns Aurora Village, said the location has never accepted overnight guests but was happy to adapt to the camp’s needs.
Aurora Village’s tipis, dining hall, kitchen, washrooms, gathering spaces and facilities for laundry and showering are all available to camp guests.
The camp will offer a variety of activities and won’t adhere to a strict schedule.
Michael Fatt, an advocate for Yellowknife’s vulnerable people who has lived experience of homelessness, said the chance to go to a camp like this would be “unforgettable” for some people and help them make the best of new opportunities.
“This will be impacting all of their lives,” he said. “This is very, very important.”
Wilbert Cook, executive director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, stressed the value of a guaranteed place to sleep, eat, shower, and stay warm.
“We all know first-hand what our friends are going through, our friends on the street,” Cook said.
“They wake up in the morning and they’re hungry. They go throughout the day and wonder: ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight? Am I going to be warm? Am I going to go to a place where I feel comfortable, and I’m being cared for?'”
‘Completely out of the box’
Morin said the camp is a learning experience for everyone involved and a “completely out of the box” approach that he argues governments wouldn’t typically use.
“Our guests will help develop it and shape it, and that’s the most important thing – that you don’t go into something that’s a total tunnel vision of how you’re going to save Indigenous people,” he said.
“It’s our own people, we’ll develop it together, and that’s what makes the biggest difference.”
Trevor Teed, the Dene Nation’s lands and environment director, said the goal is to make the camp accessible year-round.
Morin said some people have been at the camp for just over a week and there is already a noticeable difference.
He said his son, who works at the camp, called him and told him: “The ones that arrived a week ago are helping the ones that arrived today.”
“That just about brought me to tears to see it,” Morin said.
Speakers at a news conference on Thursday announcing the new camp expressed disappointment at what they characterize as a lack of territorial government support, for example in provisions of healthcare services for guests.
“We’re not medical people,” said Teed, “and we have medical issues in this facility. People don’t want to leave here to go get help.
“They want that help to come to them because they feel safe, secure, and loved here.”
Organizers also worry about the gap once the camp eventually closes.
“The clients, customers here today – where are they going to be in 60 days? Are they going to go back on the street?” Morin asked.
Cook added: “We’re setting them up to get all their hopes up and everything, to let them out the door and say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing else we can do for you.’
“We can’t do that. We wouldn’t do that to ourselves, we wouldn’t do that to our families. Why would we do that to anyone else?”