Several MLAs say there’s a need for more addictions and mental health supports in the Northwest Territories, especially in regional hubs and communities.
Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong told the Legislative Assembly on Friday many people in the Tłı̨chǫ region are impacted by mental health issues and addictions, including children and youth, but current supports are inadequate and not culturally appropriate. She said barriers include a lack of Indigenous councillors.
“We know that the health and wellbeing of a person, family and communty is holistic. We need our health supports to reflect the wishes of our families and communities, yet my fellow community members and leaders are saying our voices are being ignored,” she said.
“We want to be able to get support for addictions, substance abuse and mental health in ways that are rooted in our culture and from councillors who are Indigenous, yet many of the people who are providing these services are from the south and have no connection to us.”
Earlier this week, Weyallon Armstrong pointed to a 2019 report which stated the Tłı̨chǫ region had some of the lowest health outcomes in the territory, including low mental health rates and high rates of hospitalizations due to substance use.
According to Julie Green, the minister of health and social services, there are staffing shortages in the Tłı̨chǫ region, particularly in Behchokǫ̀. She said the NWT government is working on hiring for those positions and preference is given to people who are Indigenous and from the NWT. She said, however, that people need to apply and have the relevant experience.
Among the vacant positions that Green listed were:
- The manager of health services
- Manager of the nurse in charge
- 2 nurse practitioners
- 2 public health nurses
- 5 community health nurses
- 1 clinical nurse educator
- 8 community social workers
- 2 child and youth care counsellors
- 1 child and youth care supervisor
- 2 individual and family counsellors
“I don’t know who’s working in Behchokǫ̀ but you have a very large vacancy rate there,” she told Weyallon Armstrong.
The Monfwi MLA said the Tłı̨chǫ Government wants to take more control over mental health and addictions recovery services, as well as the child and youth counselling program in the region.
Green said she recently discussed that possibility with the Tłı̨chǫ Government and would like to see a proposal on the issue.
‘We can no longer keep quiet’
Rocky Simpson, the MLA for Hay River South, reignited discussion about whether the territorial government should establish an addictions treatment facility in the NWT. He said the territory continues to lose young people to drug-related deaths and needs to do more to respond.
“We can no longer keep quiet. We can no longer tiptoe around the issue. It is time for this government to realize we must change the way we engage drug dealers, the way we support those with addictions, and the way we support families impacted by addictions,” Simpson said.
“Change must begin somewhere. It has to start now and it has to start with us.”
For many years, the territory has been sending people south to attend live-in addictions programs at treatment facilities in the provinces.
Successive governments have stood behind this approach, arguing that previous residential treatment centres in the territory haven’t worked. Yet public support for having such a facility in the North remains popular.
According to the results from an addictions recovery experiences survey released in October, while respondents who accessed available programs generally reported high levels of satisfaction, they also highlighted the need for more services, especially in communities.
Of the 439 respondents, 29 percent said they would like greater access to land-based healing programs, 28 percent said they wanted to attend but couldn’t access a community-based treatment program, 24 percent expressed support for facility-based addiction treatment, and 20 percent for detox or withdrawal supports.
“Indigenous people are those mostly being impacted by addictions. I hear many say they want treatment to happen in the NWT. Then we hear a non-Indigenous bureaucracy tell us we are wrong,” Simpson said on Friday.
Green acknowledged addiction is “a huge issue” in the territory and said a “suite of programs” is available including on-the-land healing, which people can access through their community counselling program.
The territorial government is also working on establishing managed alcohol and medical detox programs, although capacity challenges have resulted in delays to the detox program.
Green questioned the need for a “bricks and mortar” healing centre on Friday, adding the decision is not just up to her. She said if MLAs want a residential treatment centre to be included in the territory’s budget, then it needs to be one of the Assembly’s priorities.
“I think the question is what the value added of a building is. What would it provide that would be better than the other forms or treatment that are available in the Northwest Territories?” she said.
“This is a very complicated conversation. It’s not just a matter of writing up an RFP [request for proposals] for a building, there are many considerations about how a treatment centre would work, how it would be funded and who would use it.”
This is not the first time that MLAs in the 19th Legislative Assembly have called for a territorial treatment centre.
Former Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty and Green butted heads numerous times over the issue in 2020. While Lafferty pushed for a northern live-in treatment centre, Green stood behind the territorial government’s approach.
At the time, Green pointed out that four NWT-based treatment centres had closed down in the past few decades.
The last centre to close – the Nats’ejee K’eh treatment centre on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation reserve – shut its doors in 2013. Green said the centre lacked suitable staff, could not take clients in at any time, and was operating at less than half capacity for two years before it closed. She also noted some people prefer to attend treatment outside of their communities for confidentiality reasons.
Is the NWT in a mental health crisis?
This is the second time in the legislature this week that MLAs have raised questions and concerns about mental health supports in the territory.
On Wednesday, Katrina Nokleby, the MLA for Great Slave, pressed minister Green about whether she believed there was a mental health crisis in the NWT, as reported by CBC.
“How can we continue to deny that we are in a mental health crisis when any young people sees suicide as their only option? Parents and youth advocates are at a loss,” she said.
Nokleby pointed out there is no residential trauma program and no child or adolescent psychiatric unit at Stanton Territorial Hospital.
Green responded while “it’s every parent’s worst nightmare” to learn “their child has suicidal thoughts or has attempted or completed a suicide,” there are services available including child and youth counselling, help phone lines, and e-mental health supports. She said the NWT has been keeping up with demand for those services.
“I recognize that the pandemic has been incredibly stressful for almost everyone. It has produced a lot of anxiety, depression, loneliness, especially for people who live on their own like elders. And we have provided services throughout,” she said. “I feel confident that we’re not facing anything that we can’t deal with.”
Nokleby and Green previously had a terse debate about whether the territory was in a mental health crisis in February 2021. It ended with Green apologizing for her remarks to Noklebly, and both withdrawing points of order against one another.