‘We are losing people to drugs’ in NWT’s smaller communities

The woman representing Tłı̨chǫ communities in the NWT legislature this week said there was “very little opportunity to escape the influence of drugs” in the territory’s small communities.

Jane Weyallon Armstrong, the Monfwi MLA, told colleagues: “We are losing people, youth and parents, to drugs.” Her remarks followed the news of several recent drug-related deaths in Hay River.

Weyallon Armstrong represents the communities of Behchokǫ̀, Wekweètì, Whatì and Gamètì, which together have a population of just under 3,000 people.


“Everyone knows someone who is using crack,” Weyallon Armstrong said. “Kids as young as 12 years old are experimenting with drugs. A report from 2012 showed that, among northerners aged 15 and over, one in nine people have tried crack in their lifetime. This number rises to one in seven in small communities.”

She described how the lack of employment opportunities in small communities ushers young residents toward income assistance, and the way in which drug dealers prey on that outcome.

“In communities, there is only one place to cash income assistance cheques – and people who sell the drugs know that, and they are waiting,” Weyallon Armstrong said.

“So adults, both young and old, are caught as soon as their income assistance is cashed. They have to fight to stay clean and sober.

“Drug dealers are talking money away from families and it is the child, the future generation, who pay the price.”


Crack cocaine routinely features in RCMP announcements of drug raids at Yellowknife properties. In 2020, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson suggested the territory was “fighting a crack epidemic and losing terribly.”

Johnson’s characterization of the situation, as he called for a broader conversation about drug decriminalization, was rejected by public health officials.

Andy Delli-Pizzi, the NWT’s deputy chief public health officer, said at the time cocaine use accounted for about seven percent of emergency-room visits related to substance use between April and September 2020. Alcohol and alcohol withdrawal represented between 70 and 75 percent.

“We know it’s a problem,” Delli-Pizzi said, but he felt it did not rise to the scale of an epidemic.


Money set aside isn’t being spent

Even so, researchers in 2018 concluded the Northwest Territories is among areas of Canada facing “the highest burden” related to crack.

Weyallon Armstrong followed her statement with questions for health minister Julie Green, marking only the third time in the past nine years that crack cocaine, specifically, has been discussed in any detail in the Northwest Territories legislature.

Asked which services are available in smaller communities for people addicted to crack, Green responded: “I’m not aware that we have community-specific or drug-specific treatment. We deal with drug addiction as a whole and with alcohol addiction separately from that.

“We are working on a medical detox model. It is possible to do detox here in Yellowknife. For full-scale facility-based treatment, the person would need to go south to one of our six options for residential treatment.”

Green said an addictions recovery and aftercare fund, designed to provide money to Indigenous governments and communities for counsellors that help people recover from addiction, was “not fully subscribed” in the past year, meaning money set aside to combat the problem was not spent.

Nor were other funds fully spent, such as programs for on-the-land healing or support on return from treatment, the minister said, suggesting her government had not received enough applications to spend all the money.

Dene Wellness Warriors trains Indigenous counsellors to help smaller communities. Green said 16 people were currently receiving that training in British Columbia.

“There is money available to communities to hire those folks and help them with their addiction services,” she told Weyallon Armstrong. “That fund is not fully subscribed, so I would encourage the member to speak to her leadership about applying for it.”