When will the GNWT get serious about putting the NWT on the road to recovery, realizing the potential of all its people?

NWT leads the country in hospital stays due to addictions

If the Government of the Northwest territories is serious about reconciliation to relieve pressure on our emergency wards, hospital beds, long-term care, streets of Yellowknife and regional centers, why not offer more cost-effective, community-based options.

Read on to find out what the communities asked for when  Minister of Health Tom Beaulieu sent out a blue ribbon panel of Northerners to find what the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit leaders and just regular folks said we should do. 

Indigenous governments around the NWT have already begun funding, designing, building, and staffing such community-based healing options. The GNWT must get serious about supporting such efforts because we’re all Northerners and we all pay dearly for our inaction. Isn’t our healthcare system stressed and stretched out too much already?

Hospital Stays for Harm Caused by Substance Use (per 100,000), 2021–2022
Hospital Stays in Canada due to addictions

Each year, September 30 marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The day honours the children who never returned home and Survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.

Government of Canada statement on National Reconciliation Day
1. The Problem

How did we get here?

The first residential schools for Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit in the Northwest Territories opened in the 1860s, and operated in Inuvik and Aklavik in the Beaufort Delta,  Fort Simpson and Fort Providence in the Dehcho, Hay River, Fort Resolution and Fort Smith in the South Slave. The last one closed in Yellowknife in 1994.

Indian Agents and RCMP enforced attendance. Children were transported from small communities to these schools. Families were broken up, brothers and sisters separated, culture and language ties were shredded. The trauma was passed from generation to generation and only came to light for the settler population in the 1990s and 2000s.

The GNWT really has no wellness programming specifically addressing the residential school survivors.

All Saints’ Anglican Residential School, Aklavik

Wise Words From An Elder

"I have been going after the leaders saying that nothing will be done unless healing takes place. I like to see everyone in NWT take a stand that healing has to be number one for this upcoming election. And to be certain that it will be on their election platform. It’s long overdue and everyone is suffering because of it. TRC 98 recommendations, the work has not even started.

We rely too much on the governments to fund us. It’s time we get ourselves organized and begin planning healing programs for our people. By relying on the governments they will continue to hold us hostage and we will forever be a burden to society without healing. Without healing our people are suffering with so much pain and anguish. So many unnecessary illnesses and deaths. We need to take action today.

I think of our future generations, we need to pave the way for them. My heart is so sad and broken thinking of my Dene people. I just need to say something. When I think of Hay River reserve treatment centre that was spared by the recent forest fire, it’s a sign for healing. Mahsicho soot’ie."

GNWT Health minister asked The People How to Deal with Addictions and Wellness in 2013

The Minister’s Forum was led by Paul Andrew and a group of knowledgeable Northerners, many with vast experience dealing with healing in the communities. They traveled to 21 NWT communities and spoke with community people. They wrote a report called: Healing Voices 2013.

They came up with answers: As such the Forum has identified community-based and operated, on-the-land programming, to be the people’s top priority. It is a standalone recommendation that forms the foundation for many of the 60-some recommendations that flow from it.

Front Pages from Healing Voices 2013_with_Paul Andrew Addictions in the Northwest Territories
In December 2012...

The Addictions And Community Wellness Forum Traveled To All Regions Of The NWT.

Here's What They Found...

"Many addictions and primary issues such as residential school trauma and child sexual abuse trace to a time when ties to the land were severed. Leading people back to their roots can help them heal. People want programs that balance the instruction of traditional skills with opportunities for individuals struggling with addictions to re-establish cultural identities and connect spiritually with nature over an extended period of time. On-the-land programs are believed to help people heal spiritually, as well as to heal their relationships with others."
– Minister’s Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness 2013
"This is accomplished by leaving behind the stressors of modern life that may contribute to addictions, and allowing people to get back to basics. Non-aboriginal people as well say they benefit from this reconnection. In its purest form, an on the land experience should help a person to understand they need water, air, fire and earth—not alcohol or drugs — in order to survive. On-the-land camps can be a delivery point for a variety of programs related to addictions, prevention and wellness; such as aftercare for individuals leaving treatment centres or correctional institutions, grieving workshops, parenting and life skills training, or other needs identified by a community." – Minister’s Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness
– Minister’s Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness 2013
Members of the Ministers Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness, Northwest Territories 2013

Health Minister's Reply To MLA's Plea Tells The Story

WEYALLON-ARMSTRONG: Will the Minister of Health commit to reopening an addiction-based facility and treatment and wellness centre in the Northwest Territories?

Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon-Armstrong brought up the need for healing support in the NWT in the fall session. Health Minister Julie Green is sympathetic but insists the best option for the GNWT and people is to send them out to facilities located in Nanaimo, Calgary, Lloydminster and Toronto .

The minister backs up her case with the fact the GNWT has set up four treatment facilities in the North but the people who needed them failed to use them.

Weyallon-Armstrong asked what the GNWT has learned from past experience:

WEYALLON-ARMSTRONG: What has the GNWT learned to do differently in regards to addiction treatment based on past experiences already tried and how will the GNWT approach treatment program differently? Thank you.

HON. JULIE GREEN: Yes, thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I’m not able to speak in a very informed way about the content of treatment programs. I am not in a position to deliver them, I’m not in a position to need them.

2. Solutions

How should we move forward?

We have to recognize half the population of the NWT went through the traumatic experience of residential school.  – the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit. Repairing the damage done to families and communities can only be done under the direction of the elders, community leaders and the families affected. 

Half of our population doesn’t know the experience of residential schools and the history of the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit. As past efforts have proven, they cannot design facilities and services that provide results needed. 

The GNWT has to take a supporting role, not a leading role.


More Needed To Halt Trauma-Addictions Cycle

Sending people south to treatment facilities is only one option. An average of 200 Northerners go to the southern centers each year.

That’s about 1/4 of the 800 hospital stays due to substance abuse in the NWT reported in 2019-2020. Many of the other options offered do little to change people’s lives. Nor do we build any Northern capacity for aftercare or future facilities in the North.

As a non-Indigenous government, non-Indigenous staff don’t understand what on-the-land healing is nor how to implement it.

And because there are too few on-the-land healing options in the communities, there are few supports for people either beginning recovery or in recovery, and the trauma-addictions cycle whirls around without much to stop it. 

Hospital Stays for Harm Caused by Substance Use (per 100,000) show the Northwest Territories has the highest in Canada.

Get Serious About On-The-Land Healing Programs

Now is the time to get serious about creating on-the-land programs for the NWT communities, following guidance from the Minister’s Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness. It can’t be one of these paper exercises.

Dene, Metis, Inuvialuit experts must be hired to come up with a plan, the cost and a timeline. Indigenous governments and people powered groups such as Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation have started the work, despite the indifference of their government – GNWT. It should be a flexible template for different communities and regional centers. Here’s a short list of projects already underway by Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit governments.

Release the plan to the public for feedback. Adjust as needed. Introduce in the assembly. Instruct dept of finance to find the money.

Tell them where to find the money if they don’t know. Begin the work. Not easy, but straightforward.

$2.3M announced for the renovation of Gwich'in Wellness Camp in the Northwest Territories - June 30, 2022

The Indigenous Governments in the NWT are ahead of the GNWT when it comes to building On-The-Land healing facilities, partnering with the Federal Government. The GNWT can accerlate the process across the territory, taking pressure of its own health system. See some of what they are doing here.


Where Does The Money Come From?

Department of Health staff and most likely their counterparts in the department of finance will ask:

Where is all the money supposed to come from? Good question. People suffering from addictions dominate the police, courts, corrections and emergency wards.

Forty-three percent of hospital visits are alcohol-related. We need the finance staff to calculate savings for each healed person. 

Can every dollar spent healing someone save a dollar of policing, a dollar of courts, a dollar of corrections, two dollars of hospital expenses, not to mention a dollar of air transport for all of the above? 

That would be a return of 500 %. People would be happier and more productive. It’s really good government.

In 2012, the GNWT did a survey to determine how alcohol affected the lives of Northerners.


The Government of NWT Studies on healing form the Last 10yrs.


Report On Substance Use and Addiction

2012 – 2015

Mental Health and Addictions Action Plan

The Minister’s Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness 2013 Northwest Territories


Minister’s Forum on Addictions & Community Wellness

Mind and Spirit Promoting Mental Health and Addictions Recovery in the Northwest Territories 2017-2022


Promoting Mental Health and Addiction Recovery in the NWT