No treatment centre in Northwest Territories means no healing at home

Melaney Gardebois returned North over the summer to visit friends and family, but she kept her visit short.

She treaded lightly in her home community of Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories, the very place she started her drinking and using.

“It is very easy to get [crack] – you just need to know the right people,” she said. “I brought in whatever I could, whenever I could, after going to Yellowknife.”

Gardebois noted inter-generational trauma and boredom as motivators when she used substances.

At 15, she was already a daily drinker.

“The only way I could go to sleep was if I was drinking,” she said. “My drinking was out of control – I was drunk every day.”

In her teens, Gardebois tried to get sober by attending a 28-day treatment program in Hay River.

“Even in that short amount of time I did want sobriety, but coming back to my community I had no support,” she recalled. “I was so young and thought so far ahead, convincing myself I couldn’t stay sober. It was just present everywhere I go.”

In June 2019, the Government of the Northwest Territories Department of Health announced a new two-year Mental Wellness and Addictions Recovery Action Plan.

But the $400,000 allocated did not include a residential treatment centre. There is presently no inpatient addictions treatment centre in the Northwest Territories; individuals who need help must travel to Alberta or British Columbia.

Addiction workers in Yellowknife say an in-residence treatment centre is badly needed.

“My concern is wait times,” said Thomas Pearcey, a community wellness worker. “We are talking about lives here. I have had some rather tragic experiences with clients waiting 60, 90 days. One recently for four months to get to a treatment centre.

“These delays can cost someone their life.”

The new plan would also see more money invested in land-based and mobile addictions services treatment options.

According to Cynthia Dearborn, a wellness worker at the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre in Yellowknife, sometimes the government is too quick to fill roles with professionals trained in the specifics of mental health and addictions.

“We really need to start filling positions of not-for-profits that support vulnerable people with professionals trained in that field,” she said. “You look at the Sobering Centre, they need specialized family counsellors, personal counsellors, et cetera, instead of just one or two, instead of having it fall on support workers.”

The new plan does include before- and after-care for those leaving the territory for treatment.

It’s something Gardebois said would have been helpful when she decided to check herself into a centre in Nanaimo, B.C., when she was 27.

“I was going out to treatment, so I flew into Yellowknife and then I went out with friends in Yellowknife,” she said. “I passed out right before my flight.”

Gardebois is now 30 months sober and hoping her story inspires others living with addictions. She said part of that is breaking her silence on her past trauma.

“There is so much violence and abuse going on in our community,” she said. “I was always scared to use my voice before getting sober.”

Gardebois acknowledged the challenges facing those who depend on programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous but live in remote communities that have few to no meetings.

“I could start a meeting but no one would attend,” she said. “There is a lot of sober people but there wouldn’t be anyone to show up. It is really sad to see. I know the benefits of a meeting and having a recovery support.”

Gardebois packed her bags and was sad to leave home again, but is hopeful for the future and has plans to enroll in a post-secondary program with the hope of becoming a counsellor.

“I love my community. This is where my ancestors are from,” she said. “My hope is to just break that cycle.”

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