Ross River, Yukon facing mental health and addictions crisis

The community of 400 people is grappling with a lack of funding and supports.

Nora Ladue says she’s running out of options when it comes to helping one of her family members.

Since the early 1990s Ladue’s loved one, who she doesn’t want to name, has been struggling with mental health and addiction issues.

Ladue’s family member often experiences delusions and hallucinations. She said in recent years she’s been struggling to support that family member and is scared for their safety.

“This person has three kids. They’re afraid. They don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Ladue’s story is not unfamiliar in the Kaska community of Ross River, Yukon, which is home to the Ross River Dena Council (RRDC).

For years, the remote First Nation community of just over 400 people, located in Ross River, Yukon, has been struggling with a mental health crisis.

Heather Jones, the territory’s chief coroner, said in an email statement that the Yukon Coroner’s Service has investigated three suicides and seven substance use or abuse-related deaths since Nov. 1, 2012. She noted that the number doesn’t include deaths that took place in other places in Yukon or outside the territory.

Ladue, who is a band member in Ross River, said there are no doctors or counsellors in the community.

While mental health workers do come to Ross River a few times a month from a neighbouring community, Ladue said it’s not enough to meet demand.

“It’s really concerning because we have nobody to turn to, nobody,” she said.

Ladue said years ago the territory would send her family member to Alberta when they needed help. Now she said, they’re sent to Ontario. 

She said in recent years only severe cases or patients involved with the justice system are sent to Ontario. 

When her family member does receive treatment, they can only stay in the hospital for a maximum of 21 days.

With few resources, Ladue frequently makes the five-hour drive to Whitehorse where her loved one can receive psychiatric help at the Whitehorse General Hospital.

But Ladue said once their family member is released, the cycle starts again.

“There’s no funding in place. If I had the choice I would send the person away for three, or four months. We’ve done that before, and it worked,” she said.

‘Our graveyards are full’

Elder Mary Maje is also concerned for Ross River.

Maje said many in the community struggle with drugs and alcohol and there has been a shift away from Kaska values and traditions.

“Our value system has been absent from our people for so many years that nobody talks about these topics anymore,” she said.

Maje, who is part of the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society (LAWS), a non-profit that provides social development services to the Kaska Nation in Yukon and northern B.C., said the organization is advocating for mental health and has two counsellors available for those who need them.

However, she said, it can be hard for some Kaska to open up, and she’s worried about what will happen if the community doesn’t get the help it needs.

“It may be too late for some of our people, our graveyards are full,” said Maje.               

‘We need funding now’

David Petersen is all too familiar with the crisis.

Petersen is a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), trauma and wellness support worker at the Margaret Thomson Healing Centre, which is operated by RRDC in Ross River and provides health and social programming to community members.

He said many in the community are impacted by poverty and intergenerational trauma brought on by the legacy of residential schools. 

“(There’s) a lot of pain and suffering. A lot of hurt. A lot of grief,” he said.

Petersen noted the centre he works at operates with a limited budget and is unable to reach much of the community with services and support.

“We’re such an underfunded community,” he said. “We’re only able to reach five to ten per cent of the community with health and wellness. The rest we can’t reach because we don’t have the capacity to do it.”

“I have asked Kaska elders what they think about the addictions in this community and they said that we have had a health and wellness crisis since residential school and it keeps growing worse,” he added. 

Petersen said the health centre is also underfunded and the two nurses working there are often burnt out.

“There were two weeks if there was an emergency no one knew what to do because we didn’t have enough staff to operate,” he said.

He said the health centre also can’t provide medications for people in the community who are detoxing.

Petersen said he would like to see the federal and territorial governments take responsibility and provide proper funding and supports for people in Ross River so the community can heal.

“We need funding now. We need these resources now. Actually, we needed them 10 years ago, 20, 30 years ago,” he said.

Peterson said he is advocating for a Kaska treatment camp with detox and healing facilities that’s design would have involvement from the community.

“We need treatment centres. We need more supports. There’s so many things we need right now,” he said.

Ross River
Dave Petersen, a trauma support worker at the Margaret Thomson Healing Centre, said more funding is needed. Photo: Jordan Haslbeck

‘Not seen or heard’

Ross River is serviced by a mental health wellness and substance use hub in the village of Carmacks, a 230 km drive from the community.

An audit released last year by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada found the hubs made mental health services accessible to people living outside of Whitehorse.

However, it also found there were issues affecting their delivery, such as staffing retention and a lack of cultural sensitivity for First Nations in the territory.

RRDC Chief Dylan Loblaw said there are no transportation services like buses for members to access support in Carmacks or Whitehorse. 

“If we were closer to those services it would help,” he said.

Loblaw said the First Nation has been in contact with the territorial government about Ross River’s mental health needs.

He said while RRDC has received responses from government officials on how it can improve its system and how it can address the community’s needs, he feels there is a lack of urgency on their part and the First Nation is being “pushed aside.”

“We’re not being heard or seen,” he said. “It’s kind of concerning because lots of the members aren’t able to get what they need,” he said.

Loblaw is hopeful there will eventually be investment in a Kaska-rooted treatment centre in the community. 

However, he said, RRDC needs the government’s help to build it.

“If we could get those services and facilities in place and managed and operated by the nation it would be really beneficial and would also benefit our counterparts as well,” he said.

Cameron Grandy, Yukon government’s director of mental wellness and substance use services, said counsellors from the Carmacks mental wellness travel to Ross River bi-weekly to provide services. He noted a mental health support worker is also available for the community.

However, he said he “doesn’t disagree with (the community’s) frustrations.”

“I’m certainly not going to argue with any community’s perception and the reality on the services that they need,” he said.

Grandy said staffing has been an issue in Yukon’s rural communities and that a designated mental health nurse in Ross River is off for the time being. 

He said the department is looking to hire a counsellor or mental wellness support worker to work in the community but has been struggling to recruit.

“It absolutely is a priority,” he said. 

Randy Legault-Rankin, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), said in a statement to APTN News that, “We are deeply troubled by the information concerning the state of mental wellness in Ross River Dena Council. ISC will continue to work with the Council’s leadership and partners to provide them with mental wellness supports.”

Legault-Rankin noted for 2022-23, RRDC is receiving approximately $595,000 to support mental wellness needs in the community. He said additional funding to First Nations communities in Yukon are provided annually to the Council of Yukon First Nations.

But Petersen said that funding is not enough.

“Those funds coming into this community is about 10 per cent of funding needed to meet the health and wellness needs in this community,” he said.

“It is Canada’s responsibility to provide the other 90 per cent of funding owed so that this Kaska community can transform Canada’s ongoing intergenerational trauma into intergenerational wisdom.  This is a moral issue, not a money one, and Canada’s is failing morally.”

As Ross River continues to struggle with mental health issues, Maje said there is hope for the community’s youth by returning to Kaska values, such as language, cultural traditions and potlatches.

“(We need to) show the dignity of our people, that the Kaska people do have something to offer,” she said.

As for Ladue, she wants investments in treatment before it’s too late for her family member.

“You really need to look at the big picture, and start planning, it’s going to take a lot of money, but then you’re going to be saving, in the long run, your own people.”

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