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Addictions Week 2012
Battling addictions in the communities
Chiefs talk about what should be done to curb addiction problems among their people

Miranda Scotland
Northern News Services
Published Monday, November 19, 2012

The territory's persistent addictions issue is probably most visible in the capital city though many of Yellowknife's troubled residents aren't born there.

NNSL photo/graphic

The territory's ongoing struggle with addiction issues is probably most noticeable in downtown Yellowknife yet many of the city's troubled residents come from the surrounding communities. - Miranda Scotland/NNSL photo

They come from small communities throughout the NWT and end up staying, perhaps by choice or sometimes because they simply don't have enough money to get home.

There have been endless debates about how best to address the addictions issues across the territory. One of the suggestions that has emerged is to build a treatment centre in Yellowknife. However, those living in the communities say funds would be better used elsewhere.

"That's the worst idea," said Pehdzeh Ki Chief Tim Lennie. "It's never worked in Yellowknife. We need to deal with things at home before they get to Yellowknife. That seems to be the problem. The more services, institutions you have out there to help our people, the more you bring them out and they're just staying and it gets worse. It just accumulates."

About a decade ago, Wrigley was able to provide many addiction services to its people but money for those programs dried up, Lennie said. Instead, resources are going into skills training and job development, which are important, however residents can't benefit from them if they're unhealthy, he said.

"There is an imbalance as I can see it now. You definitely can feel the effects," Lennie said. "As chief and council or administration you're struggling to put a few programs together."

Issues with alcohol are more of a problem in the NWT than elsewhere in Canada. Nearly 62 per cent of the territory's residents aged 15 to 24 participate in heavy drinking, compared with 11.7 per cent nationally, according to the 2009 NWT Addictions Report and the 2009 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey.

The NWT document also shows that aboriginal people tend drink less frequently than non-aboriginals, yet they often consume larger amounts when they do drink.

Chief of the Inuvik Native Band, Herbert Blake, said the reason for this is because his people never learned to respect the use of alcohol.

"It was against the law for us to own that stuff so what they would do is they would get it and they would drink it right there. They never learned that socially acceptable way of handling it," Blake said. "Whenever I do it, there is no two o'clock in the morning. I will drink until everything is gone, which is really unfortunate. That's why I don't do it, get caught up in that kind of lifestyle."

Alcohol isn't the only problem in the North. Statistics from the NWT addictions report show that 36 per cent of NWT residents smoke and 24 per cent of people have tried cocaine, hallucinogens, speed, ecstasy or heroin.

There are a number of reasons why some aboriginal people have turned to drugs and alcohol, Blake said. For some it is a coping mechanism, while others do it because they have lost touch with who they are, he said.

"We struggle because a lot of our people don't know where we come from. My mother always said, 'If you don't know where you came from, how are you going to know where to go?' You are just there, you're just existing," Blake said.

Salt River First Nation Chief David Poitras knows what it's like to struggle with addiction. The 69-year-old residential school survivor has been sober 40 years now.

Poitras said workers need to be more active in their efforts to help people suffering from addiction.

"You need to sell sobriety. You cannot wait in your office and hope to get people coming in, in large numbers. You have to get out there," he said. "It's going to take a lot of awareness because what you're mainly trying to do is change attitudes."

Treatment may not work the first time but it doesn't mean that person is a lost cause, Poitras continued.

Blake said ultimately the choice to get help is up to the person who needs help, but services have to be in place for when that time comes.

"I believe each region should have its own way of helping these people. The Gwich'in are completely different from the cultural values that the Inuvialuit have. And the Gwich'in are completely different from the cultural values that the people in Fort Good Hope have. So I think we need to measure those kinds of things carefully."

Lennie echoed the need for services in the communities. He said the small towns and villages need assistance because they don't have the funds to create the necessary programs.

"The only thing that we can do is just fend for ourselves or depend on each other, that's where it's at right now in the community," Lennie said.

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