When it opened in 1993, the Nats’ejee K’eh Treatment Centre in Hay River boasted drum dances, and traditional Dene healing for addictions.
The program and its cultural values were originally designed by 42 elders across the territory.
But as the GNWT took over its operations, and staffed it with non-Dene practitioners, that cultural component was erased, said Chief Roy Fabian of the K’atl’Odeeche First Nation.
It shut down in December of 2012.
The closure has reared its ugly head, as the KFN argues it needs more money to develop meaningful cultural programs for addicts.
Meanwhile, the GNWT stands by its southern treatment facilities, which involve preliminary counselling in the territory, and a flight to state of the art facilities in the south.
Health Minister Glen Abernathy confirmed the GNWT would turn Nats’ejee K’eh into a centre for “wellness or healing” but not a treatment centre.
The KFN put forward its proposal, asking for $200,000 to develop a program for northern healing.
The territorial government returned with a smaller offer of $20,000 in addition to $40,000 it had already given for program development, said Minister of Health Glen Abernathy in an interview.
The GNWT is still interested in working with the KFN to develop its plan but, “$190,000 to develop a plan was beyond [its] current fiscal realities,” Abernathy said.
The GNWT encouraged the KFN to seek alternative funding.
In a Sept. 21 press release, Fabian called this suggestion a “slap in the face,” because the GNWT “knows how much these initiatives cost.”
“Where are we supposed to go? The salvation army?” Fabian said.
Chief Roy Fabian, in a phone interview, questioned how much money was being used to send people to treatment centres down south.
The cost to send someone to a southern treatment centre is $120 per person per day, while the cost for a northern facility like Nats’ejee K’eh is $420 per person per day, said Andrew Livingstone, communications advisor for the GNWT.
In a phone interview, Minister of Health and Social Services, Debbie DeLancey told CKLB the decision to move to four out-of-territory contract options was ultimately made to provide a “range of options” for patients.
Even if would like to, the government has budgetary limitations that prevent it from offering culturally specific services in every region, DeLancey said.
“The reality is that no matter where we’ve had a centre, most people from the NWT had to travel away from home to get there and it didn’t reflect their culture,” she said.
Fabian still urging for a northern treatment centre because of its early success
In its early days, the Natse’jee K’e centre boasted a 43 per cent success rate, Fabian said.
The centre had 38 beds, Fabian said. “And we didn’t ask the government for more money. We were highly successful and the government didn’t like the success.”
As the government replaced the cultural program with a mental health and wellness program, they hired non-Dene executive directors, and had trouble staffing the centre, Fabian said.
“They couldn’t interest any people in the south to move up here and work as mental health workers,” Fabian said.
Fabian alleges the GNWT continually changed job descriptions to incorporate a mental wellness program that “killed the treatment centre.”
DeLancey confirmed that it is a challenge to retain northern health workers, but that the territorial government tried to work with Natse’jee K’e staff to resolve those issues.
At one time, the territory had more detox centres, treatment centres and a youth centre.
“That is all closed now. We wanted to develop a healing program for northern people because we’re Dene people,” Fabian said.
The program he is proposing would “bring people back to traditions,” and encourage discipline.
“The elders in the past encouraged us to maintain our relationship to the land. You can’t just say ‘Go into the bush and you’ll be okay,’” Fabian said. “[The GNWT] took all our beliefs and discarded them and said, ‘We’ll deal with the mental issues.’”
Many Dene are suffering from addictions to alcohol and drugs, and it’s the government’s treaty responsibility to deliver health care that reflects the Dene people, Fabian said.
“We’ve got a right to that kind of treatment. They don’t want to give it to us. They want to keep us suppressed,” Fabian said.
“I don’t understand why they don’t want us to get well. They went ahead and did what they thought was good for us. That’s paternalism. That’s the attitude towards aboriginal people.”
In response, Debbie DeLancey told CKLB they meet on a government to government basis and that Minister Abernathy has met with the KFN a couple of times on the treatment centre.
“Yet, the reality is that we do control the money in some cases. I know there is a long history of paternalistic relations. I understand the frustration that Chief Fabian and others feel. We are trying to change the way we do business,” DeLancey said.
“I absolutely recognize that Chief Fabian is completely sincere and touches on a really important point in terms of dealing with the legacy of the multi-generational trauma of colonization and residential schools and that in our system, we recognize the health system has been a part of that.”
Ultimately, the GNWT is challenged by “budget flexibility” to provide those culturally specific treatments, DeLancey said.
Why Nats’ejee K’eh closed
The circumstances of Natse’jee K’e’s closure involve an operational review, and a suggestion from the executive director at the time that the centre should have no further intakes because of staffing issues, Abernathy said.
The 2011 independent operational review made observations about the “environment within the facility and how it negatively impacted on the treatment program, and actually put clients at risk,” Abernathy said.
The government tried to work with the executive director of the centre to address the findings in the operational review, “unsuccessfully,” Abernathy said.
Getting treatment in the NWT
According to Abernathy, there are still broad options available for treatment within the territory.
That includes going to Stanton Hospital or Inuvik for medical detox, getting counselling in Yellowknife, or accessing one of four treatment facilities down south, he said.
Although there are no “bricks and mortar” treatment centres in the territory, there is an expedited referral process to the four facilities in B.C. and Alberta, Abernathy said.
However Fabian still maintains that a renewal of Dene values will help people heal and take pride in their identity.
“We live according to our spiritual, emotional and mental well-being. But if you’re dealing with mental health and you’re dealing with one part of the person. So it’s incomplete,” Fabian said.
“The problem we have today is that the oppression is so powerful that it is difficult to say I’m proud to be a Dene. Those things are hurting my people,” he said.
The GNWT has reiterated that it is willing to work with the K’atl’Odeeche First Nation to find a purpose for Nats’ejee K’eh, but that it won’t be a treatment centre.