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Detox, aftercare facilities badly needed to tackle NWT drug crisis, MLA says

The entrance to the Hay River Regional Health Center on January 24, 2023. Six people died from opioids in the NWT in the past year.  All were located in Hay River and most were linked to crack cocaine laced with fentanyl and carfentanil.  (Natalie Pressman/CBC - photo credit)

The entrance to the Hay River Regional Health Center on January 24, 2023. Six people died from opioids in the NWT in the past year. All were located in Hay River and most were linked to crack cocaine laced with fentanyl and carfentanil. (Natalie Pressman/CBC – photo credit)

As his city grapples with a spike in drug-related deaths, an NWT MLA is urging the territorial government to conjure up aftercare facilities — and fast.

Rocky Simpson, the Hay River South MLA, made an impassioned plea for such resources in the legislature on Wednesday.

“When we talk about detox and aftercare, we’re talking about the difference between life and death for some,” he said.

“This reality may not apply to those who have no connections to the people in the communities, but for us who were born and raised here, we have family and friends across the NWT and some of them are looking to our help. “

Right now, Simpson’s community is the epicenter of a looming drug crisis in the area.

On Jan. 24, health officials announced that six people died from opioids in the NWT last year. All were located in Hay River and most were linked to crack cocaine laced with fentanyl and carfentanil. A health professional said existing social issues, the stress of COVID-19 and the trauma of last spring’s unprecedented floods are likely all contributing.

“A Recipe for Failure”

The situation has prompted renewed calls for an inpatient treatment center in the NWT, in addition to more community-based healing opportunities.

But on Wednesday, Simpson said the biggest gap right now is aftercare – a reality NWT executives have criticized for years.

Simpson noted that the area currently has no dedicated transitional or sober residences for those returning from treatment.

Travis Burke/CBC

Travis Burke/CBC

“They came home and then there is no one to pick them up, no one to offer support and no encouragement to stay the course,” he said. “It’s a recipe for failure and chronically repeating itself.”

What’s missing is a “normal component” that provides safe places for people to live and access services that help them reintegrate into the community, Simpson said.

He urged Health Secretary Julie Green to consider converting vacant government buildings into transitional housing.

“There is infrastructure that is vacant or underutilized that can and should be used for addiction recovery,” he said, offering correctional facilities in Hay River and Fort Smith and the old Nats’ejee K’eh treatment center in Kátł’ at. odeeche as examples.

Green agreed that using these buildings was a more logical and faster approach, although some of them would no longer conform to the code and would require some work.

She also said that back in December 2021, the area issued a request for expressions of interest from community organizations to develop transitional housing models. It has since received replies from groups in Inuvik, Fort Good Hope, Yellowknife and Hay River.

Mario De Ciccio/CBC

Mario De Ciccio/CBC

“The challenge now is to do the analysis and get the funding requests into the business plan cycle,” Green said.

After hearing this, Simpson said he was glad to see movement on the matter but didn’t think it was moving fast enough.

“Talking is cheap, so I’m kind of hoping that sooner or later I’ll actually see some money fall on the floor,” he said. “No detox beds and no aftercare facilities — without those two components, we can only expect more people to die. And those deaths will be upon us.”

New option for Indigenous-run treatment center expected by April

Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong also urged Green for details on when facility-based treatment would be available again for Indigenous residents.

The area ended its contract with Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centers in St. Albert, Alta., the only option it had that was promoting the treatment specifically for Indigenous clients, last October at the facility’s request.

Natalie Pressman/CBC

Natalie Pressman/CBC

An employee later told CBC News the lodge made the decision because the NWT government lacked a “cultural understanding” of its work.

At the time, Weyallon Armstrong said she was frustrated with diminishing treatment options.

She echoed those frustrations during Wednesday’s meeting, saying the fact that the area still had no other culturally relevant option months after Poundmaker’s contract ended was “unacceptable”.

“We all know that addiction plagues the NWT communities,” she said. “Addiction hurts everyone. It tears families apart and traumatizes children. It affects the whole community.

“We cannot ignore this crisis.”

In response to a question from Weyallon Armstrong, Green told MLAs that her department has asked that Indigenous-run treatment facilities submit proposals for partnership.

This competition ended on Friday with the goal of having a new service provider by April 1st.

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