‘I really don’t want to end up on the streets’: Aurora Village healing camp to close next week

The interior of Tony Kakfwi’s teepee features a warming wood stove, a few beds, a table cluttered with beadwork, a crackling radio, and a few chairs.

It’s a clean space, but more importantly, it’s a space to heal.

He lives in a healing camp for those who are homeless and struggling with addiction, short of Aurora Village – a tourist destination 15 km from Yellowknife – where, before the pandemic, visitors could warm up in tepees. and watch the Northern Lights.

Kakfwi sits next to Cassien Kaskamin, both were at one time homeless, but Aurora Village’s teepees became their homes and the other guests became their community.

Ken Colcomb, left, said he struggled with addiction but found Aurora Village healing camp to be one of the best experiences of his life. Cassien Kaskamin, right, said he took part in the alcohol management program at the camp, which helped him reduce his addiction. (Travis Burke/CBC)

“This camp is one of the best things that has happened to me personally,” said Ken Colcomb.

Nicole Bonnetrouge, another guest, said the camp “opens a lot of doors.”

“Our sharing circles and counseling sessions are important, it’s a really beautiful place,” she said.

Nicole Bonnetrouge, left, and her partner Cassien Kaskamin. Bonnetrouge said the camp has helped guests deal with past trauma and provides them with opportunities, including employment. (Travis Burke/CBC)

But all of that could end on April 7, when the healing camp is expected to close.

“I really don’t know where to go,” Kakfwi said, “I really don’t want to end up on the streets again.”

Kaskamin accepted.

“If someone else could help us, you know, because yeah, it’s not okay to sleep in the stairwell. It’s not okay to sleep in the tent. And, you know , I really enjoy this place.”

Healing in the field

The camp houses between 20 and 25 guests and focuses on traditional knowledge and skills.

Wilbert Menacho teaches these skills. He’s an elder on site, originally from Tulita, NWT

Wilbert Menacho is an on-site Elder at Aurora Village Healing Camp. He said traditional land-based activities such as trapping, fishing and sledding help guests heal from their trauma. (Travis Burke/CBC)

He gives advice and listens to the stories of the guests. He understands them, having himself lived on the street.

“What we’re trying to do is just really get back to their culture…The way of life as Aboriginal people and our ancestors always say the land is a place of healing.”

Some of the traditional skills the camp teaches include ice shearing, trapping, fishing and sledding.

“They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember, I remember doing those things when I was young. So their memories go back to their youth and the earth instead of focusing on alcohol,” he said.

Marie Speakman of Délı̨nę, Northwest Territories, is a counselor at the camp.

“It’s not like other places,” she said.

Marie Speakman is a counselor at the healing camp. She said she saw several guests transition to sober and healthy living in the four months she lasted. (Luke Carroll/CBC)

“It’s here on earth, they can see the trees, the snow, the earth, they can walk around.”

Individual guidance is offered to guests, and days typically end with a sharing circle and the occasional fire-feeding ceremony.

Managed Alcohol Program

The camp runs what is called an alcohol management program.

This means that clients struggling with an alcohol or drug addiction will receive a certain amount of alcohol each day, an amount that decreases over time.

Guests can gradually become less dependent. Kaskamin said it worked for him.

Trevor Teed, director of lands and environment for the Dene Nation and a key member of camp operations, said those who managed to stay sober were actually offered temporary employment at Aurora Village.

Don Morin, owner of Aurora Village and former premier of the Northwest Territories, said he saw firsthand how the camp helped guests.

Michael Fatt, Don Morin, Norman Yakeleya, Be’sha Blondin, Wilbert Cook and Trevor Teed at Aurora Village on December 2, 2021, a week after the launch of a field healing camp at the site. They represent the organizations working together to run the camp. (Clara Pasieka / Radio Canada)

Camp funded as COVID-19 prevention

The camp was funded by the federal government for $2.8 million over a period of approximately four months. It is run by a collaboration between Dene Nation, the Crazy Indians Brotherhood, the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation and Aurora Village.

Teed said much of that funding goes towards salaries: the camp needs staff working 24/7 to make sure the wood-burning stoves in each of the teepees keep guests warm. while they sleep, as well as to meet any health and safety needs.

The funding came from a program to protect the homeless population from COVID-19, which Teed said has been successful so far.

However, as funding draws to a close, COVID-19 continues to spread in the NWT; As of Tuesday evening, there were more than 280 active cases in Yellowknife alone, where most of the guests live.

The federal government funding will expire on March 31. After that, Teed said the Dene Nation will fund one more week of services.

Teed said Dene Nation would like to continue the program, but needs funding to do so.

Megan MacLean, spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said in an email that the federal government was “considering additional funding options” for the program that funded the camp.

Teed said there was hope that more funding could be given to programs like this because of the new Liberal-NDP deal, but is waiting for the next federal budget, which is due out today. where the camp should close.

Tipis in Aurora Village have been home to some of Yellowknife’s most vulnerable since November. But the healing camp, which was established to protect people from COVID-19, will close without further funding, even as the Northwest Territories deals with the continued spread of the virus. (Travis Burke/CBC)

“No funding available” from the Government of the Northwest Territories

The territorial government did not provide any funding for the initiative.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said resources are currently too limited due to the pandemic and lack of staff.

The spokesperson said staff visited the site to learn more about the program and appreciated the work that was done.

Back in Kakfwi’s teepee, the woodstove continues to burn.

He said his home in Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories, was no longer habitable and if the camp closed, he didn’t know where he would go.

Kakfwi said he appreciates how far he has come from the camp and just hopes his wellness journey can continue.