Current Problems

Health (18-24)

‘One death, we learn to deal with it. Multiple deaths was so hard.’

June 11, 2024

Gladys Alexie, a teacher in Fort McPherson, bakes a pie. “The fact that other people came in and shared our grief was such a big, big help,” she said. Simona Rosenfield/Cabin Radio

NationTalk: Cabin Radio – In Fort McPherson, residents say a drug addiction crisis is driven by housing issues, decades-long lifestyle changes rooted in colonization, and the brazen activity of dealers.

Located above the Arctic Circle along the Peel River, the hamlet is struggling to support the mental health of its 750 residents. 

Last November, the community-wide mental health crisis crossed a threshold when five residents lost their lives to overdoses in the span of one month.

Residents say addiction is just one symptom of larger, systemic issues facing their community. One told Cabin Radio they feel helpless amid a surge of illicit drugs and alcohol flowing north.

Ninety-year-old Robert Alexie Sr says he was born and raised in simpler times, and large shifts in the way people live have ultimately hurt his community.

“There’s something to do out there all the time. Fishing, wood, moose. You can’t sit around in the daytime doing nothing, and that’s life out on the land,” said Alexie.

He saw trouble when residents began moving into government public housing decades ago, leaving their log homes and lives in the bush.

“The government just spoiled the whole damn thing,” he said.

Residents now depend on public housing because there are no viable alternatives in the community, according to Trina Nerysoo, who works to advance housing security through Dinjii Zhuh Solutions, a Fort McPherson-based enterprise.

Public housing tenants and residents on income support feel their employment options are limited by territorial government policy, Nerysoo said.

“If I work any more, I’m going to get penalized by housing,” she recalled a friend saying.

“That’s a backwards system. The government should be having programs that say we want our people to be successful in the NWT.”

In NWT public housing, the rent you pay is determined by factors like your region and household income. If your income goes up, your rent may well go up, too, and any income support you receive may go down.

Residents say that has the practical effect of making drug dealing and bootlegging appear more attractive as ways of earning money, as that income won’t be declared the way other forms of income would, and it consequently won’t have the same effect on someone’s rent or their income assistance.

‘It’s that bold’

Residents say it’s hard to escape the impact of drugs on their hamlet, which is connected by the Dempster Highway – one of the world’s loneliest and toughest roads – to Inuvik if you drive north and the Yukon if you drive south.

“Crack cocaine is now a recreational drug in Fort McPherson. People smoke crack like they used to smoke weed,” said Ben, a resident whose name we changed at their request, for their safety. 

“It’s very common. There’s a lot of people smoking crack in Fort McPherson, in Inuvik, in Whitehorse. It’s huge. I don’t know where that money comes from.”

“Someone was bragging that they made $10,000 in a weekend,” said Sarah, another resident, whose name we also changed.

Sarah said even Elders’ pensions can end up drained to support families.

“Lots of times, in the middle of the month, they would say we don’t have no more money,” she said. “That has to be pretty bleak.”

Some residents trace aspects of the community’s challenges today – addiction, wealth disparity, mental health struggles – to colonial roots.

The cycle of intergenerational trauma stemming from residential schools is ongoing, and some people carry feelings of shame, loss of identity, and a severed connection to the land, said Agnes Francis, a healthy families coordinator in Fort McPherson.

Agnes Francis supports healthy families by teaching childhood development and parenting skills to residents in Fort McPherson. Simona Rosenfield/Cabin Radio

Francis’s work involves child development and parenting techniques, and she teaches parents how to play and interact with their children. She especially loves to share traditional teachings like the medicine wheel, moose hide tanning and dry fish making.

“While we’re doing those things we lift them up, we empower them. We support them,” Francis said. “The impacts of residential school, the brainwashing, all that has a big effect on all these things.”

Francis says residential school deprived residents of healthy development, causing deep wounds that are still felt today.

In turn, community nurse Dave Ford says that trauma drives anxiety, which is one of the most common conditions he sees at work.

“It can manifest itself in physical ways,” said Ford. “Being aware of that and knowing what to do, knowing how to heal from it, is something that takes a lot of time.”

“It’s such a longstanding process of trauma and things that people are dealing with,” said the hamlet’s mayor, Rebecca Blake. “Alcohol is not the problem. It’s actually the solution to many people’s problems.”

The issue is so prevalent that one resident said they had spoken with an 11-year-old child about substance use after the child confided they were struggling with their mental health.

“At one point, these drug dealers, they were walking around town and they were just going to random people saying, ‘Hey, do you want to smoke?’” said Sarah. “They were trying to get them to smoke crack. It’s that bold.”

Vigilante action

Tensions in Fort McPherson came to a head last summer, when a group of residents decided to “drive out drug dealers” from the community.

After the incident, a public meeting was held where RCMP warned residents against vigilante activities for their own safety.

At the meeting, residents recall being told that those who take matters in their own hands to “get rid of drug dealers” could be charged. Some residents told Cabin Radio that kind of action was necessary, while some believe it was too dangerous and still others simply found it futile.

“Beating these two kids up, it’s not going to affect the people that are responsible for deciding whether or not to have crack in the community,” said Ben. “It might just get them to come up here more heavily armed.

“There’s a sense that the police aren’t doing their job, when in fact, their capacity to intervene with drugs and alcohol is pretty limited.”

Some residents expressed frustration with law enforcement and government bureaucracy in emergencies. They believe more can be done.

“It comes in through the highway, it comes in through the plane,” said Lynn, a resident whose name we have also changed so they could speak freely about the crisis affecting their community.  

“It’s just the RCMP not doing their job well enough… and it’s people being scared to report it.”

RCMP spokesperson Cpl Matt Halstead said people who see drug dealing should “call in with as much detail as possible,” including things like the date, time, and specific persons, vehicles or homes involved.

“If there appears to be some type of violence or weapon present, people should call 911 immediately,” he said.

Information shared with RCMP is used to advance investigations as part of a territory-wide drug strategy, according to Halstead. All tips are recorded, though not every call will result in action.

RCMP require concrete evidence such as “first-hand knowledge from witnesses” or “direct information from police investigation” to meet the requirements for a search warrant or arrest, he said.

“Gathering this information is the most challenging aspect of these investigations,” said Halstead. “People with direct knowledge are reluctant to cooperate with police for fear of reprisal, and not all investigative techniques are possible in small communities.”

Further, Halstead called people involved in drug trafficking “sophisticated criminals” with knowledge of police investigative techniques and ways of evading and inhibiting investigations.

“The drug problem in the NWT consists of multi-community networks of organized drug traffickers,” said Halstead. “While there have not yet been any warrant executions in Fort McPherson, this does not mean the RCMP has not been addressing the drug trade in that community.”

After the incident last year, residents say drug dealers promised retaliation.

“There was a real increased presence in the community from the drug dealers. That was really concerning,” said Sarah. “Lots of people were scared.”

“We still have drug dealers in the community,” she continued. “We all know who the drug dealers are. We still know who all the drug dealers are. There’s really no shame in it.”

Local leaders ‘have no power’

Fort McPherson has a history of community-led initiatives to promote well-being, according to Richard Nerysoo, who is from Fort McPherson and has represented the area at various political levels. 

Nerysoo served as the NWT’s premier for two years in the 1980s. He describes past initiatives in the hamlet like an alcohol and drug counselling program, an on-the-land family trauma program and a childcare program that integrated traditional teachings.

In the current drugs crisis, solutions “need to come from the advice and decisions of the people of Fort McPherson,” he said.

“The reality is governments have to step aside and allow the First Nations to make decisions in their communities based on the existing governing structures that they have.”

Mental health services, on-the-land programming and addictions treatment in Fort McPherson are funded by the territorial and federal governments. Nerysoo says this has forced local services to adapt to meet government criteria for funding – or risk losing it.

Governments must respect the “bilateral relationship based on treaty” with First Nations, Nerysoo said, meaning traditional governments should be able to rely on federal and territorial support to pass laws addressing alcohol and drugs as they see fit.

Some residents told Cabin Radio drug dealers have previously been expelled from the community by chiefs and councils who felt empowered to do so.

“It was the chief and the council that would go to the people and tell them that they’re being watched and they’re not welcome here,” said Lynn.

“Now, it’s just like they have no power and control.”

Despite last year’s vigilante action, Lynn said, people live in fear of drug dealers and are frequently threatened.

“The only real solution is to get people to get off of crack cocaine. That’s a lot harder than putting handcuffs on someone and putting them in jail, to support someone to get off of using alcohol and drugs,” said Ben.

“As long as there’s people that want to smoke crack, there’s going to be people wanting to come up here and sell it to them.”

Other residents suggested starting a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the community. Some believe more can be done to support police efforts, like establishing a neighbourhood watch and installing surveillance cameras.

Residents are in the best position to find solutions because they understand the opportunities, obstacles and conditions specific to Fort McPherson, said former premier Nerysoo.

“We’re not looking for some regional magic or territorial miracle,” he said. “We can only see these issues from where we live and with whom we live.”

Grief and the future

Residents say November’s loss of five people to drug overdoses caused immense grief and pain, compounding the trauma people had already experienced.

“The first thing that needs attention is the social determinants of health. The basic needs of people have to be met before someone can come to learn about grief and loss,” said nurse Ford.

“Adequate security, food, shelter, compassion and love at the home. Those are the basic needs that we have in order to learn about these natural emotions.”

“We need to provide places for people to go to socialize, to have good recreation,” said Blake. “We also have to provide people with jobs, the life skills.”

While grief is a natural process after loss, it can be difficult to recognize if you’ve never learned about it or can’t express yourself, said Francis, who added she found healing in reaching out to others and talking.

“Release those things and talk about it, vent, go out on the land and yell… cry,” said Francis. “When you’re out there on the land, it’s just like you’re free. Free from all the negative stuff that’s going on.”

Some residents wish there was more support to address the magnitude of suffering from addiction and mental health issues in that way.

“Alcohol is a lot easier to access than mental health support and it’s probably not as intimidating,” said Ben. “The connection that people have to the land is becoming harder to maintain… It’s expensive to go out on the land.”

Dennis Wright of Fort McPherson. Simona Rosenfield/Cabin Radio

Dennis Wright says it’s important to make sure the land is accessible to residents, especially as the cost of living continues to rise.

Wright, a local storyteller, would like schools to teach students more about mental health, trauma and addiction so they can learn resiliency skills and promote their well-being.

He says the past year was “heartbreaking” and hopes if future generations are exposed to more on-the-land opportunities and traditional teachings, they will grow up and change things.

“It’s the whole community that has to be on board with moving forward,” said Wright. “The community as a whole is so much stronger if everybody’s involved with the effort to retain our culture and traditions and lifestyle.”

“Our school holds our most precious commodity, and that is our future,” said Blake. 

“We need to focus on our young people.”

Gladys Alexie says she tackles those hard topics in her classroom at Chief Julius School.

From cooking methods for traditional foods to her Indigenous language and life in “the old days,” Alexie says she hopes her teachings instill a sense of confidence and independence in the youth.

Last year, she addressed loss with her students, reminding them that in times of grief, the community comes together and supports the family and friends of those who passed. Eventually, everyone has the chance to give and to receive.

Gladys Alexie at her home in Fort McPherson. Simona Rosenfield/Cabin Radio

Alexie says grieving together was important to her.

Community-led mental health supports were made available to residents. A counsellor worked with residents and funding was allocated to set up a healing and wellness camp near the Peel River.

“If there’s one death, we learn to deal with it and go through the emotions,” she said. 

“With multiple deaths, it was so hard. You just didn’t know where to go. I think the fact that other people came in and shared our grief was such a big, big help. 

“Without that, I don’t know how we would’ve been. It was just too much.”

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This article written by:

Simona Rosenfield

Simona is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with a focus on the Dehcho region and the NWT’s housing crisis.