When a GNWT committee was devising the territory’s new Mental Health Act in 2015, then-Deh Gah Got’ie First Nation Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge told the committee that “the Act should be written for the people it serves.”
The new act was made public on Feb. 8.
Bonnetrouge, who lost last fall’s election to Xavier Canadien, says he remembers what was in the news when the committee called him to speak. There was a rash of suicides among young people in Indigenous communities in northern Saskatchewan.
“It was right in your face,” says Bonnetrouge.
He spent some time putting his words together, and while he admits his suggestions weren’t in-depth, he says they were forceful.
“I did have some solutions,” says Bonnetrouge. “No more complaining. Dig our heels in and put our paws into the dirt and look for solutions.”
In a report, the Standing Committee on Social Programs quoted Bonnetrouge and stated they argued hard for the inclusion of certain new aspects, such as: a requirement for cultural, spiritual, religious and linguistic aspects to be considered in decisions for care; the inclusion of an elder or cultural adviser on the case review board; the patient or guardian being able to request presentations from an elder or cultural adviser in reviewing their case.
The review board, and review panels, assess an individual’s case, their decision-making abilities, aspects of involuntary mental health patient treatment, and whether things like community-based treatment should be considered.
Bonnetrouge has served more than five terms as chief scattered over the years since 1986, and has been a councillor and worked for the band along the way as well. He says it’s been a difficult adjustment not being in the role since fall.
“After a good 40 years of working for your people, your community, the band, it’s not that easy,” he says. “People still come to your door for things.”
Bonnetrouge says many people don’t realize that a chief is on call 24/7 for the community.
“Many times the RCMP will call 1 o’ clock, 2 o’ clock in the morning and say, ‘Chief, can you come over and deal with something?'” he says. “You get in that kind of mode of living, of serving.”
Bonnetrouge says he sees troubles in his community still that need solving, rooted in the massive changes that have taken place in the Fort Providence area in the last 70 years.
He says he remembers, as a kid in the ’50s, when people moved in off the land to establish Fort Providence.
“Behind the old Hudson Bay, there’s a clearing there near the bushes. There was at least 50 tents, people had come to town to help slash the road to Yellowknife. Anybody that had an ax would have a job. That was even in the days before chainsaws, can you imagine that?”
He says he was groomed for leadership by elders, but could not have predicted the changes that would take place for his people.
“Nobody prepares you, you’re going to be leading a bunch of people that are basically come out of the bush, where they were entirely self-sufficient, independent, having a heck of a good time – they’re going to end up being cooped up in government-supplied houses.”
One thing the elders did warn his community about, he says, is the mental health of the young people, and he is seeing problems with that today.
“Holy man, a lot of young people, a lot of anger, and I’ll come right out and say it: abandonment,” says Bonnetrouge. “Nobody wants to talk about that. It’s too personal. Too painful. Kids, youth basically growing themselves up.”
But he says things are being done to reconnect youth with their culture.
He’s involved with the Dene Zhatie program, teaching young people their Indigenous language, and he says the program gets more applicants than it can handle. The interest is there.
And for himself, Bonnetrouge says he is “still fully entrenched in trying to protect treaty rights” as chair of the Deh Cho Land Use Planning Commission, but he is trying to take things a bit easier – especially trying to stay off Facebook and away from the phone.
“I’ve got a lot of close friends that have been in politics for a long time,” says Bonnetrouge. “The inside joke is that we should have some sort of a program for recovering leaders.”