When it comes to substance use, many of us may have grown up with mantra of ‘just say no.’

One NWT group, however, is taking a more interactive approach to help NWT youth build skills and confidence to make informed decisions. 

“A lot of things that are expressed from youth, is that there’s just not very much to do,” Nancy MacNeill said on why some young people turn to drug and alcohol use. 

Students set up their ‘Tiny Town’ performance for a Dope Experience workshop at Jean Wetrade School in Gamètì.
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“I find it really useful to offer kids a few different options,” she said. “It’s like, OK, here’s something that you can do. You can do it here and learn about it with us at school, and then you can go home, and start making your own movies or designing your own beats and that kind of thing.”

MacNeill is a facilitator with the Dope Experience, an arts-based health program that delivers workshops educating participants on smoking, drinking, drug use and mental health.  

Launched in November 2019, the program received $1.8 million in funding over three years.

Over a year later, what began as a way of educating youth on cannabis use has grown into a more holistic, hands-on discussion on substance use and personal wellness.  

Before the pandemic hit, the Dope Experience was taking its workshops across the territory to Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort Simpson, Fort Liard, and elsewhere. While travel within the territory is not prohibited, the program team decided to slow their travel plans to curb any fears of spreading Covid between communities. 

If NWT communities wanted the Dope Experience to pay a visit, however, organizer Alana Kronstal said the team would be happy to start that discussion. 

In recent months, the Dope Experience has been offering online modules through its media channels, working with the Yellowknife Women’s Society’s Spruce Bough shelter at the former Arnica hotel to deliver weekly programming for Yellowknifers. The group is also in the process of creating a substance use and wellness focused magazine. 

The cinematographer, sound recordist, and music department at work in the Woodshop Studio at a workshop in Tuktoyaktuk.
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In targeting youth, Kronstal said among the feedback they’ve heard is that students will relay information learned to other members of their household and become a “powerful influence on the rest of their family.”

“In a couple of instances there were youth who told us that they and their family had made plans for reducing their substance use based on what the workshop had taught them,” Kronstal said. 

“When we reach them in creative and interesting ways with information, they’re often really eager to share with everyone else in their circle.”

Nancy MacNeill, facilitator with the Dope Experience, said one of thing that makes arts-based workshops so successful is allowing participants to tell their own stories, especially with subject matter such as substance use, which can be triggering.
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MacNeill admits that with programs like these, it can be challenging to gage results. The Dope Experience, and other wellness based workshops, aim for results over the long-term. Still, MacNeill said, “good conversations and good engagement,” are indicators that participants are listening.  

The workshops themselves are directed in large part by participants, which MacNeill said is an advantage of arts-centred programming. Whether attendees want to make a play, a song, a stop-motion video or anything else on the subject is up to them – “there’s no way to be wrong with art,” MacNeill said. 

“The main thing that we want people to leave with is a sense of feeling good and feeling able to make their own healthy choices,” she said. “When somebody tells you, ‘I learned this today,’ then you know that that’s the message that they’re taking home.” 

Natalie Pressman

Reporting courts and cops and general news, Natalie started with NNSL Media in 2020. Before moving to Yellowknife, Natalie worked as a community radio trainer in Iskatewizaagegan #39 Independent First...

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