A small camp nestled among the trees on the outskirts of Yellowknife is an “oasis” in the woods, says one of its clients.

Since The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation began the camp in May 2018, that client is one of its more than 2,000 visitors. Indigenous peoples make up the largest share of this number, with Dene the most represented group, states the foundation’s Annual Report.

On Tuesday, it held a feast at the camp with bannock, soup and tea to celebrate its success and another year in operation.

The foundation is mandated with supporting traditional healing services. It aims to provide “culturally based healthcare to Indigenous northerners facing a high burden of disease and unequal access to traditional health serves,” states the non-profit.

There are minimal opportunities to access traditional counselling, medicine, and ceremony, said Donald Prince, the foundation’s executive director and CEO. Accordingly, the camp’s services includes sweat lodges, flute and drum-making, among other activities.

At Tuesday’s feast in camp, Donald Prince, the foundation’s executive director and CEO, said traditional healing “is more based on reality, humility, and humanity.”
Nick Pearce / NNSL photo

For visitors, Prince said the camp tries to help them individually, finding the best way they can be holistically healthy. Insight comes along the way, but the camp aims to “give them the control,” he said, allowing them to incorporate treatment into their lives.

He recalls one man visiting from the psych ward who began to show signs of improvement. Prince said that on his return to the hospital, a psychiatrist asked, “what do they do out there? Every time you come back, you’re more relaxed, you’re calm.”

“I go out there and I tell them, ‘I see things, and hear things,’ and they tell me they see things and hear things. And (then) we have tea and bannock.” Prince said about the man’s experience. “I come back to the hospital and say, ‘I see things and hear things,’ and you guys give me pills.”

“Traditional counselling is more based on reality, humility, and humanity,” said Prince.

Dr. Nicole Redvers, chair of the foundation’s board, said the project began with a mandate to offer traditional healing that often went unrecognized.

“It’s very humbling,” said Redvers. “I’m thinking about all the stories and the experiences and the people that have been evolved since day one, even before the set-up.”

The camp – consisting of a few tents and a teepee a short walk out from the Multiplex – was cleared of snow and built in April 2018. It began hosting visitors that May. It has all Indigenous employees and an all-Indigenous board Redvers said.

Dr. Nicole Redvers, chair of the foundation’s board, and Be’sha Blondin, an elder, enjoying the festivities at Tuesday’s feast at the camp.
Nick Pearce / NNSL photo

She explained that the elders’ knowledge behind the camp was a vital force behind its work in revitalizing traditional healing.

“A lot of our libraries are burning in the North, literally, as our elders pass,” she said. “We’re in a very time-critical, sensitive period to be able to pass on knowledge to the next generation.”

A safe place”

One man, who found the camp while battling alcoholism, spoke to Yellowknifer on condition of anonymity to protect his identity.

Visiting the camp, he would make a drum, or do some rattling while he was there. He’d come because he didn’t want to go downtown, where he said he felt “negative energy.” Now, he enjoys seeing children visit, and watching someone who’s troubled improve their outlook. “These people help you go inside your heart,” he said about the camp’s staff.

“I seen a lot of people come here angry, but leave with smiles on their faces … or a look of hope inside their eyes,” he said.

“You trust them,” he said about the camp’s staff. In previous experiences with counselors, he often felt told “you should, you should” proscriptions and left after an hour with his “emotions hanging,” which led him to resent the experience. Coming to the camp, he felt he could pick his time to unload and, in his own time, he felt restored delving into “(his) deep trauma, (his) residential school trauma.”

“When it comes out clean and pure, rather than ‘you should,’ there’s a big difference. You’re … freer,” he said, adding that he understands these programs work for many and his experience is his own.

Moving forward, the Foundation is mindful that its current camp is on a temporary lease and it hopes to secure a permanent site, with more details set to be available in June, including a report, models and drawings, it stated in its annual report. Meanwhile, the camp is a short distance away from town.

“This is an oasis for me, a safe place,” the man said.

Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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