Yukon to invest $1 million in Kwanlin Dun healing camp

The chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation in Whitehorse says an investment of $1 million by the Yukon Government is a recognition that land-based addictions treatment programs work.

'We believe that the land holds a lot of healing and we've experienced it,' says Jeanie Dendys

Johnny Brass, a traditional healer, helps to operate a sweat lodge at the Jackson Lake on-the-land addictions treatment program near Whitehorse. 'It’s like we’re being born again when we go in there.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation says a new investment of $1 million over three years is a recognition that land-based addictions treatment programs work.

Chief Doris Bill says the Jackson Lake Healing Camp is important to the First Nation and its members.  

The Yukon Government recently announced funding to be spread out over three years. The move effectively doubles the territorial government’s support for the program.

This year the healing camp also received a federal commitment of $500,000 from Health Canada. This commitment will be repeated for the next two years with a possibility of renewal. 

Rehabilitation programs are offered at about a half-hour drive from Whitehorse.

Chief Bill says the camp is a welcoming place. Electronic devices are forbidden and those attending the camp are encouraged to pursue on-the-land activities such as crafts, sports and traditional preparation of furs and moose hides in addition to addictions counselling. 

“It’s a peaceful place,” she says. “You come out here and you want to stay.”

The log cabins at Jackson Lake were built about 20 years ago and have been used for Kwanlin Dun youth gatherings, summer camps and general assemblies.

The area has been used as a seasonal healing camp since 2010.

“We believe that the land holds a lot of healing, and we've experienced it,” says Jeanie Dendys, Kwanlin Dun’s director of justice. “The land seems to know what we need.”

This year, the camp will host two groups of 16 people.

In the future, the First Nation would also like to see a separate program for youth.

Johnny Brass is a traditional healer. He helps to operate a traditional sweat lodge.

“The drumming and the singing, and the words that are used by the lodge keeper help us develop an intimate relationship with ourselves,” he says. “Feeling completely exposed in a different way, it’s like we’re being born again when we go in there.”

In announcing the funding, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski said he believes on-the-land programs are effective, with the potential to be more effective than similar treatment in an institutional setting.

“This truly is a unique program. And it's a program that, with its experience, is now getting recognized at a national level as well.”

A former pharmacist, Pasloski said he had seen first-hand the effects of addictions in downtown Whitehorse before becoming premier. He says he believes addictions are "a health issue, not a criminal justice issue" and that alcohol treatment programs like the Jackson Lake camp will eventually reduce visits to Whitehorse's emergency room and reduce interactions with police.

Chief Bill says it’s vital that the camp incorporate tradition but at the end of the day she says the government funding is justified by results.

“It’s important to have spirituality, culture incorporated into programs that work for us,” she says. “For far too long we’ve had funding tied to programs with the criteria already developed for the mainstream society.”

The Kwanlin Dun First Nation has 10 to 12 full-time staff associated with the camp and wellness programs in Whitehorse. The First Nation also hires seasonal workers who cook or do maintenance.

The new funding will also reach beyond the camp.

The First Nation plans to expand an aftercare program to help counsel those who have been through this program and find themselves struggling back in the city.