Young mom dreams big about Northern treatment centre

A young woman in Yellowknife is using social media to advocate for something many people believe is sorely missing from the Northwest Territories: a mental health and addictions treatment centre.

Shea Ailles is part of new generation of advocates, willing to share their struggles

Shea Ailles arrived back in Yellowknife with little more than two suitcases, one for herself, one for her young son Aries. A year later, she's feeling settled and dreaming big things. (submitted by Shea Ailles)

A young woman in Yellowknife is using social media to advocate for something many people believe is sorely missing from the Northwest Territories: a mental health and addictions treatment centre.

Shea Ailles, 21, posted a video on Facebook three weeks ago, explaining how addictions and mental health issues have affected her and her loved ones, and calling on young people to work together to build what she calls a "wellness centre" for youth.

"When you get to the root of the problem with younger people, you don't get messed up adults. You don't have somebody struggling in an addictive personality for more than a couple of years, you nip it in the bud," she says in the video.

The four-minute clip has been viewed over 6,000 times. And Ailles, who's half Gwich'in, and grew up between Whitehorse, Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik, Yellowknife and Edmonton, says it's sparked conversations with MLAs, business people and the community at large.

"Most of them are shocked at the fact that I'm so young trying to do something so big for my community," she says.

New generation of advocates

She's certainly not the first person to call for an addictions treatment centre in Yellowknife or somewhere else in the territory. Four treatment centres have opened and closed over the past several decades, and demand for another one is a perennial political topic, even as the N.W.T government continues to argue it's more cost effective to send people south for treatment.

But Ailles is part of new generation of Northerners, trying to change the dialogue around addictions and mental health by sharing their own stories.

"We all know it's a hush, hush problem. But why does it need to be a problem when we can fix it? Struggling with an addiction shouldn't be a secret, you should not have to feel like you're shunned because you have a problem."

Ailles, isn't shy about sharing her own struggles. She had her first anxiety attack when she was 14 — "I didn't know what was going on, I thought I was dying, that I was having a heart attack" — and her mom and sister have both struggled with addictions.

She also knows about economic hardship, something which frequently limits people's ability to seek help outside of their communities.

When she arrived back in Yellowknife last year, shortly before her 20th birthday, she had nothing more than two suitcases to her name — one for herself, and one for her young son Aries. Things hadn't worked out with Aries' father in New Brunswick, and it was easier to find work back in Yellowknife.

"I grew up in poverty, so I've never really had all that much. Mom gave me as much as as she could as a single parent. Being a single mom myself, I know how many sacrifices she had to make."

Over the past year, she's worked multiple jobs, and continues to hold down three jobs so she can provide for her son. It's a kind of dedication that's helped her become more financially stable: "I just bought my first bedroom set," she says over the phone, laughing, but with pride.

And it's that kind of focus she wants to bring to building the wellness centre. 

Beating the odds

The centre is a bold, aspirational project. What Ailles envisions is more than a "by the book treatment centre" — it's somewhere young people could find support, community, and creative ways to deal with deep-seated issues, through things like painting, music or yoga.

"I picture it in Old Town, somewhere nice, by water so it's in tune with the outdoors," she says. "There could be a bus or a shuttle to pick up young adults and teenagers, whoever needs to come."

Ailles says she's hoping her video will be a catalyst for a youth-centric group focused on realizing the vision. But actually making it happen where so many have failed? That could be a stretch.

That said, doing the unlikely and beating the odds is something she's done before.

Ailles likes telling a story: She's 14, and visiting Tim Horton's after school where her mom works. There are two ladies in line in front of her. One cuts in front, and the other starts yelling at her mom behind the counter, using offensive language and calling her racist names.

"I went up to the lady who was sitting down to eat, and said, 'You go and apologize, that's not how you talk to people.'

"She was blown away. She didn't think some 14-year-old girl, less than a hundred pounds, would stand up to her. But I did. And she went up to apologize."

As Ailles says, seven years later: "I believe the generation that I'm in is a very strong and willing generation."