New leader takes reins of Indigenous health group in Yellowknife

Wilbert Cook, executive director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, had been on the job for less than two weeks when he spoke with CBC News at the foundation’s Healing Camp last Friday. 

Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation aims to start construction of its stand-alone wellness centre in 2020

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation's healing camp has been open since April 2018. (Randall McKenzie CBC)

A new director has taken the reins of the organization leading the charge on traditional healing services in Yellowknife, as work continues toward building a stand-alone Indigenous wellness centre in 2020. 

Wilbert Cook, executive director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, had been on the job for less than two weeks when he spoke with CBC News at the foundation's Healing Camp last Friday. 

"At times it feels heavy with responsibility," said Cook about his new job. "So I come out here to the camp to get grounded and do some debriefing. But it is with a lot of humility and respect that I take on this position." 

"I want to continue the legacy that was started," said Cook. "And one of the big things was to start work on a timeline and a work plan for a wellness facility for the people." 

Cook and others with the organization said construction on the facility should begin in 2020. 

To make that happen, major work remains to be done, including securing funding partners and finalizing an arrangement for a lot near the hospital from the territorial government. 

Wilbert Cook is the new executive director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

"I can confirm that we have had preliminary discussions with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation (AIWF) to explore options for incorporating an Indigenous Wellness Centre in the suite of integrated services on the Stanton health campus," Department of Health spokesperson Damien Healy stated in an email. 

He said it was too early in the process to say what type of lease agreement or memorandum of understanding could be reached for the lot or when. 

Stand-alone Indigenous Wellness Centre 

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation was formed in 2017 by founders Be'sha Blondin, Rassi Nashalik and naturopath Nicole Redvers to create a Northern Indigenous wellness centre in Yellowknife, after plans to build one with the new Stanton Territorial Hospital stalled. 

"We don't have anything in the North that specifically addresses the health needs, the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people in the North," said Donald Prince, the foundation's outgoing executive director. "The wellness centre was planned or talked about to meet those needs." 

The wellness centre would be a stand-alone building that would offer alternative therapies, like access to Northern Indigenous healers and ceremony, and promote medical and emotional healing, either as a compliment or alternative to western healing, said Prince. 

Prince recently moved away from Yellowknife. He said he plans to stay involved with the foundation for a few months to aid with the transition. 

Francois Paulette is a member of the foundation's Elders' Circle. He was also the chair of Stanton Hospital's Elders Council before that group was dismissed by the territorial government. 

"To this day, I am still unsure of why the GNWT disbanded the Elders Council," he said. 

"The next step is to begin to, we've had two or three visioning workshops with architects from the University of Toronto who come up to help, to design a building," said Paulette. "To move ahead, to move ahead, we need the support of the government. The government has a resolution to support the creation of a wellness centre, they should put some energy into it, they should put money into it.

"We're talking about reconciliation, let's move ahead. Again, I want to say my message: Stanton Hospital, please reinstate the Elders Council. That's needed." 

William Greenland is a counsellor at the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation's healing camp in Yellowknife. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Indigenous wellness at the new Stanton Hospital 

When the new $350-million Stanton Hospital opened last May, the government committed to including Indigenous wellness services. The hospital's program involved one full-time elder on staff, at least four Indigenous wellness workers, and traditional foods. 

David Maguire, spokesperson for the territorial Health Authority, confirmed these promises are being followed up on. 

There is a full-time Elder In Residence, along with one supervisor for the Indigenous Wellness Program, and four full-time Indigenous patient liaisons currently employed at the hospital. 

Smudging is only allowed in the new hospitals 'sacred space' room with special ventilation. Maguire confirmed the room is being used, with plans to schedule a weekly smudging ceremony. 

The traditional foods program was launched in August and one traditional meal is provided to patients per week by request, "with the goal to expand and improve this program based on feedback." 

A look inside the elders tent at the on-the-land healing camp in Yellowknife. (Laura Busch CBC)

City eyes Healing Camp lot for new aquatic facility 

The City of Yellowknife owns the lot where the on-the-land Healing Camp is located. 

Senior Administrative Officer Sheila Bassi-Kellett confirmed that the lot is one of two being looked at for the City's proposed aquatic facility. 

However, she stressed it is early days in that project, and that even if the lot was selected, she is confident there would be a way to accommodate both facilities. 

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation and the City of Yellowknife have a Memorandum of Understanding for the foundation's use of the land for its healing camp. That memorandum expires this coming spring. 

 "There's an opportunity for renewal. We're interested in that conversation with them," said Bassi-Kellett. 

William Greenland is a counsellor at the healing camp.

He says the camp has been busy ever since it opened, and hopes to see it expand in the future and include travelling to other communities, where services like what is provided at the camp are needed. 

"I always say to people, 'When you come out to the camp, you're not going to be miraculously healed, but we'll help you on your healing journey," said Greenland.