Community at a crossroads: Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. heals together

After two suicides this fall, followed by several attempts by young people, leaders in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., are determined to end the cycle of trauma and loss.

Sahtu community has organized numerous healing activities, asked for resources in wake of multiple tragedies

Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. The Sahtu community is reeling after two recent suicides and an incident where a gunman fired shots outside a community meeting. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Aglow in the light from a Christmas tree, Kenny Shae Sr. is grappling with losing his 29-year-old son, Gregory.

"I'm trying to wrap my head around it," said Shae.

"You can really feel the impact of him not being around anymore. He's there but he's not there."

Kenny Shae Sr., a Fort Good Hope resident, is grappling with the loss of his 29-year-old son. 'You can really feel the impact of him not being around anymore,' he said. (Kate Kyle/CBC)
Shae describes his son as "jolly" — a young man who liked volunteering, organizing youth sports and music.

Privately, he struggled, said the father.

"Being a residential school survivor, taken away at five, there's a lot of things I'm lacking as a parent, I think," he said. "I see a lot of young people without parents. Where their parents don't have enough time for them.

"How do we fix it?"

Fort Good Hope, a community of under 600 people, according to 2015 data from Statistics NWT, has been locked in a cycle of shock, grief and loss, according to many in the remote Sahtu community.

In 2014, a vicious attack left a young woman dead — the accused's sentencing is set for January.

Since the fall, two young men, including Gregory, have died by suicide, followed by several attempts by young people.

Last month, a gunman fired shots outside the band office, rattling people inside, who were discussing the community's struggles.

Healing resources, programs planned for community

"Personally, I feel we are at a crossroads," said Fort Good Hope Chief Wilfred McNeely Jr. "I'm hoping this is a turning point. People have to start asking themselves, what happened? And start talking with professionals."

Since the suicides, the community council has applied for more money to offer healing programs in the community and a pilot project to get youth at risk back on the land.

Wilfred McNeely Jr., Fort Good Hope's chief, is hoping for a return to liquor restrictions in Norman Wells, the Sahtu's largest community. McNeely says alcohol 'seems to be the common denominator' in many of the community's struggles. (Kate Kyle/CBC)
With support from the territorial government, it's bringing in an Indigenous healer to the community for several days a month for the next six months. The first sessions have already started.

The territorial government is also in the process of hiring another permanent, full-time, counselor for the community, raising the number to two.

"It seems like the purse has come open," but more long-term funding and a healing plan is needed, said McNeely, who also stresses the need for more jobs, training and housing.

And less booze.

Norman Wells, the largest community in the Sahtu, voted to lift the ration system at its liquor store in 2012.  Since then, McNeely says more alcohol has been flowing Fort Good Hope, an alcohol-restricted community.

"Almost 90 per cent of the medevacs leaving here is alcohol related. Our docket is almost 100 per cent alcohol related. We need to stop that alcohol from coming in here," said McNeely.

"Alcohol seems to be the common denominator in everything."

McNeely says all the Sahtu chiefs are in favour of bringing the liquor restrictions back.

'We want to inspire them in a different way'

In the meantime, Fort Good Hope's community council is working hard to keep young people busy and away from liquor by focusing on the positive.

The council has hosted a dinner for students who are going to post secondary school, sports events and entertainment, including a MuchMusic video dance party this week.

Fort Good Hope hosted a MuchMusic video dance party for community youth this week. 'We want to inspire them in a different way,' said Freda Kelly, the community's recreation coordinator. 'Make them more motivated, and let them know that life is important.' (Kate Kyle/CBC)
"The kids are very impacted by the stuff that's happened in the community," said Freda Kelly, the community's recreation coordinator.

"We want to inspire them in a different way. Make them more motivated and let them know that life is important."

Kenny Shae Sr. just wants people in his community to start talking — and ask for help, if they need it.

"You should always remember you are important to somebody. I always say just like my wife's sewing, everybody is like a stitch. There's a place in that sewing that they are put. But once that stitch is gone, it's noticed."

About the Author

Kate Kyle is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @_kate_kyle