'I really don't want to end up back on the street': Aurora Village healing camp to close next week

The popular tourist destination was turned into a healing camp in November for those who are homeless and struggling with addiction. Many of the guests CBC News spoke with, described it as life changing. But that might all come to an end on April 7, when the healing camp is scheduled to close. 

Healing camp is likely to close on April 7, a week after the federal funding supporting it runs out

Tony Kakfwi, left, and Cassien Kaskamin said the Aurora Village healing camp has housed them and helped them heal. But both are worried about what they will do if the camp comes to a close on April 7. (Travis Burke/CBC)

The inside of Tony Kakfwi's teepee includes a wood stove emanating warmth, a couple beds, a table cluttered with beading materials, a crackling radio and a few chairs. 

It's a clean space, but more importantly, it's a space to heal. 

He's been living at a healing camp for those who are homeless and struggling with addiction, run out of Aurora Village— a tourist destination 15 km outside Yellowknife — where, before the pandemic, visitors could warm up in teepees and watch the northern lights.

Kakfwi sits beside Cassien Kaskamin, both were at one time homeless, but the teepees at Aurora Village have become their homes and the other guests have become their community. 

Ken Colcomb, left, said he's struggled with addiction, but he's found the Aurora Village healing camp to be one of the best experiences of his life. Cassien Kaskamin, right, said he's been on the managed alcohol program at the camp, which has helped him reduce his dependence. (Travis Burke/CBC)

"This camp is one of the best things that's happened to me personally," said Ken Colcomb.

Nicole Bonnetrouge, another guest, said the camp "opens up a lot of doors." 

"Our sharing circles and our counselling sessions are important, it's a really beautiful place," she said. 

Nicole Bonnetrouge, left, and her partner Cassien Kaskamin. Bonnetrouge said the camp has helped the guests deal with past trauma and is providing them with opportunities, including employment. (Travis Burke/CBC)

But that might all come to an end on April 7, when the healing camp is scheduled to close. 

"I really don't know where to go," said Kakfwi, "I really don't want to end up back on the street again."

Kaskamin agreed.

"If anybody else could help us out, you know, because yeah, it's not good sleeping in the stairwell. It's not good sleeping in the tent. And, you know, I just really appreciate this place."

On-the-land healing

The camp houses between 20 to 25 guests and focuses on traditional knowledge and skills. 

Wilbert Menacho teaches those skills. He's an elder on site, originally from Tulita, N.W.T. 

Wilbert Menacho is an elder-on-site at the Aurora Village healing camp. He said the traditional on-the-land activities such as trapping, fishing and sledding help the guests heal from their trauma. (Travis Burke/CBC)

He provides guidance and listens to the guests' stories. He understands them, having lived on the streets himself. 

"What we're trying to do is just to really get back to their culture ... The way of living as Aboriginal people and our ancestors always say that the land, that's a healing place."

Some of the traditional skills the camp teaches include ice chiselling, trapping, fishing and sledding. 

"They say, 'Oh yeah, I remember, I remember doing those things when I was young.' So their memories go back to their youth and on the land stuff instead of focus on drinking," he said. 

Marie Speakman of Délı̨nę, N.W.T. is a counselor at the camp.

"It's not like other places," she said. 

Marie Speakman is a counselor at the healing camp. She said she has seen several guests transition into a sober and healthy life in the four months it has run for. (Luke Carroll/CBC)

"It's out here on the land, they can see the trees, the snow, the land, they can go for walks." 

One-on-one counselling is available to the guests and the days typically end with a sharing circle and occasional fire-feeding ceremony. 

Managed alcohol program

The camp runs something called a managed alcohol program

This means guests struggling with alcohol or drug addiction will receive a certain amount of alcohol each day, an amount that decreases over time.

The guests are able to gradually become less dependent. Kaskamin said it's been working for him. 

Trevor Teed, the lands and environment director for Dene Nation and a key member of the operations of the camp, said those who can manage to stay sober were actually provided temporary employment with Aurora Village. 

Don Morin, the owner of Aurora Village and former N.W.T. premier, said he saw firsthand how the camp helped the guests. 

Michael Fatt, Don Morin, Norman Yakeleya, Be'sha Blondin, Wilbert Cook and Trevor Teed at Aurora Village on Dec. 2, 2021, a week after the launch of an on-the-land healing camp on the site. They represent the organizations that are collaborating to run the camp. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)

Camp funded as COVID-19 prevention 

The camp was funded by the federal government for $2.8 million over about a four-month period. It's run by a collaboration between Dene Nation, the Crazy Indians Brotherhood, the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation and Aurora Village.

Teed said a large part of that funding went toward wages: The camp needs staff working 24/7 to ensure the wood stoves in each of the teepees keep the guests warm while they sleep, as well as to provide any health and safety needs. 

The funding came from a program aimed at protecting the homeless population from COVID-19,  something Teed said they succeeded at so far. 

However, as the funding comes to an end, COVID-19 continues to spread in the N.W.T.; as of Tuesday evening there were over 280 active cases in Yellowknife alone, which is where most of the guests live. 

The funding from the federal government will run out on March 31. After that, Teed said Dene Nation will fund one more week of services. 

Teed said Dene Nation would like to continue the program, but needs funding to do so. 

Megan MacLean, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said in an email that the federal government is "considering options for additional funding" for the program that financed the camp. 

Teed said there is hope that more funding could be extended for programs like this due to the new Liberal-NDP agreement, but is waiting for the next federal budget, which is scheduled for the day the camp is set to close.

The teepees at Aurora Village have housed some of Yellowknife's most vulnerable since November. But the healing camp, that was established to protect the individuals from COVID-19, will close without further funding, even as the N.W.T. deals with ongoing spread of the virus. (Travis Burke/CBC)

'No funding available' from N.W.T. gov't

The territorial government hasn't provided any funding for the initiative.

A spokesperson for the health and social services department said resources are too limited right now, due to the pandemic and staffing shortages. 

The spokesperson said staff visited the site to learn about the program and appreciated the work that was done. 

Back in Kakfwi's teepee, the wood stove continues to burn. 

He said his home in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., is no longer livable and if the camp closes, he's not sure where he will go. 

Kakfwi said he appreciates how far he has come, thanks to the camp, and just hopes his wellness journey can continue. 

With files from Travis Burke