'I needed this journey': Inuk artist thanks Yellowknife healing camp

After a year attending and working at the Yellowknife healing camp, renowned artist Inuk Charlie says he's ready to go home.

On-the-land camp allows people to work at their own pace toward healing

Inuk Charlie spent about a year visiting the on-the-land wellness camp in Yellowknife. He now says he feels ready to go home to Nunavut. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

After spending nearly a year visiting the on-the-land healing camp in Yellowknife, renowned artist Inuk Charlie says he is ready to return home to Nunavut. 

"The last couple of years my spirit's been calling me back to ... my homeland, my territory," Charlie told CBC News. He plans to return to Kugaaruk to be closer to his children and grandchildren. 

CBC North radio show The Trailbreaker has interviewed Charlie multiple times over the past several months, checking in on his progress at the camp. 

"I needed this journey. This camp allowed me to recognize where I need to work at a pace that I need to work with," he said. 

Listen: Inuk Charlie shares his story of healing

Charlie was born on the land in what is now Nunavut, and watched his family struggle after being moved into communities by the government. He spent his childhood in residential school in Inuvik, N.W.T.

"Many of us suffer a lot of trauma. For most people it just gets suppressed," he said. "Anything that you suppress is still there. It needs to come out because until you put them out, put everything out on the table and deal with it, it's not going to go away."

Charlie is well known as a master carver, but hasn't been carving for several years. Recently, he has been feeling well enough to get back to carving. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Charlie gained renown as a master carver throughout the 1980s and '90s, and is perhaps best known for his work carving diamonds and working with precious metals. He is one of six artists who collaborated to craft the ceremonial Mace of Nunavut, unveiled when that territory separated from the N.W.T. in 1999. 

Charlie says that when former prime minister Stephen Harper issued a public apology to former students of residential schools in 2008, it triggered trauma he had buried from growing up at residential school in Inuvik. Following that apology, Charlie spiraled, drinking too much and eventually he stopped carving. 

He was inspired by former N.W.T. premier Stephen Kakfwi coming forward to speak publicly about his trauma after attending residential school in Inuvik. Charlie says he identified with Kakfwi as someone who was able to achieve success while still feeling broken and trying to avoid his demons. 

"We do a lot of great things. I ended up [getting the] Queen's Diamond Jubilee even though I had all these issues," said Charlie, about receiving the prestigious award.

"We achieved the level that we desire to. But that trauma ... becomes more suppressed and it needs to come out."

Yellowknife wellness camp counsellor William Greenland tends the fire inside a teepee at the camp this past spring. The camp opened in April 2018 and a new four-month pilot project aims to reach people on the streets downtown earlier in the day. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

The Arctic Indigenous Foundation's on-the-land wellness camp has been in operation since April 2018. Its intended purpose is to be a healthy, safe space for people to gather and enjoy traditional medicine, food and other practices. 

Late last month, the City of Yellowknife partnered with the foundation to fund a four-month pilot project to have traditional counsellors working downtown in the early mornings and provide transportation out to the camp by 7 a.m., in order to give people on the street a better way to start their days. 

Charlie said he is grateful to have found the wellness camp, where healing can go at one's own pace and doesn't have to follow a set schedule. After several months working at the camp, he travelled south for a treatment program in B.C. 

Now, he says he is ready to go home — and to start carving again. 

"I'm grateful that I know this place that it took me to the ... journey that I needed to go through," he said. "Not just being sober, but I'm ready to ...  take on where I left my footprints in Nunavut."

Written by Laura Busch, based on interviews by Loren McGinnis