MMIWG hearings shed light on lack of mental health services in Canada's north

As the MMIWG inquiry heard heartbreaking testimony about struggles with poverty, addiction and abuse, those very problems were playing out a few blocks away in Yellowknife's downtown core.

Families testified about struggles with poverty, addiction, abuse and violence

Lydia Bardak runs an outreach program in downtown Yellowknife, trying to help those who have fallen through the cracks and are stuck in a vicious cycle of addiction, poverty and violence. (Briar Stewart/CBC News)

Three commissioners at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls spent three days last week in Yellowknife listening to heartbreaking testimony about loss and grief. 

While each family told its own story, they all echoed the same struggles. 

There was talk of poverty, rampant addiction, physical and emotional abuse and, in many of the cases, horrific violence. 

As these themes emerged over and over at the hotel ballroom where the hearings were held, those very problems were playing out a few blocks away in Yellowknife's downtown core. 

"This is ground zero," says Lydia Bardak, who helps run a street outreach program in the community.

She walks through Yellowknife's downtown mall on a bitterly cold afternoon to check on some of the city's most vulnerable.

She runs into many familiar faces, who are there trying to escape the –25 C weather. Most greet her with slurred speech, and a stale smell of alcohol hangs in the air. 
Yellowknife Street Outreach operates this van in the afternoons and evenings, picking up people who need rides or have nowhere to go. The patrol tries to make sure no one is sleeping outside in the winter. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

"It's heartbreaking," she says.

"So often we talk about alcohol being the problem, but alcohol is actually the solution — it's what people are doing to self-medicate."

Nowhere to go

Bardak does what she can to help those who have fallen through the cracks and are stuck in a vicious cycle.

In the afternoons and evenings, she and her team drive around the city in an old RCMP police wagon they've converted into an outreach van. 

She picks up people on the streets and tries to get them to a safe, warm place. She gives them rides to shelters and to court appearances, which she sometimes even attends with them. 

She says violence has become normalized here because people are consumed by mental health issues and addiction. 

The Northwest Territories has the second highest rate of family violence in the country, after Nunavut, according to a Statistics Canada report for 2016, the most recent year for which data are available.

It's become a tragic, repetitive theme at the MMIWG inquiry. 

Families testify

On Wednesday, Jayda Andre tearfully recounted how her 22-year old sister Joni was killed by her husband, Stanley Itsi, in 2004 while living in Fort McPherson, a small hamlet 120 kilometres south of Inuvik.

Andre said her whole family knew that Joni was in a abusive relationship, but they accepted it because they didn't know what to do.

Joni Andre was killed by her husband, Stanley Itsi, in 2004. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentence to 8 years in jail. (Submitted/Jayda Andre)

"Maybe this would have been different. Maybe we all could have got help sooner," she said during her testimony.

"It was crazy how there was really no professionals there."

According to a 2017 report by the Aurora Research Institute, 85 per cent of communities in the N.W.T. don't have shelters, and 80 per cent don't have access to victims' services.

Lack of shelters 

Many women from remote communities end up in Yellowknife, where frontline workers say they are met with a lack of affordable housing and can end up in an emergency shelter. 

"There is a lot of women who are here because of breakups in relationships and violent domestic partnerships," says Bree Denning, executive director of Yellowknife Women's Society. 

The organization runs a shelter that's only meant to be temporary accommodation, but Denning admits that some of few dozen occupants have been there for years because they don't have any other options.

"A lot of women have given up," she says.

"We make it so hard for them."

Bree Denning, executive director of Yellowknife Women's Society, says many of the women who stay in this emergency shelter have addictions. They are allowed to consume alcohol on-site. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

She says many of the women struggle with mental health issues, and the waiting list to see a counsellor can be up to three months long.

She says some people are told that they have to travel to Edmonton, some 1,400 kilometres away, in order to get the support they need, which she believes is unfair because it forces them to leave their homes and be away from family and friends.

Healing the men

The lack of support services for women in the N.W.T. was continually brought up at the national inquiry this week, but Lydia Bardak believes the conversation should be much broader. 

"I know we want to focus on the women," she says, "but the women are asking for help for their men."

She says sheltering a woman from an abusive relationship is a start, but there has to be a focus on preventing the trauma in the first place. 

 She frequently speaks with men in custody who have witnessed and suffered abuse as children and later became violent as adults, which is why she says programs need to focus on helping them.

"Because if we want to keep the women and children safe, we have to heal the men."

About the Author

Briar Stewart is a senior reporter with CBC News. For more than a decade, she has been covering stories for television, radio and online. She is based in Vancouver and can be reached at or on Twitter @briarstewart