Nunavut-based addictions facility a long-term goal, says health minister

Nunavut's health minister says the government is focusing on providing support for people who return from addiction treatment facilities in the south, as building a facility in the territory is a long way off.

Government currently focusing on supporting people returning from facilities in south

Nunavut's health minister says the government is focusing on providing support for people who return from mental health and addiction treatment facilities in the south, as building a facility in the territory is a longer-term goal. 

"Our focus for the time being is to have a strong foundation at the local level so the hard work that they do at the facility is not lost when they return to the same environment," said Paul Okalik.

Paul Okalik, Nunavut's health minister, says the territory is laying the foundation to one day build a mental health and addictions treatment centre for Inuit in the North. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

He said the territory is laying the foundation to one day build a treatment centre for Inuit.

"I want it to be in a smaller community where the supports are there, where the culture is very strong, and the language is strong," said Okalik.

He pointed to Clyde River as an ideal example of a small community with strong language and cultural roots where a healing centre based on traditional methods would thrive.

Okalik said the previous treatment centre located in Nunavut was a failure.

"They were down to one client, so it was not sustainable at the time," said Okalik.

"Once we have the foundation in place we'll be sure to open a facility here."

Okalik's statements follows the announcement by Tungasuvvingat Inuit, the organization that runs Ottawa's Mamisarvik Healing Centre, that it will shut down unless it secures $1 million in annual funding by the end of March.

"I met with the executive in November and my department had committed to providing funds to assist them from January to March of this year," said Okalik.

Okalik said the Government of Nunavut will not be providing any additional funding to keep Mamisarvik open but added that he met with Ontario's Minister of Health to ask for assistance for the Ottawa centre.

"He was very open to providing support, additional support in the future," said Okalik.

In an email to CBC, the Ontario health ministry said it did not fund or use the services provided by the Mamisarvik Healing Centre. It said the ministry had recently met with Tungasuvvingat Inuit and is planning to meet with it again "as part of the development of the Mental Health and Addictions Strategy to hear their advice and recommendations on services for the Inuit population."

Okalik said the GN also has contracts with 11 other facilities in southern Canada that provide services to people in need of substance abuse counselling.

Offered expertise

Jason Leblanc, executive director of Tungasuvvingat Inuit, said his group has offered its help to the Nunavut government as it works toward building a treatment facility.

"We've offered some of our expertise to support that and worked with partners within the government to build capacity and identify where Inuit could access mental health services in their own community," said Leblanc.

Leblanc said with a completion rate of close to 80 per cent for their eight-week treatment program, the program at Mamisarvik has been a success worth emulating.

He said the program includes elements based on traditional Inuit knowledge such as working with elders and an on-the-land component.

Leblanc added that the success of Mamisarvik's models can be seen in testimonies from past participants and the low incidents of suicides in former clients.

"In reviewing the list of past clients to the best of our ability we could only identify three individuals who had subsequent to completing the program gone on to die of suicide," said Leblanc, adding that three people is less than 0.5 per cent of their clients.   

"Of course that is three too many, it's a tragedy."

With files from John Van Dusen