N.W.T. looks to local solution for mental health services gap in Tsiigehtchic

The Northwest Territories government says it's hoping to recruit someone locally to fill a community wellness worker position that's been vacant since late December 2017.

The last community wellness worker in Tsiigehtchic left in December

The N.W.T. government says it plans to fill a vacant community wellness worker position in Tsiigehtchic by hiring someone locally through a regional recruitment program. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

After seven months of trying to hire a mental health worker in a tiny Western Arctic community, the Northwest Territories government is trying a new approach.

The last community wellness worker in Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., left in late December 2017. Two job postings for the position in the 160-person community have not resulted in a successful hire, N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority spokesperson David Maguire said in an email. 

The government now plans to try hiring someone locally through a regional recruitment program.

It's a marvellous idea…. All they need to do is ask for my help and I will help any way I can.- Larry Dalley, Tsiigehtchic SAO

Through the program, the government would put out an expression of interest to find someone in the community "with the ability and willingness to become trained as a community wellness worker through a combination of mentorship and formal training," said Maguire.

"This option would limit recruitment to within the community, with the hope that finding a successful candidate locally will reduce turnover."

Maguire said this vacancy seems to be a bit longer than the norm, but it's not highly unusual. Hiring and retention for critical jobs in Canada's remote northern communities has long been considered a challenge.

The regional recruitment process started in 2014 as a way to solve that problem by increasing local employment, hiring more northern and diverse candidates, and improving retention.

The recruitment process for the position in Tsiigehtchic is expected to start by August, Maguire said.

'It's coming to me as a surprise'

Tsiigehtchic's senior administrative officer, Larry Dalley, said the new efforts are welcome news, although he added, "It's coming to me as a surprise."

The community had gone so far as to secure funding from the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs within the past two weeks for programming at its wellness centre, which is set to include "programs that deal with mental health," Dalley said.

Dalley added that Tsiigehtchic has also been considering bringing in mental health professionals from outside the community to fill what it considers to be a mental health service gap.

He said the community will continue with that plan until he has a conversation with health officials that, he expects, "certainly might change things."

Currently there are four community wellness workers in the N.W.T.'s Mackenzie Delta.

They create workshops or groups about mental health and family violence, screen people's suitability for counselling and can also do some "supportive counselling" themselves, said Maguire.

But they are different than community counsellors, who have master's degrees and provide short and long-term outpatient treatment, addictions counselling and therapy.

The Beaufort Delta has 10 community counsellors, two of whom are supervisors. None of them are in Tsiigehtchic.

Maguire told CBC News that until a community wellness worker is found for Tsiigehtchic, two workers from Fort McPherson are covering the gaps. 

But Dalley said he was "not aware" that mental health workers outside the community were currently assigned to cover Tsiigehtchic.

Dalley said he was happy to hear the department was investing in his community.

"It's a marvellous idea," he said. "I will promote it and I will support it 100 per cent — all they need to do is ask for my help and I will help any way I can."