Apenam's House addictions treatment facility in North West River closes its doors

Stephen Penashue opened up his home in Sheshatshiu to others in recovery.  (Submitted by Stephen Penashue  - image credit)
Stephen Penashue opened up his home in Sheshatshiu to others in recovery. (Submitted by Stephen Penashue - image credit)

Stephen Penashue says he wouldn't be where he is today without the support of others.

In August, he was part of the last graduating class to complete a six-week program at Apenam's House, a residential addictions treatment facility in North West River.

"This one was bittersweet because it was the last one in that building," Penashue said.

The residential treatment facility — named after a respected Innu advocate for addictions treatment — closed its doors this summer due to health concerns surrounding the building.

Kristin Sellon, the facility's former manager and daughter of the late Apenam Pone, said the last day of the program, Aug. 2, was an emotional one.

"It still makes myself and my co-worker almost tear up because you know how badly it was needed," she said.

Sellon said the building they rented for the treatment facility in North West River wasn't healthy for clients, despite efforts to find ways to make it work.

She said Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation decided they could no longer be in the building, which had mould, a leaky roof and a sewer backup.

Positive impact 

Until the pandemic, Apenam's House, which opened in 2015, operated continuously for five years, offering not only a residential treatment program for clients but also a safe place for people to drop in to have a cup of coffee and to get support.

Sellon says a few hundred people went through Apenam's House with at least half completing a 90-day residential program that was modelled on the Brentwood Recovery Home in Windsor, Ont.

There were many successes.

The residential treatment program helped kids reunite with their families, and allowed those who'd otherwise be in the Labrador Correctional Centre to serve sentences while getting addictions treatment.

Bailey White/CBC
Bailey White/CBC

Parents whose children were removed by social services, after going through the program to tackle their addictions, not only got their children back — the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development asked them to help out as foster parents, Sellon said.

"Those are 'gold star' parents. Like those people, no matter their crisis, no matter how hard it's been, I look at them as inspiration," Sellon said.

While men's and women's groups meetings take place at the Mary May Healing Centre, she said a residential treatment addictions program is urgently needed.

Overcoming addictions 

The facility was named after the late Apenam Pone, and it was his dream to have a residential treatment program so people didn't have to travel out of Labrador to seek help.

Apenam Pone was the first Innu man to attend the program at Brentwood in Windsor, Sellon said, and what he learned during his time there, he brought back to Labrador to help others who were also struggling with addictions.

Just hearing the words, 'Daddy, I love you.' It's a good feeling, especially while sober. - Stephen Penashue 

Sellon is now working as a mental health co-ordinator for Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation.

She says her father believed treatment and counselling didn't have to happen in one place, and it's why he went hunting or took others out for a drive because it was about having a human connection.

He infused Innu culture and language with a Western-approach to treatment, a philosophy he brought with him when he also worked in the justice system.

Sellon said her father — who was nicknamed "Tiger" — was dedicated to helping others because he had battled his own addictions.

"He wasn't afraid to attack your disease, and he wasn't afraid to put you in your place. But he was very confident, that if he was there for you, you would get it, and he was going to do whatever he could," Sellon said.

"He lived by the belief that 'if I can do, then you can do it,'" she said.

Dry house, a first of its kind 

Before graduating from the last treatment program at Apenam's House, Penashue knew that support needed to continue after the program ended in August.

He opened up his own house for others in recovery to stay with him, and it's something that's never been done before in Sheshatshiu, he said.
"I didn't want to go home alone, and I knew that if I had people to support me and help me out, that I would do good in my recovery. That's one of the reasons why I opened up the dry house," he said.

After Penashue and his friends talked about living together and being sober together, he says, more than a dozen people stayed at the dry house the night before they all headed over to Apenam's House for the last day of the addictions program.

Submitted by Shannon Tobin
Submitted by Shannon Tobin

Penashue says the plan is to help people transition back into the community when they return from treatment programs, with support from the Mary May Healing Centre and from those who worked at Apenam's House.

"If I didn't open up the dry house, I wouldn't be sober. I'd still be out there because it's easy to fall back out there. It's hard for when you're in a community that's in constant struggle with addictions and grief," he said.

Being able to reach out and connect with others makes all the difference when he's struggling, he said, and people are asking when a residential treatment program will open again, as having a place for people to feel safe is important.

Healing lodge

Chief Eugene Hart says Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation will be purchasing the Christian Youth Camp in Upper Lake Melville, with plans to build a healing lodge for a men's and women's residential treatment program.

Apenam's House had a positive impact, Hart said, noting children taken into care have returned home thanks to their parents getting help. And with the community still facing a suicide crisis, the chief said, a healing lodge is desperately needed by residents.

Hart said he had hoped work would start on the lodge by now but they're waiting for Crown land to be transferred to the First Nation.

It still makes myself and my co-worker almost tear up because you know how badly it was needed. - Kristin Sellon 


"We have to wait for the land to be settled by the province. It needs to be signed over to us. I even said to the premier, 'Can I build something there now?'" he said.

Hart says the premier told him the land transfer needs to be completed first.


In the meantime, Penashue who is about seven months sober, says he doesn't feel the need to turn to drugs and alcohol anymore — it's all about having people in his life and not doing it alone.

He says he's now able to be a father to his son again.

"To see him while I'm sober is a really good change for me. Just hearing the words, 'Daddy, I love you.' It's a good feeling, especially while sober," he said.

Earlier this week, Penashue started a new job as an Innu cultural support worker at First Light in St. John's.

He will be helping patients navigate the health-care system, he says, and checking in with the dry house in Sheshatshiu from time to time, lending his support from the sidelines.

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