How a cup of tea with an N.W.T. elder changed this man's life

·3 min read

Wilbert Cook says if someone like him can do it, anyone can.

The executive director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation marked national addictions awareness week by sharing how a woman from his home town of Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. turned his life around about 20 years ago.

"I was homeless. I was the type of guy passed out on the side of the road," he said in an interview with Loren McGinnis, host of CBC's The Trailbreaker.

When he was in the midst of his additions, he woke up one morning looking for something to drink. He didn't have a phone, so went over to his neighbour's home to call a bootlegger.

"She started talking to me. She never got mad at me. She never gossiped. She never complained. She never put me down," he said.

The elder was Alphonsine McNeely, a Sahtu Dene translator and women's advocate.

Randall McKenzie/CBC
Randall McKenzie/CBC

"She talked about herself, how she overcame alcohol, how she turned to the creator, turned her life around.

"And I never forgot that. That's the first time that anyone has really spoken to me, like as a person, instead of just being a drunk."

McNeely passed away last November. But her memory lives on in Cook, who now, through the foundation, helps others to heal.

"Healing is not a destination, it's a journey." - Wilbert Cook

Since their cup of tea, Cook said he has spent a lot of time with elders, attending traditional ceremonies. He said it helps him release whatever feelings he has.

Helping others

When asked once by someone why he keeps going, he said, it's because he needs it.

"I go to ceremonies because I'm weak. I need help. I always need help, healing is not a destination, it's a journey," he said.

His journey included going back to school, studying political science and economics, which at first, he felt, didn't necessarily qualify him to head up the wellness foundation.

Peter Sheldon/CBC
Peter Sheldon/CBC

He was approached about working for it while at a ceremony. He was interviewed and offered the job.

"I'm a small part of the team. The real backbone of the foundation is executing. They're just a wonderful, beautiful group of people to work with," he said.

What makes it even more special, he said, is the healing camp the foundation runs in Yellowknife.

Cook said over the past few months, the number of people who can attend has been restricted to 15, including staff.

He said there's been a slight decline in local clients coming out, but there's also been a huge increase of clients who want to come in from out of town.

"I don't know whether it's due to the fact that there's a lot more isolation in the communities because of limited travel south, so it probably weighs heavy on people. And it gives people more time at home maybe to reflect upon their lives," he said.

"And, you know, they come to the realization that maybe they need help and they want come get help, and thankfully our name has really gotten out there in a positive way.

"It makes our heart swell with pride when they say we're going to recommend your camp to other people."