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Indigenous-led detox and healing centre planned for Whitehorse

Participants at an Intergovernmental Forum in Ottawa this week, where the Council of Yukon First Nations, along with the territorial and federal governments, signed a letter of intent 'to confirm their commitment to collectively work toward the construction and operation of a Yukon First Nations-led Healing Centre.' (Council of Yukon First Nations/Facebook - image credit)

A new Indigenous-led detox and healing centre is being planned for the Whitehorse area, and the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) hopes to see it built within a few years.

This week in Ottawa, CYFN, along with the federal and territorial governments, signed a letter of intent "to confirm their commitment to collectively work toward the construction and operation of a Yukon First Nations-led Healing Centre," according to a news release.

Shadelle Chambers, executive director of CYFN, said the letter is significant as it helps get the project off the ground.

"It's an important first step I think, in ensuring that there is the political will to get the project started and rolling," Chambers said.

"There currently is not a residential treatment centre here in the Yukon led by Yukon First Nations. And we're often having to send people out of the Yukon or wait for long waiting periods."

The territory does have a public, live-in addiction treatment centre in Whitehorse, operated by the territorial government. The Sarah Steele Building, which replaced an older facility in 2016, can accommodate up to 50 clients at a time, divided between in-patient residential treatment and detox beds.

At the time of its opening, CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnston said the new Sarah Steel Building incorporated Indigenous culture and was very welcoming. He said it was unfortunate that many people in need of detox services were Indigenous.

That same year, Yukon recorded its first death associated with opioids and within a few years the territory would be grappling with the highest opioid death rate in Canada.

Shadelle Chambers, executive director of the Council of Yukon First Nations.
Shadelle Chambers, executive director of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

'We recognize that it's important to have support and services that are culturally safe and culturally appropriate,' said Shadelle Chambers, executive director of the Council of Yukon First Nations. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

The drug crisis appears to take a stronger hold of the territory each year. Last year, the Yukon government declared a substance use emergency, and some Yukon First Nations have also since declared their own local substance use emergencies.

Chambers said the Yukon needs more detox beds. The planned facility would have eight detox beds, and 20 residential treatment beds, she said.

"We recognize that it's important to have support and services that are culturally safe and culturally appropriate," she said.

"So what we need to ensure here in the Yukon is that there's options available for people to attend a variety of supports and services."

Premier Ranj Pillai, speaking in Ottawa this week, said the new facility would be a "significant piece of infrastructure" for the territory.

"It's something that's decades in the making," he said.

Estimated cost of $50 million

The letter signed this week does not include any firm details about the facility, its cost, location, or who will pay for it. The next step will be to form a working group to start figuring out some of those details, Chambers said.

She said the estimated cost is close to $50 million, and the goal is to see it built within three to five years.

"We need to identify land, and we also need to identify an operator for the facility. So really this is the first step in getting the priorities and parties together to identify the long term plan to get this built," she said.

The new facility will definitely be built in the Whitehorse area, she said. That's because any detox services need to be close to a hospital.

A view of downtown Whitehorse and the Yukon River, September 2021.
A view of downtown Whitehorse and the Yukon River, September 2021.

The new facility will ideally be built in the Whitehorse area, Chambers said. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Staff recruitment will also be a challenge, she said.

Chambers said a business analysis estimated the need for about 55 staff at the facility. Those people would be harder to find in a smaller community, she said.

"So we know it needs to be located close to Whitehorse. However, we know that we need to be connected to the land, out on the land," Chambers said.

"And so we are looking for a location close to Whitehorse, but you know, out on the land somewhere."