On the shores of Cowper Lake, six adults move logs into a teepee. As they stabilize the structure with twine, an instructor tells the group how women in Indigenous communities were historically in charge of mounting the shelter.
The activity is one of many found in other Indigenous-run cultural camps throughout Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, but the participants of this 10-day camp are reconnecting with their Indigenous roots to heal from the struggles of addictions and substance abuse.
The camp is run by the Mark Amy Treatment Centre (MATC) at a location 30 minutes east of Janvier.. The program mixes cultural lessons with addiction treatment modules. Elders teach everything from trapping, drumming, foraging and drying meats. Family members are invited to join clients throughout the experience, but this is not necessary.
MATC’s programs, including the camp, have seen demand grow since the start of the COVID-19. The pandemic made 2020 the deadliest year for overdose deaths in Fort McMurray with 29 recorded deaths. The province’s most recent data for 2021 shows overdoses have killed three people as of May. Yet, treatment programs for addictions have had trouble keeping up with the sudden demand.
“There are always limitations when you go rural service versus a city centre,” said Cassie Gensorek, a MATC counsellor who would like to see more community-based approaches to treating addictions locally. “We have more people reaching out over the phone for support, through our social media platforms, phoning in need of counselling during a crisis, somebody to talk to in that moment.”
The increase is not limited to the region’s rural and Indigenous communities. Fort McMurray’s Ross Residence program has a packed waiting list for its two sober-living facilities for men. Brian Ross, who opened the building more than three years ago after working as a MATC addiction counsellor, is considering opening a third facility.
“The stigma around [addictions] needs to be changed,” said Ross, who opened the facility because he felt he was sending too many people to sober living services in Edmonton.
“People make mistakes, people make bad choices. You see people taking pictures of our homeless here in Fort McMurray, saying this, that and the other, and it’s like, you are part of the problem. You’re keeping the stigma alive and not helping another human being.”
Ross argues those stigmas are stopping other sober living services from starting in the community. There are no sober living services exclusive to females in the region, either.
Christa Ryland, an overdose prevention nurse with Northreach Society, said an underserved segment of the population is working males between the ages of 25 and 49. This age cohort is also hesitant to access services when they’re available.
“I think because of the stigma that goes along with opioid addiction or drug use in general, we don’t often reach that population,” said Ryland. “There is a bit of a gap and so we try and get everyone to carry a Naloxone [overdose prevention] kit and be trained to use it.”
Alberta Health Services (AHS) runs the Fort McMurray Recovery Centre, which has 16 beds for people seeking treatment for fighting substance and gambling addictions. The Alberta government has pledged to fund 4,000 addiction and mental health treatment spaces across Alberta during the next four years.
“There needs to be more supportive resources, more discussion about addiction and more understanding,” said Gensorek. “Just highlighting the importance of [treatment] and creating supportive awareness around it is a fundamental aspect and will help communities heal together.”
If you need support or access to addiction resources, the AHS recommends contacting a family physician or calling the AHS Addiction Helpline at 1-866-332-2322.
-With files from Vincent McDermott
Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today