A spirit of openness

Johnny Brass overflows with wisdom. It pours out of him. So much so that he couldn’t help but to take this journalist and a photographer aside at a recent media event at the Jackson Lake Healing Camp.

Johnny Brass overflows with wisdom. It pours out of him.

So much so that he couldn’t help but to take this journalist and a photographer aside at a recent media event at the Jackson Lake Healing Camp and share the words of his ancestors, for almost an hour, around a campfire.

His willingness to speak freely is disarming. He is not afraid of reporters.

When you fear something, a piece of you hides behind that fear, said Brass. Until you embrace your fear, you will not know your whole self. His uncle told him that.

A spirit of openness is key to his work with people who struggle with addiction.

“All of the people that we work with, that I work with, I get the very best of who they are. They share their vulnerabilities, or they share their hardships in life. Or they’ll share their successes, too. I just feel very grateful to be in that position to have that trust.”

Brass has worked at the Kwanlin Dun First Nations’ Jackson Lake Healing Camp for four years.

Since 2010 the First Nation has offered four-week addictions treatment programs at its beautiful property off of Fish Lake Road, just outside of Whitehorse. The idea is to blend conventional clinical treatment with First Nation spirituality in a setting that takes people away from unhelpful environments and encourages a connection to the land.

The program is open to all Yukoners. Full evaluation reports from sessions delivered to date are available on the First Nation’s website.

Brass is originally from the Key First Nation in Saskatchewan. He is a community outreach worker with the newly minted Jackson Lake Wellness Team, which has a new space in a renovated home in the McIntyre Village.

The media event on Monday celebrated a three-year funding agreement with the Yukon government that will allow for more sessions of lands-based addictions treatment at Jackson Lake, and will allow Brass and his team more resources to provide programming and services before and after treatment.

Before this year, there was no formal aftercare for people graduating from the Jackson Lake program.

That was a problem.

On Monday journalists were shown a video about the treatment program, and it followed the story of Jack Bougaard, one of the participants.

He was a full-blown alcoholic by 14, according to the video.

“I was getting sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I needed a place to go to surrender myself, to find myself again.”

The treatment helped him to start to find his soul again and start to work with his trauma, he said. But lack of formal support outside the program made going back to town a difficult proposition.

“There’s no aftercare out there. You end up leaving kind of hurt and distraught, or something, right? And it’s really hard for a person like myself to go, ‘Wow, you know what? I’ve got to go back into society, and OK, I know I’ve got to avoid this place, and I’ve got to avoid these people, and I know where my safety is.’”

Bougaard relapsed after being diagnosed with intestinal cancer. A two-week drinking binge ended with him being found half frozen in a snowbank. He was in intensive care for two weeks after.

The video’s honest portrayal of ongoing struggles with alcoholism also at odds with what promotional material usually looks like.

It was produced by Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill, formerly a CBC reporter. Bill promised during her election campaign in February that she would bring more openness and transparency to the First Nation government.

The Jackson Lake treatment program has garnered interest from around the world, she said in an interview Monday.

It was important for the video to give an open and honest look at what the program actually looks like, she said.

“We want people to know that rehab is difficult, any kind of rehab, it doesn’t matter.”

The video also emphasizes the need for ongoing supports outside of the program.

“The outreach can’t just be confined to Jackson Lake, it needs to extend out into our community,” said Bill.

Bougaard is doing better today, although he still struggles.

“I learnt about my tools at Jackson Lake. And it’s a decision to make, about how to use those tools properly,” he said in the video.

Bougaard talks about the importance of having someone to call around the clock. That person is Phil Gatensby, a member of the Jackson Lake team, who made himself available for aftercare support on a volunteer basis.

Now Gatensby’s role in aftercare has been formalized, as he is the cultural counsellor with the new Jackson Lake Wellness Team. That doesn’t mean his phone gets shut off at 5 p.m.

“We come any time. If something happens, we’re there,” he said Tuesday at the office space at 21 McCrimmon Crescent in McIntyre.

“It’s like a chronically open house,” added Colleen Geddes, the team co-ordinator. “We’re always here, we’re always available.”

When the next treatment program begins in July of this year, participants will be able to plan for their aftercare with counsellors before they leave Jackson Lake.

There is an office space they can go to with familiar faces offering support and guidance. And some of the cultural and spiritual programming that makes Jackson Lake different from other treatment programs will be available close to home.

Jackson Lake does things differently than conventional rehab, because the formal system isn’t working, said Gatensby.

Conventional rehab programming discourages forming relationships with people, but the wellness team has banished the word “client,” he said.

“We develop relationships with people. That’s how support works.”

While Gatensby explained the group’s philosophy in the cozy living room space of the team’s new office, a puppy next door howled, protesting being left outside alone.

“The one thing the puppy doesn’t like is to be separate, and nobody likes that either,” he said.

“All things want connection. Gosh, willows don’t grow by themselves, they grow in bunches, right?

“Willows grow together so they’ll support each other. When the strong wind comes, they’ll just lean on each other and none of them will be broken.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at


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