Kim Boss and Muskrat are alcoholics.
On a Sunday afternoon in April, the two are sitting at Boss’s kitchen table in the sparsely furnished Haines Junction apartment that social assistance pays for. Muskrat is chain-smoking and Kim is drinking coffee. Both are shaky from the night before.
Kim has lived in the apartment building for a year. She says it’s a daily struggle for her to deal with life in the building.
“It’s like a slum,” she says. “It’s like it’s condemned.”
The building has no security, not even locks on the doors. There are holes in the walls, and junk piles up outside on what passes for a lawn. Haines Junction’s only apartment building is notorious for parties and heavy drinking.
Boss says the cops stop by more regularly than some of the tenants, it seems. There are fights and frequent chaos. She says it’s not uncommon for people to climb the balconies from outside trying to get in looking for a party or to score some booze. It’s not exactly a supportive atmosphere for someone trying to get clean.
Boss also suffers from chronic back and joint pain, which makes it difficult to walk and excruciating to climb the two sets of stairs to her apartment.
She’s allergic to pain medication, so she drinks to take away the pain. She drinks when there are parties happening. She drinks every day.
Boss has tried to stop. Her latest attempt was this February, when she completed the 28-day treatment program in Whitehorse. She signed herself up voluntarily.
“It was great,” she says, “we spent time on the land. At circle (group support meetings) we all had so much that we were trying to forget. I have a lot to heal from.”
She proudly shows off photos from her time in treatment, on the land with a group of other addicts practising traditional bush skills and reconnecting with her heritage.
But as soon as she got out, it started over again.
“When we got back home, people were saying, ‘We got out! Let’s party!’ and they went to drink again,” she says.
With nowhere else to live, Boss moved back into the apartment building, back into an alcohol-laced environment where temptation and weakness are just behind her neighbours’ doors.
“When my son dropped me off here the day after treatment, I remember he said, ‘Mom, you’re not serious. This place?’ But what else was I supposed to do?”
As she speaks, Muskrat sits quietly at the table, continuing to smoke but hardly speaking. He hasn’t tried treatment – figures it’s not worth the effort.
There’s a knock at the door. Before Boss can invite her caller in, three men clamour in, laughing. One says his name is Steve (not his real name). The others decline to give their names. A straggler enters the apartment but doesn’t say a word, walking through the kitchen and making a bee-line for the balcony where he spends five minutes throwing up over the railing.
The group exchanges pleasantries, and Steve starts talking about his own struggles.
Like most Yukon communities, Haines Junction has virtually no aftercare and little support for alcoholics fresh from treatment. Those, like Steve, who try treatment come to Whitehorse for a month, sober up, and go right back to their old environment again.
“I sobered up for a few weeks, but now I’m drinking again, pretty heavily,” Steve says.
Before Boss lived in the apartment building, she was living at the Glacier View Inn, but she said the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations government moved her to the apartment building because the rent is cheaper. Things weren’t much better at the Glacier View, but at least she wasn’t surrounded by parties and living just down the street from the liquor store.
Boss says she’s been homeless over the years as well, couch surfing when she has nowhere else to go. Right now, she says there are about 10 homeless people in Haines Junction, many of them alcoholics. The others nod in agreement.
Cheryle Patterson has seen how damaging the move was for Boss. Patterson has seen the worst of Haines Junction’s addictions problems, and she decided to do something about it.
A year ago she started Reawakening Our Wellness Spirit (ROWS), a support group for alcoholics that focuses first on building participants’ self-esteem before taking away the bottle.
“We can’t force anyone to quit. My big thing first was building their self-esteem. I encouraged them to eat while they drink. It scares people. When people found out I was allowing them to bring their drinks with them with a to-go mug, it scared people,” she says.
For a while, the group held weekly pot lucks and would send participants home with single-serving meals wrapped up from the leftovers. At its peak, the group drew between 10 and 30 participants every week, but Patterson started running into problems. The First Nation said it couldn’t support a group that allows alcohol to be served. Patterson says she was also told she doesn’t have the proper training to run such an organization, so she enrolled in the Nechi Training, Research and Health Promotions Institute in Edmonton, which offers specialized training to addictions counselors who work in First Nations communities. But being the only one keeping the group together is a heavy load to bear.
“They’ve just lost faith in themselves. Whenever I go away, they kind of fall apart,” she says.
In an emailed statement, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Chief James Allen said his government began a reorganization of its community wellness programs last fall, and he hopes to have three new transitional housing units ready to use by the end of June. Some of that transitional housing will support “a few citizens dealing with both health and addictions issues,” the email said.
Allen wouldn’t comment on ROWS or the specifics of Boss’s case.
In her apartment, the men keep asking if Boss can spare any change. She walks over to the balcony door and gazes out the window for a few moments. When she turns around all five men are gone.
“They scored,” she says, shrugging.
Contact Jesse Winter at