For Environment Minister John Edzerza, the opening of the Yukon’s newest aboriginal healing camp was personal.
“I can testify to you today about alcohol,” said Edzerza on Thursday, standing in a large circle of officials, addictions specialists and Kwanlin Dun employees.
“I started alcohol when I was about eight years old and I was getting pretty drunk by the time I was 11 and 12. I walked in the dark for many, many years.
“And let me tell you, it’s lonely, painful, depressing. You don’t even realize the sun is shining. And every day you wake up and you wonder if it’s going to be the day you’re going to die. That’s the life of an alcoholic.”
The sombre testimonial provided a vivid example of why the territory needs inventive solutions to curb alcoholism. Healing camps have existed in the Yukon before, but have quietly closed. The Jackson Lake Land-Based Healing Programamp is the latest attempt to create one that works.
The method involves taking alcoholics away from the towns and onto the land. The camp is surrounded by small lakes and rolling hills, and participants will learn traditional outdoor skills as well as aboriginal psychological concepts to help them heal.
“If you were sitting at the crossroads in front of the Sarah Steele building, or in a big room somewhere, would it feel like this?” said Edzerza after his speech, holding his hands up to the clear blue sky.
“This is less stressful. It’s more open. You’re not sitting inside of a building.”
Edzerza has criticized medical-oriented alcohol treatment for the last decade. He sees healing camps as a restoration of aboriginal culture, since it involves traditional methods once banned or destroyed by the arrival of nonnatives to North America.
“The conventional method is built on PhD’s,” he said. “The traditional method comes from ‘We’ve been there and we’ve done that.’”
The camp will revolve around aboriginal values and beliefs, he said.
“One of my main teachers was my mother,” he said. “She always talked about respect for life in every way, shape and form.
“I remember her saying, ‘Anyone with addictions, never kick them when they’re down. Always lend a hand to help these people.’”
Some of the camp’s future participants attended the opening Thursday. Nora MacIntosh suffers from extended relapses into alcoholism and has attended healing camps before. On Sunday, she’ll be one of the first 16 women to use this camp in its official capacity.
Before the speeches, she was touring the wall tents dotting a winding road around Jackson Lake.
“I’ve got my heart set on that one,” she says, pointing to a tent overlooking a bluff.
Edzerza took time earlier in the week to leaf through some of the programs for the camp. He’s developed three programs himself for healing camps he’s run.
“One is my own personal medicine wheel, where I tell the story of my life journey - how I was able to overcome my alcohol addiction,” he said.
Edzerza never suffered abused at a residential school. But the young boys who returned from them brought the behaviour home, sparking cycles of abuse while Edzerza was a young child.
“There was a lot of mental, physical, sexual abuse,” he said.
Those experiences shaped his teenage years and half of his adult life.
“I was a loner pretty well all my life and it was due to the fact of a lot of abuse,” he said.
In the early 1980s, he sobered up. It was an incredibly difficult process, but one modeled on tradition rather than modern healing.
For years, he’s done counselling and tried to spread his story of overcoming alcohol.
“A lot of us never thought how easy it is to get into it, but how difficult it is to get out of it,” he said.
Elected to the legislature in 2002, he’s been in and out of government over the last eight years.
“I’ve pushed every government to try to do this,” he said. “The NDP, the Liberals, the Yukon Party.”
“A lot of the people at the top of the political positions really don’t understand what this means.”
The road to Thursday’s opening has been bumpy. Premier Dennis Fentie once said Edzerza “failed First Nations” for not getting a healing camp set up in 2006. Edzerza left the government to sit in opposition for several years, before mending fences and returning to the government last year.
He wouldn’t elaborate on how Fentie and he got over the acrimonious insults.
“I think it’s all politics and not really understanding what it’s about,” he said. “I don’t even like to think political about something like this.”
Edzerza worked extensively with the Kwanlin Dun chief and council in recent years to get the camp started. Jeanie Dendys, the First Nation’s justice director, has also helped organize the many stages leading up to opening day. The Yukon government will put $198,300 into running the camp, and $300,000 will come from the federal Northern Strategy Fund. The camp is a one-year pilot project, with the women’s program running for the next five weeks and a men’s program to follow in September.
The mood was buoyant and festive under the hot sun on Thursday. Natives and nonnatives worked on the development of the camp. The participants will also come from many backgrounds.
“We all live in this territory, we all have to work together, we all have to heal together,” Edzerza told the crowd. “I don’t know if there’s any one right way, but what’s been missing in my life have been the traditional ways.”
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