Isuarsivik Regional Recovery Centre’s new programming and building could have a massive impact on region

By Miriam Dewar

Taking walks, going out on the land, hunting – these are the things that Noah Eddie Oweetaluktuk says really helped him when he was a guest at the Isuarsivik Regional Recovery Centre in Kuujjuaq several years ago.

“I know healing processes, all of them, don’t always go very well. It can be depressing or upsetting,” he says. “Getting help in our own community or in Nunavik where there’s Inuit is totally different from going south to the centres there.”

Access to healing right in Nunavik, based on Inuit cultures and values is what the Isuarsivik Centre has been working toward for decades. Now, thanks in part to $1 million from the Arctic Inspiration Prize for its project, Ilagiitigut anngiangijaqatigiinnirq ilurqusivuttigut, Isuarsivik is preparing for monumental changes.

The new centre will be able to accommodate whole families attending together. There will be a daycare and tutors available for children.

Mary Aitchison is the Vice President of Isuarsivik’s Board of Directors and explains that the new project, which will be delivered at the centre’s new building, essentially translates to “families healing together through culture.”

The program will have a strong cultural base and use modern healing practises as well. “Looking at the holistic aspect of our culture, our values are based on very much social interaction, the respect for the land, the animals that provide for us,” Mary says. “It’s all based on strengthening the family.” Families will have space to come to the centre together and spend time on the land. Instead of focusing on weaknesses, the clients and family members can focus on strengths. Mary says that as a schoolteacher she saw the difference that kind of shift can make.

“A child may be considered an underachiever in a classroom, but they become very, very strong in every skill when they’re comfortable out on the land.”

The idea is not a new one. Traditionally, Inuit found strength in their immediate and extended family. This is a return to that concept, based on feedback from a working group created to look at Indigenous programs throughout Canada and from clients themselves.

“That’s how we grew up and given the nomadic way of life, we will do our best to respect the traditional practises that way. That’s a big, big change,” Mary says. “Each time there’s a graduation of guests…they would say, ‘Now my family, I wish I was here with my family.’” That wish will soon be a reality.

Isuarsivik President David Forrest and Vice-president Mary Aitchison were able to show their Excellencies Mary Simon and Whit Fraser the construction progress of the new centre in May. Her Excellency also offered support for the centre. “I’m really proud of what you’re doing, very proud, and I think it’s one of the most important things you’re doing in Nunavik to help people heal,” she said.

Currently running out of a small building with only nine beds, three in each of three bedrooms, right now Isuarsivik is only able to accommodate nine clients for each six-week session. According to notes on the AIP website, come 2023, entire families and even pregnant women will be able to access a new 32-bed centre, “to follow a reformed recovery program.” The activities, it reads, will provide opportunities for the family to heal together, by addressing intergenerational trauma in an age-appropriate manner.

George Kauki was a co-lead on the project application to the AIP committee, along with Sarah May and other team members. Speaking from his shared office, the Isuarsivik Land Specialist has been with the centre for about seven years, starting out as an attendant. He remembers the early days when he began taking guests out on the land for half a day to try it, to now, when they have two days a week scheduled for that. Just recently, he says, they took the women’s cohort out for an overnight trip for the first time. George knows the importance of those trips. He has been sober for 11 years and credits the land, along with help from some elders and friends, for his success.

“The land was my therapy when I was recovering,” he says. “There’s no stress out there. There are no bills there to worry about, you don’t need to go to the store, you don’t need to work on things, you just live life out there.”

He also believes that families coming to Isuarsivik together to recover will have a massive residual impact on the region. There is a wait list to attend the current program at the centre because of space constraints, but also there can be last minute cancellations because the person is sent to jail, there are family problems, or the person doesn’t have anyone to take care of family who would be left behind. At this time, anyone who Isuarsivik cannot accommodate in the in-patient cycle is offered pre-care outpatient counselling services either in person or remotely while they wait.

“It’s a vicious cycle where DYP (Department of Youth Protection) takes the children and says you’ve got to go to treatment first, when in fact the child needs to go through treatment as well to get help. They’ve seen some tragic things, or gone through some stuff too with their parents,” he says. With help from regional partners, the new centre will be equipped with a daycare and tutors for school-aged children.

Mary Aitchison is quick to praise the partnerships already forged between the community and the centre. They have been able to use the Nayumivik Landholding Corporation’s carpenter shop and the gym, but the new centre will allow a better place to focus on making traditional tools, and for the women, making traditional clothing and art. They will be able to invite artists to come as well as elders from all over the region.

On May 9, the Isuarsivik family participated in an historic visit with Governor General Mary Simon and her team at the qarmak near Three Lakes in Kuujjuaq. A long-time advocate for Inuit empowerment and mental wellness, before taking office Mary Simon helped Isuarsivik navigate through the federal system to lobby for funding. The Governor General’s team, along with Isuarsivik staff, some board members, and nine guests attending the current program enjoyed a country food lunch prepared by cook Lucy Johannes.

A large part of the centre’s success depends on its staff. Noah Oweetaluktuk says he still remembers the woman he first spoke to at the centre all those years ago and who met him at the airport when he arrived to start his recovery.
Isuarsivik launched a major recruitment campaign called ‘Ilaugitsi’ between July and September 2022. More than 180 candidates applied and the current staff feel steady enthusiasm from applicants to join the team. Over 25 jobs were opened and half of those jobs were already filled as of late November 2022.

All staff will be onboarded at the new centre starting January 23, 2022. From January to March 2023, various training workshops and activities have been scheduled to onboard all new staff around Isuarsivik values, get familiar with the building, and finalize tools in order to get ready to welcome the first guests in early April 2023. This will be a pilot cycle where the full Isuarsivik team is planning to deliver the new family program in the new facility.

George says that the work is rewarding, and Inuit employees are appreciated and well taken care of. For himself, that means the flexibility to take time off with a few days’ notice if animals are migrating.

“It’s amazing to work here. We’re an inspiring team, we help each other, we work well together and hopefully we get more inspiring people to work with us,” he says.

Mary is very proud of how far the centre has come and is grateful for the AIP funding which has supplemented monies from other organizations, allowing them to plan and buy necessary equipment. She also acknowledges the hard work of all the committed people in the region working on wellness.

“We have a right to be well. We have a right to be leading productive lives and I always say this, ‘the cost of doing nothing is too high.’ That’s my personal message.”