KUUJJUAQ, Que. — On the shore of a still-frozen lake in front of a traditional Inuit dwelling with the spring sun melting the snow underfoot, the Governor General met eight women who are reconnecting with their Inuit roots as they try to heal from addiction.
Mary Simon wiped away tears hearing what her visit meant to the participants and leaders of Isuarsivik Recovery Centre in Kuujjuaq on Monday.
"We have to recognize our history, our traumas. But we also have to put a lot of emphasis on our strength," said Mary Aitchison, vice-chair of Isuarsivik's board of directors.
"You did that, you show us that, you model that … You model so much of who we are, who we aspire to be."
Isuarsivik was founded in 1994 as a community organization focused on addictions treatment. But in the early 2000s, after funding issues and a lack of success in program outcomes, it shut down for several years.
"We started looking at our program, and we realized we were using the Minnesota model, which is great, the 12 steps," said board president David Forrest.
"But we shouldn't be focusing on the substance, we should be focusing on … the soul, the trauma."
He said that at the time the program was being re-created, Simon had told him programs developed by well-intentioned people from the south weren't meeting the needs of Inuit.
"She said, 'It's time for us to create our own program.'"
That led to the creation of the first Inuit-specific trauma program "created for Inuit by Inuit," which builds awareness of intergenerational trauma as a root cause of addiction.
Isuarsivik runs nine-week-long programs using a harm-reduction approach tailored to each individual.
"It's so important to say those words, 'I need help,"' Simon said.
"From experience, if you can't love yourself or if you don't love yourself as an individual and who you are, then you can't give love to others."
Many of the people who shared lunch with the Governor General on Monday have their own experience asking for help, including George Kauki.
"There's so much that sobriety has changed in my life," he said.
Kauki began working at Isuarsivik nearly seven years ago when he was five years sober, and is now the program's land coordinator. He said it's been helpful to be in an environment where people are encouraging of his sobriety.
"The land is my therapy. We don't have many counsellors where we're from in the North, it's not like down south where you can go schedule an appointment with a counsellor," he said.
"When I need therapy I just run off to the land … I go take off and do my thing and it helps me to live another day, I guess."
That's something he's working to share with others now in his role, guiding others on their journey of sobriety by helping them fish, hunt and reconnect with the land.
Isuarsivik acknowledges the role of colonialism and dispossession of Inuit culture in the trauma many people across Nunavik are living with today.
It's also working to expand. Construction is underway on a new centre which will allow the in-patient programs to expand from nine people to 32, and will allow entire families to take part in the treatment so partners and children can support their loved ones.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2022.
Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press