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Homegrown help across Qikiqtani
You're not just born an addict: Ilisaqsivik

Northern News Services
Monday, November 14, 2016

What began as a wellness society for Clyde River is spreading its good work across the Qikiqtani.

The Ilisaqsivik Society offers many wellness programs. Last year alone, Ilisaqsivik offered more than 80 programs, as executive director Jakob Gearheard recently told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, addressing suicide among indigenous peoples and communities.

"Ilisaqsivik was founded because the community was not happy with the existing mental health, social services, and other wellness-related programs that were provided by the government. These services were not culturally relevant, they were not provided in Inuktitut, and they did not reflect Inuit values. In many instances throughout Nunavut, this is still the case today."

The largest project, built over eight years, is Our Life's Journey: Inuit Counsellors' Training and Mentorship Program. The program now has official accreditation from the Indigenous Certification Board of Canada.

Gearheard explains Health Canada created the arm's length certification board because they wanted a way to find an equivalent to acknowledging a counsellor's qualifications, as is done in the south through colleges and universities but grounded in the culture and realities of indigenous societies.

"Our counsellors in Clyde River, they're not counsellors because they have a master's degree but they are counsellors because they have certain life experience and certain professional experience. Health Canada understood that," said Gearheard.

The society created the five-module training and mentoring program over eight years through trial and error with the help of experienced elders, people who were filling a counselling role in the community and looking for more training, and Life Works Counselling and Training Services Inc.

"We've tweaked it and now it's five modules. Each module is 10 days long. We're running the program again, starting fresh in November," said Gearheard.

"Now people who graduate from our program, even people from the past who have graduated will be grandfathered in, they can apply to be certified by this certification board. Our training is one of the steps they need to go through."

People are coming into Clyde River from all over the Qikiqtani to train.

"We have more than 100 people who have taken the course and more than 30 who have graduated from the course. They are working in many of the communities on Baffin Island right now."

And how does that all relate to addictions?

"A lot of addictions are caused by something else. You're not just born an addict. But you have trauma that leads you to abuse alcohol or drugs. These counsellors are trained in addictions and trauma - those are the biggest ones we focus on."

Ideally, all modules would be offered over the course of one year. However, despite several prestigious awards for its work, Ilisaqsivik continues to apply for piece-meal funding in the absence of core funding. The funds are in place to run the first module in November.

The training and mentorship program is open to anyone, including mental health staff and other government workers who are in the field of helping others. Some have already taken the courses, which is helpful in creating cultural understanding and bonds with community members. It is also the society's hope that more and more certified Inuit counsellors will be hired by the government rather than continuing to offer their services on a volunteer basis.

For any given module, the society can handle 20 students.

Most recently, the society has received funding from the GN's Department of Health Quality of Life division for a trauma team and telephone-based counseling in Inuktitut for all Qikiqtani communities.

"If the community contacts us and they've had a trauma and they want us to send a team that speaks Inuktitut, we can do that," said Gearheard, adding the society had been providing this service but only contract to contract.

That contribution agreement ends March 31.

"We're hopeful that will turn into a five-year contribution agreement. It's not core funding but at least we know we have funding to do this project for five years. That offers more stability," said Gearheard.

Ilisaqsivik also offers support to individuals referred to residential addiction treatment programs. Such an individual is invited to go on the land with Ilisaqsivik staff as a means to help them prepare mentally and emotionally for the journey they will be making, as well as a way to help them break out of the context of substance use.

Ilisaqsivik is the top employer in Clyde River, with more than 50 people in part-time and full-time positions. Other than Gearheard, all are Inuit.

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