Inuit treatment centre in Ottawa copes with big loss of funding

At year’s end, Aboriginal Healing Foundation makes final payment to Mamisarvik


This undated file photo shows a meeting room inside Mamisarvik's former building, before the service moved into its current quarters at 1863 Russell Rd. in Ottawa. (FILE PHOTO)

This undated file photo shows a meeting room inside Mamisarvik’s former building, before the service moved into its current quarters at 1863 Russell Rd. in Ottawa. (FILE PHOTO)

OTTAWA — For Inuit struggling with trauma and addiction, this Ottawa house has been more like a home over the past 10 years.

The Mamisarvik Healing Centre on Russell Rd. in Ottawa has treated about 500 Inuit in that time, most from Nunavut, many from the city and a handful from other regions.

But Mamisarvik faces some big changes over the coming months, as the centre learns to live without its main source of funding.

Like many projects and centres across the country, Mamisarvik will lose its Aboriginal Healing Foundation funding at the end of the year.

But Ben Brigstock, the centre’s new director, says Mamisarvik will stay open and work with what it has.

“Obviously we’re going to have to cut some costs,” Brigstock said. “We have to be much more efficient that we have been so we can continue to clients, and that’s what we intend to do.”

The cost-cutting might appear daunting for a centre that employs 23 staff, and runs four 53-day treatment cycles each year.

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s final contribution to the centre for 2013 was $800,000, while Corrections Canada, Health Canada and the Government of Nunavut contribute much smaller amounts to the centre’s operations.

Brigstock says his job now is to look at new options for the centre — and finding new sources of funding.

That might include offering more treatment cycles, or even a continuous intake, and reaching out to other Inuit regions in need.

“There are lots of opportunities, but none of them are concrete,” he said.

The one thing that is sure: Mamisarvik is a vital service to the Inuit community.

Marilyn Kiholik said it would be a tragedy if the centre had to close for lack of money.

“There’d be more suicides, for sure, more babies getting hurt and not taken care of,” she said. “All kinds of problems.”

Kiholik, born in Yellowknife and raised in Kugluktuk, what was then called Coppermine, went through the eight-week residential program in spring 2013 so that she could stop drinking. She’s been sober ever since.

“I’d had enough crap in my life. I had to do it,” says Kiholik, who now lives in Ottawa. “I’ve been sober 10 months now. For a chronic alcoholic, that’s something.”

Kiholik was abused as a child. She started drinking at age 10 and became addicted to the numbing escape it offered from the pain of living.

But the booze also fueled a rage inside her and at 18, she left Nunavut and crisscrossed the country, crashing on friends’ couches, getting into fights, getting arrested.

Three years ago she was struck by a hit-and-run driver in downtown Ottawa and left for dead. After reconstructive and plastic surgery, she was able to walk again but is riddled with scars, inside and out.

Mamisarvik saved her life. She still speaks to some of her counsellors there and credits them for giving her a future she wants to live in.

“If you really want to change, if you really have hit rock bottom, that’s where to go. It saved me,” said Kiholik, 43.

“You just have to want it for yourself. You can’t do it for someone else. That’s just a waste of time.”

Kiholik has already recommended the program to family members and friends who are struggling like she was.

And that word-of-mouth system really works, Brigstock said, by bringing in family and friends of former clients who’ve seen the impact the program can have.

And Brigstock wants them to know: “there’s a future for them here.”

Mamisarvik’s treatment program, which operates under the Ottawa-based Tungasuvvingat Inuit, offers support and treatment for a wide range of traumas; from the negative effects of residential schools and relocation, suicide, neglect, and sexual and emotional abuse.

Mamisarvik also treats Inuit struggling with substance abuse, and more and more often, those with mental health issues, Brigstock said.

The centre offers eight-week long treatment cycles to about a dozen people at a time; a transitional house next door offers another 10 beds to clients who are preparing to return home.

And Mamisarvik’s services are delivered in English or Inuktitut, depending on the client’s needs.

“We really try to make sure the treatment is culturally relevant,” Brigstock said.

The program focuses on the impact of residential schools, whether clients attended one themselves or they’re family of survivors.

For one week of the program, groups camp at a centre in Quebec to enjoy being on the land; another week an elder is flown in to provide traditional healing and storytelling.

“For some clients, we’re re-introducing them to their culture; we reconnect clients with things they may not have been exposed to,” Brigstock said.

And that separates Mamisarvik from other treatment centres, he said.

‘We don’t have the same dropout rates or the revolving door — once someone comes they are generally here to stay for the entire treatment.”

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