Okalik shares own tale with world addictions forum

“My optimism is personal,” Nunavut premier says


Paul Okalik brought his own inspiring tale of addiction and recovery to the opening in Montreal this week of the first worldwide forum on drugs and dependencies.

Nunavut’s premier opened the week-long international gathering, which attracted more than 3,000 delegates from about 50 countries to Montreal’s Palais de Congrès, with a dramatic declaration: “My name is Paul and I am an alcoholic.”

Because he overcame his dependency on alcohol, Okalik said, he’s optimistic that other Nunavummiut can do it too, despite what he called the “daunting challenges” that substance abuse poses for the Nunavut government.

“My optimism is personal. I have known dependency,” Okalik told forum participants. “In Nunavut, I have made no pretense about my past. I am a recovering alcoholic and I am able to say that last June marked 11 years of sobriety for me. I am able to say to Nunavummiut that I am working at it and so can you.”

Called the “World Forum on Drugs, Dependencies and Society,” the gathering was backed by the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Office, and a long list of governments, research institutes, law enforcement agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Delegates looked at the social, economic, and environmental effects of drugs and dependencies such as gambling, and shared information through a long list of workshops and presentations.

They also reviewed implementation of the 1998 United Nations Declaration on Drug Demand Reduction and implementation of the 2001 U.N. Declaration on HIV/AIDS.

Okalik told delegates that the strengths of Nunavut’s communities and families helped him overcome his dependency. He later went back to school, graduated from university, graduated from law school, became a lawyer, ran for office, and became leader of the government of Nunavut.

“In battling my dependency I was not alone,” Okalik said. “I had the strong support of family and friends. I returned to my roots, my home community of Pangnirtung, and sought strength in the network of close-knit families. I embraced the tradition of reverence for elders and inter-generational caring. So I am optimistic about the future.”

He told delegates, however, that in Nunavut the situation is not always so optimistic.

“The statistics documented within our health, justice and social services portfolios indicate that Nunavut has many serious challenges in terms of levels of debilitating illnesses, chronic suicide and addiction problems, low education and high unemployment, severe housing shortages and escalating crime rates. All these challenges have a direct and/or indirect impact on mental health,” Okalik said.

Addictions are most prevalent in Nunavummiut younger than 30, especially those between the ages of 25 and 29, but closely followed by those aged 20 to 24, Okalik said.

The binge use of alcohol, marijuana, glue, solvents and narcotics is the most common form of substance abuse in Nunavut, Okalik said.

“But these are more than just dry statistics. They represent real people in our communities. They are our neighbours, our friends and our families: Inuit and non-Inuit,” Okalik said.

He told delegates that Nunavut has no addictions and mental health treatment programs, and that the justice system often becomes a substitute treatment provider for people with dependencies.

“Current services, where they exist, rely almost exclusively on the staffing mix and service models that were developed before the creation of Nunavut,” Okalik said.

To cope with all that, Nunavut is at the very beginning, Okalik said, but is starting with the addictions and mental health strategy that his government approved last spring.

He said the government is working to strengthen the skills of Inuit counsellors in communities. “Treatment must be a community effort and local, trained counsellors are a vital link in the process,” Okalik said.

Some new efforts include the creation of a detoxification centre, a residential psychiatric treatment centre, and a system of referring clients to the addictions treatment centre in Kuujjuaq. The Kuujjuaq treatment centre is now the only one in Canada that’s able to serve Inuit in Inuktitut.

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