Dream of recovery centre comes to fruition for Esk’etemec First Nation

After decades of tackling addiction issues in its own Esk’etemc (Alkali) First Nation is opening a five-bed recovery centre. Monica Lamb-Yorski photo
Esk’etemec First Nation education co-ordinator Irene Johnson (left) and Chief Charlene Belleau look at further plans for their community’s new five-bed recovery centre.
During the opening of a new recovery centre in their community Monday, Esket Elders Fred Johnson(left), Juliana Johnson and Margie Dick look at plans for the grounds outside the building. Monica Lamb-Yorski photos
Esket elders Bridget Dan and Marilyn Belleau know the wood stove will come in handy at their community’s new recovery centre when winter arrives.
Guests mill around inside the new five-bed recovery centre at Esk’etemc First Nation.
Built by Zirhnelt Timber Frames, the new recovery centre at Esk’etemc (Alkali) First Nation is the first net zero energy ready building on First Nations land in Canada.

A B.C. Interior First Nations community that has been helping its members tackle addictions for decades is opening a five-bed recovery centre of its own.

“When you think about it, Alkali has been at the forefront for the last 40 years dealing with healing and sobriety, but we’ve never had a facility like this,” Esk’etemec First Nation Chief Charlene Belleau said as the community blessed the newly-built centre Monday. “We’ve taken our people to our meadows and our old offices, but it was always with whatever we had that we made do.”

When the opportunity to build a recovery centre in the community was proposed by the First Nations Health Authority, the community did not hesitate, Belleau said.

Esket did not have a suitable space, but Belleau pursued funding, telling Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development the money was needed “yesterday.”

“The response to our request was quick,” Belleau said. “And with the leadership Alkali has had during the last 40 years, it was just normal to have people within the community that could step up to provide the service.”

Belleau said the recovery centre comes as the province has been responding to the fentanyl crisis.

“The province wants alternatives even for our own people when we are in crises with drugs and alcohol,” Belleau said. “We need to not think for a minute that this is not impacting our people because it is big time. We need to get on it in a very aggressive way.”

The centre, she added, will be available to community members and people who need the services from outside communities.

First Nations Health Authority COO Richard Jock congratulated the community on achieving the project.

“I am really happy to see this come into being and in record time,” Jock said. “I’ve never heard of a building being done in a year from preliminary to construction, it’s really amazing. I salute all of you involved.”

With the centre in Esket, there will be 15 recovery beds presently being funded by the First Nations Health Authority in B.C., said FNHA Interior Director Lisa Montgomery-Reid.

“There are more to come when our leaders are ready to bring those services home,” Montgomery-Reid said.

Esket’s education co-ordinator Irene Johnson has been sober for 39 years and credited the leadership of the late Chief Andy Chelsea and his wife Phyllis for helping lead the community toward sobriety back in the 70s.

“When their daughter was seven or eight years old she decided she did not want to go home because of their drinking so that day Phyllis decided she would quit and then Andy followed,” Johnson recalled. “They started that journey and when Andy became chief he began looking for opportunities for people to attend treatment centres.”

By the late 70s and early 80s there was a 70 per cent sobriety rate in the community and by the 90s it was at 90 to 95 per cent, she said.

“Later on we started looking into some of the reasons people were drinking because we know addictions and alcoholism comes from some sort of history whether it’s pain, shame, or abuse,” Johnson said. “We started looking into residential schools because by then some of the men in the community were being charged with sexual abuse. The courts were brought right out here and we were able to support those families – not only the victims but the offenders to see how we could start working with them to help them.”

When Belleau became the chief she initiated counselling training for community members, Johnson explained.

“There were 40 of us that trained,” Johnson said. “It was difficult because it was a time when people were sobering up and we were looking at issues that were difficult to deal with.”

In 1990, the community signed a protocol with the RCMP and the government to deal with historical sexual abuse and violence within the community by using healing circles.

Johnson said she has gone through two healing circles herself and became close friends with her offenders because she said she finally understood what they had gone through.

“People like me have learned the hard way and had lots of areas of difficulty but now we are telling our people they don’t have to take 30 years to heal,” Johnson said.

Built by Zirnhelt Timber Frames of 150 Mile House, the recovery centre is the first net zero energy ready building on First Nations land, said owner Sam Zirnhelt.

“I really enjoyed this project, but one of the special things was deciding to make an energy-efficient building that would last for 200 to 300 years,” Zirnhelt said. “BC Hydro, BC Housing and Natural Resources Canada got really excited and became involved as well.”

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