‘Everything started with a cup of coffee’ — one man’s journey to overcome addictions

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The death of a friend, a daughter who overdosed and a simple cup of coffee brought a Yellowknife man struggling with addictions to an urban on the land camp and the beginning of his journey to recovery.

George Koe stands in the 'on the land' camp where is journey to recovery began with a cup of coffee. Dylan Short/NNSL photo
George Koe stands in the ‘on the land’ camp where is journey to recovery began with a cup of coffee.
Dylan Short/NNSL photo

George Koe, originally from Aklavik, has struggled with alcohol addiction for most of his life. In and out of jail for the better part of two decades, Koe started his journey to recovery when he was invited to the camp following the sudden death of a friend in April.

“It all started off from one cup of coffee,” said Koe. “I’ve got to thank my creator for (helping) me talk to these guys here at the healing camp.”

Koe was one of the first people to attend the healing camp run by the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation (AIWF). AIWF first opened the facility last April after they won the $1 million Arctic Inspiration Prize. He was staying at the city’s drop-in shelter when William Greenland, one of AIWF’s councillors, invited him to get a cup of coffee at the camp. Then Koe came back the next day and the next until eventually, after receiving difficult news, he found himself enrolled in a six-week trauma course for men in B.C.

“The day we were organized to go down to B.C., I lost my daughter,” said Koe. “I got a phone call out here saying my daughter had overdosed on fentanyl and morphine and the shock hit me so it was either go home get into more trouble or go down to treatment, which I thought I may never, ever get.”

After struggling with the decision of either getting help or returning to old habits, Koe eventually decided to head south and attend the camp. He has since completed the course and has now returned to Yellowknife, where he has worked each day to remain sober.

“I’m doing what I’m supposed to do to maintain my sobriety, with with Alcoholics Anonymous members and talking to Donald (Prince) once in awhile,” said Koe.

Support system

Koe said when he gets the urge to go out and drink, he calls Prince, the executive director of AIWF. Now that he is home, Koe’s support system includes the people he met at AIWF’s healing camp and the Salvation Army.

“I’m still working on learning about more opportunities to stay sober and keep sober,” said Koe. “Before I go out, I’ll call Donald first or I’ll call William or people I know that will take me away from situations of using.”

After-care support for those returning to the territory after treatment, like Koe, has been highlighted as being a gap in the Government of the Northwest Territories’ programming. In May, health and social services minister Glen Abernethy said a committee was working on an addictions recovery action plan to help address gaps in after-care treatment in the territory.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily doing everything we can or even enough for aftercare. When somebody is coming back from a treatment facility they are required to have an after-care plan in their community, but clearly there are gaps we need to close,” Abernethy stated at the time.

Since then the department’s mental health team has begun consultations with regional teams to accurately identify where those gaps remain and start to prioritize ‘key actions’ that are required to implement after-care plans, staed a department spokesperson.

“As part of our work in developing the Mental Wellness and Addictions Recovery Action Plan, we are reviewing best and emerging practices to keep pace with residents’ need,” sates Umesh Sutendra, health and social services’ spokesperson in an email.

Sutendra said the department has developed a ‘comprehensive’ mental health and addictions recovery action plan, which created an action plan on child and youth mental wellness. The department currently offers a number of support options relating to addictions recovery ranging from community based counseling to facility based addictions treatments outside of the territory.

As Koe’s journey highlights, Prince and the rest of the AWIF team at the on the land healing camp have been working to offer support options outside of what the government has to offer. Prince says the camp gives individuals different treatments to mental health issues. Treatments close to 300 people have taken advantage of since the camp opened, according to Prince.

“I think its because there’s no pressure on people here to come here and get the counseling per say. A lot of other organizations if you go in for weekly scheduled appointment or something like that,” said Prince.

“Even George, he was out here everyday for probably two weeks before one day he said ‘ok, I need to talk about some stuff’, but it was up to him. It wasn’t up to us to say ‘you have to talk about it for an hour today,’ we guide people to help themselves.

Now Koe is taking his recovery one day at a time, leaning on Prince and the other councilors. He says in the long term, he hopes to one day return to Aklavik and begin to hunt and trap like he did when he was young.

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