Yellowknife Women’s Society executive director Bree Denning is moving on from her leadership role this week after four-and-a-half years.
Denning will now be serving in a new position as senior adviser on problematic substance use for the GNWT Department of Health and Social Services.
Denning has been in the position since March 2016, after Caroline Cochrane, then-CEO of the Centre for Northern Families, ran successfully for Range Lake MLA and went on to become premier.
Denning had also been a board member with the women’s society since 2008 and applied for the executive director opening when Cochrane left the position.
Denning said the timing of being in the executive director position was good for advancing social causes because governments were responsive.
“I feel that compared to Caroline Cochrane, I had it pretty easy because there was definitely a shift in the government in recognizing that we needed to put more funds and more resources towards addressing homelessness and poverty,” she said. “So we had a lot of government support to do things like ….. start the Common Ground employment program or renovate our shelters.
“It was really positive that it felt like I was walking down paved streets where my predecessor sort of had to bushwhack to get anything accomplished.”
The women’s society receives funding from several sources, including all levels of government, but also generates income through social enterprises.
Founded as a non-profit organization in 1990 to advance the lives of women – from developing personal and professional goals to improving their wellness to having their contributions to the community better recognized – the women’s society has grown into a multitude of services and pan-territorial programs. Among them include the Women’s Centre – formerly the Centre for Northern Families – which offers 24 single-room occupancy units and an emergency shelter. The society also offers a daycare and family program centre.
The organization also oversees the Yellowknife Housing First Program, the Yellowknife Street Outreach Van, and the Yellowknife Work Ready Program.
This year, the organization has been providing a Covid-19 emergency shelter at the Arnica Inn.
Denning’s new role will be to help the Department of Health and Social Services’ problematic substance use committee, which will work toward creating a policy on reducing harm and problematic substance abuse across the territory, according to the department.
“The position was created to provide analysis and advice on policy, program implementation and evaluation of problematic substance use,” stated Damien Healy, the department’s communications manager. “Expected outcomes from this position and committee include a territorial alcohol strategy and a harm-reduction statement that would outline the GNWTs approach.”
Denning, who has a background as a social epidemiologist, said having been directly exposed to some of the challenges faced by people requiring emergency drop-in services will better prepare her for a government role that will develop policy for an alcohol program.
“I think, definitely, learning how to be on the other side (from government) and being in the NGO world is going to make me a better bureaucrat because I understand a lot of what’s happening on the ground in ways that I hadn’t before,” she said. “I understand, for example, what the complications are that limit how we can get funding into programs and operating on the ground.”
Based on her executive director tenure, Denning said she’s more keenly aware of ongoing and deeper social issues involving people who have fallen through the cracks in the system and have been challenged when it comes to accessing the assistance they need.
“It’s a territory-wide issue but it comes to roost in Yellowknife because people tend to get displaced in their communities,” she said. “Something I think that we need to address when moving forward is how do we address the phenomenon of services getting concentrated in Yellowknife and thus individuals getting concentrated in Yellowknife. We need to be addressing things at the territory-wide level.”
She said the GNWT is taking this idea seriously and it is something to be excited about.
“In the past, the government was reluctant to talk about harm reduction and talk about the myriad of things that are going on on the ground that we don’t necessarily want to take a close look at, ” she said.
Neesha Rao, a senior policy analyst with the GNWT Department of Justice, will fill in for Denning over the coming weeks until a permanent replacement can be found.