The Waskaganish Wellness Society’s mobile treatment program began in the fall of 1992 at MacLean’s Camp on an island that sits at the mouths of the Broadback and Nottaway rivers. The island, known locally as Nuuskansh, was once an outfitting camp owned by an eccentric Kentucky gentleman from Louisville.
Stewart MacLean started his operation in the 1940s. Goose hunters from across the continent flew in every fall. MacLean employed locals and Anishnaabe from Kitigan Zibi as guides and grounds workers. The camp was equipped with running water, electricity, a garden and (shhhhh…), a private bar filled with Kentucky booze.
The late George Diamond Sr. recalled Old Man MacLean (for that is what the Cree called him) sitting alone on his front stoop with a shotgun across his lap, sipping bourbon, eyes fixed up the Nottaway River. Asked why, the old man would say he was waiting for Iroquois raiders. Indeed, the Nottaway River is named for the Iroquois who invaded Cree territory during the height of the fur trade and long before that.
The Waskaganish Wellness Society has hosted weeks-long assemblies at Nuuskansh for more than 20 years. Due to weather, the Covid pandemic and nearly insurmountable logistics, the retreat was compelled to retreat from the island. They moved to “48” on the Georgekish trapline, almost halfway up Waskaganish’s access road by the Rupert River. The 48 site has six cabins, a cookhouse and a hall for groups to gather. The dirt road into camp is barred to visitors and the curious by a makeshift gate which reads: “Mobile Wellness Program No Vistors [sic]Private.”
The place was nearly silent, with only the soft hum of a generator in the distance when we arrived. Camp workers Darryl Whiskeychan and Douglas “Duke” Hester were keeping the camp running smoothly. Whiskeychan ran back and forth between the camp and Waskaganish on various errands; at one point delivering a load of lemon meringue pies while carefully avoiding potholes so as not to disturb their delicious gelatinous centres. Duke is part security officer, counsellor’s assistant, camp clown, and all-round handyman.
The cabins were empty as their occupants assembled in the hall for daily counselling sessions. There were nearly 20 participants this fall, almost all from Waskaganish with a handful from elsewhere.
Among them was 28-year-old Priscilla, who comes from Mistissini and has four children. She arrived here two days after the retreat began.
“I was shy at first and I really wanted to go back home,” she confided. “I missed my children.”
Priscilla’s days began at six in the morning. She lit a fire in her cabin then walked down to the hall by the river with her bunkmates for coffee and breakfast. After breakfast she would bead, sew, paint or draw. Then “circle check” began.
“It gets emotional, but we help each other,” she said.
After lunch, chores are assigned to everyone. Then there are the one-on-one counselling sessions. The rest of the day is filled with more chores, and games. Everyone tries to keep themselves occupied. After supper, there are more chores. Then they retire to their bunks, playing games and telling stories. Priscilla is in bed and asleep by 10 o’clock.
Life here is drastically different for Priscilla. “I never got up early. Sometimes I wouldn’t even see the daylight. I’d get up at six in the evening and drink all night. My roommates and I would drive around looking for something to do.”
They would occasionally look for work but then they would put themselves down. “We would tell each other that we probably couldn’t work because we were sleeping so much,” she recalls.
Priscilla’s wild days began when she was 17 and started drinking and taking speed and cocaine. “I was mostly smoking weed at first,” Priscilla says.
The death of her father six years ago was extremely hard for her. “When October got close, I would get depressed. I would drink heavily.”
This is first time Priscilla has sought treatment. “I wanted to break that cycle of drinking and change the way I live.”
What finally made her seek help was when Child Protection Services came and took away her children. “I watched them crying for me. That’s when I thought I have to get help,” she says sadly.
Darryl Cupples, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, is the head counsellor. This is his seventh season working with the society. He is a veteran counsellor with almost 26 years of experience. Cupples came to the territory after meeting many Cree at the famous Kanesatake Treatment Centre near Oka. One of his goals after receiving treatment there was to become a counsellor after learning that Cree people didn’t have a treatment centre and were short on addictions counsellors.
Cupples worked for several seasons at MacLean’s Camp on the Nottaway River and misses the island. “It’s a beautiful location. It’s more remote. It’s more secure. And I like being out on the water. There’s a lot more fish than there are in the Rupert,” he says with a chuckle.
But Cupples knows the risks involved with having large groups on an isolated island. It’s not easy navigating the river and bay in the autumn should an emergency arise.
Cupples is a firm believer in land-based treatment programs. “For a lot of people, it’s reconnecting to the land. Their eyes start to open, their ears start to hear differently. All the five senses are enhanced. It’s a whole different way of living.”
The traditional-based method has an unusual way of dealing with anger and trauma. Clients are instructed to walk in the forest and find a tree they’re attracted to. They give an offering of tobacco. Next, they can yell or talk and embrace the tree. The idea is that tree is connected to Mother Earth and an immense amount of anger and negative toxic energy is transferred to the tree.
After they have done this, Cupples tells them the spirit of the tree will always be with them and should they find themselves even halfway around the world, say in China, they can find a tree that attracts them, and they can reconnect to that tree from home.
Samantha is 34 years old. This is her first time attending this program. She participated in a virtual treatment program before completing only two weeks in a four-week program. Samantha’s children were taken from her because of her drug and alcohol abuse. She also lost a job and her vehicle. She became homeless and began living in a women’s shelter.
“My family stopped talking to me, that’s when I knew I needed to get help. I feel very sorry for my children and the many people I’ve hurt by doing drugs,” she says.
Samantha’s first mornings here came with mixed emotions. She knew she needed to be here. “I love being in the bush,” she says. “I felt like I was being set free.”
When she first saw the posted notices for the program, she filled out an application immediately and couldn’t wait to go. But then there was word that the start date was delayed. She was back taking speed and crack cocaine again but managed to stay alcohol free for two months. “It was very hard,” says Samantha. “I was very happy when I finally came to this camp.”
A day in the life of Samantha would many times begin with her waiting for her Employment Insurance money to come in. “I couldn’t wait to go to the drug dealer,” she says.
Around noon she would head out to buy and consume her drugs. She would stay in bed all night. Paranoia and fear would descend, and she would begin to hallucinate. “In the morning I would think of all the people just waking up and I would feel so bad. I would try to fall asleep, but I wouldn’t be able to.”
Samantha would sink into a depression after having spent all her money and finding herself without food. She would try to borrow money. She would many times find herself going to the store and stuffing food into her pockets.
The days in the life of Samantha have been shining brighter recently. She rises early, eats well, she is slowly overcoming the shyness she struggled with when she first arrived. Samantha is creative and teaches the others how to sew. “They call me teacher,” she chuckles happily.
Priscilla says she would encourage others to attend Waskaganish Mobile. “It helped me a lot with my grief, with my anger and with my depression and I feel more confident with myself.”
Set to depart for Mistissini in a few days, Priscilla was filled with hope. Still, she was heading back to a house she shares with a couple who still live with drugs and alcohol. But she’s steeling herself with plans to continue on the path she’s taken by attending counselling programs in Mistissini.
Cupples is strong in his opinions and not afraid to voice them. He immediately answers, “No! Not at all”, when asked if this program is well funded. “Right now, it’s focused on individuals or couples. I think it can include more family counselling. When a person is an alcoholic, it doesn’t just affect that person, it affects everybody around them.”
Cupples says the powers that be call people like him activists. “It’s not the fact that I’m an activist, I’m a defender. I’m a defender of our rights. I’m a defender of our lands. I’m a defender of our people. That’s what I do and I’m proud of it! I have a voice. I got sober. And that’s what I teach everybody who comes to these programs. When you’re sober, when your mind is clear of drugs and alcohol your voice becomes stronger.”
If anything, a brief stay at the Waskaganish Wellness Mobile Treatment camp gives hope, connections and possibly a new beginning to those who have made an effort to escape lives filled with regret, despair and hurt.