By Kathy Stackelberg, sponsored by the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation (Photos courtesy of the Wanaki Centre)

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way First Nations residential treatment centres across Canada offer services, with significant innovations developed from the beginning. The centres are funded by the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program and the National Youth Solvent Abuse Program. Faced with closures for safety reasons, the treatment centres quickly developed virtual and land-based approaches to accommodate sharp increases in substance use, mental health issues and family violence.

The centres developed new aftercare programming for clients discharged early with strategies to move in-person counselling to telehealth/virtual counselling services. For example, new on-the-land programming was developed to allow programs to move outdoors with safety protocols in place so people can socially distance themselves. Some centres supported local food security programs, and others stockpiled Naloxone and harm reduction supplies to ensure community access. One treatment centre was transformed into a community command centre.

A youth treatment centre in Saskatchewan created a fun educational video as a tool to help youth better understand trauma and how to deal with its emotional and physical impacts. As the pandemic dragged on, treatment centre staff developed and implemented safety policies, and established reopening and screening protocols.

Treatment centres plan to continue virtual programming

The Wanaki Centre programming is a blend of cognitive behavioural therapy and Anishnabe teachings based on the four aspects of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellness.

Virtual and land-based programming has been extremely successful, so much so that many treatment centres plan to continue this approach even after residential programming resumes. Gilbert Whiteduck, a counsellor from the Wanaki Centre in Quebec, a treatment centre for First Nations and Inuit adults, says the accessibility and flexibility of virtual programming for pre-treatment, treatment, follow-up care and outreach have allowed them to reach more people, many of whom might never have had the opportunity to participate in person for residential treatment.

“The virtual program has been a total success. People can see us, we can see them, and we can have a really good strong exchange,” said Whiteduck. “We are excited when we see the people coming online, telling us this program has met their needs and they didn’t have to leave the community or their family to participate.” Whiteduck says there are still challenges with people doing the program from home; however, the residential program brings its own set of challenges as well.

The positive results of the virtual program create an opportunity to engage many more people who would otherwise not be able to join residential programming for a variety of reasons.

Whiteduck explains that treatment centres are now aiming to reach people who have been incarcerated to deliver programs within the institutions. This would allow individuals to access additional tools to help integrate them back into the community in a successful way.

Many of these innovations have been achieved even though there are chronic funding gaps and year-to-year funding promises for First Nations treatment centres. The funding inequity is documented in a study released by the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation in 2018, which shows First Nations addictions workers earn 45% less than their provincial counterparts, yet they continue to exceed standards of excellence through accreditation.

To learn more about Thunderbird’s funding parity study and how the organization continues to advocate for equitable and sustainable resources for treatment centres, visit

Kathy Stackelberg is a writer and editor for the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. The Thunderbird Partnership Foundation is a leading culturally-centered voice on First Nations mental wellness, substance use and addiction.


Select Treatment Innovations at a Glance 

Charles J. Andrew Youth & Family Treatment Centre (Newfoundland)

  • Live-streamed wellness activities, Zoom sharing circles
  • Tablets from Thunderbird Partnership Foundation provided for
    clients without internet connection

Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselling Association (Nova Scotia)

  • Google classroom for virtual programming
  • Video-based counsellors

Wanaki Centre (Quebec)

  • Wellness hotline
  • Telephone contact with past clients

Mark Amy Treatment Centre (Alberta)

  • Knowledge Keeper teachings
  • Recovery program supports, including employment assistance