Like many people who struggle with addiction, there were many factors that went into Nunavummiuq Moses Totalik’s dark journey through substance abuse.
It evolved following a breakup from his first major relationship. Suddenly, Totalik’s dabbling with alcohol and marijuana took a serious turn for the worse. Occasionally partaking socially morphed into increasing secretive abuse, and the then-22-year-old was convicted of driving under the influence. Although Totalik pulled over safely and avoided hitting anything after his vehicle ran out of gas, his licence was revoked, despite it being a first offence. He was charged with being involved in a “single vehicle collision.”
“I don’t remember all of it,” he admits. “I just remember putting my hand out… apparently I tried flagging people down. After that, I remember the solid bed in the jail cell and the breathalyzer.”
That incident became the catalyst that sent Totalik on a downward spiral of addiction.
“Honestly I’m not sure what I was thinking that day [in jail] because it was so many mixed feelings for me… heart-broken, guilt, shame.”
He then deliberately took the plunge into harder narcotics such as cocaine, Xanax, and fentanyl. Rather than a wake up call, the DUI pushed him into a darker place of desperation and hopelessness. He became further involved with the drug crowd, and used social media to make contacts in his search for relief from his mental anguish.
After moving to Ottawa, it became all too easy to find what he wanted on the street, particularly Byward Market, an area he has to avoid now due to triggers. An average day consisted of starting by smoking marijuana, snorting coke “once every two hours” and inhaling micro-doses of fentanyl once every six hours or so.
This went on for about six months before Totalik, who hails from Gjoa Haven, reached out for help and moved into a group home and sobriety program. He now lives in a more relaxed facility, although he still has supervision around the clock, has to turn in his electronic devices at night, and is under guardianship that oversees every aspect of his life.
“What they’re really looking for is that I’m good, like I’m taking my meds and that I eat,” Totalik said. He also holds down a job as a cleaner.
Addiction and the system: “The new residential school”
Now 27 years old, Totalik recounts his experiences “under the system” since age four, when he was removed from an allegedly abusive situation in a home where alcohol was abused. He considers himself to be a “stolen child” who went through 15 or more foster homes.
“I lost count,” recalls Totalik. “They were different homes all around Nunavut, so it was traumatizing. You don’t know who these [foster parents] are or what their background is. I call it the ‘new residential school.’”
He added that he considers his history and background to be factors leading to his addiction problems.
During his DUI court case, his court-appointed counsellor suggested guardianship. Deferring to the advice of his lawyer, and with no prior knowledge of what he was getting into, Totalik went along with the decision.
How much his guardianship has helped his recovery process is unclear.
“Being a guardianship client really limits my ability to live independently. They think I’m going to go back to my old life, and that’s not really my intention anymore,” he said. “It’s difficult to deal with because those are the reasons I became an addict. I had no control [over my circumstances].”
In addition, he mentioned that in a group home for recovery in Alberta, speaking Inuktitut was forbidden.
“I’ve lost my heritage. I don’t speak my mother-tongue. I don’t sound Inuk,” he said.
The same feelings of cultural isolation, loneliness and lack of agency are all important factors when considering the complex puzzle that is addiction and its causes.
He feels that his support workers are just being paid, rather than genuinely invested in his well-being and recovery.
“I wish I could restart my life and say no to guardianship.”
However, this young man has made great personal strides to overcome the demons that have plagued him and the circumstances that hindered his success from an early age.
“Stability takes a lot of courage,” Totalik said as he reflected on his harrowing journey to sobriety. “There’s a lot of times I wish I could go back, but I look at where I am right now. It really changed my perspective on life. I’m pretty quiet most of the time. But [getting sober] gave me the resilience to come out of my own shell.”
He also mentions a close friendship forged with an Inuk woman he met while in an Alberta treatment centre. She’s an Iqaluit resident who continues to aid him as a lifeline of support.
His advice to others who are struggling is to “reach out when you need help because there is someone who will actually listen.”
In five years time, Totalik can contest his guardianship. His ultimate goal is “freedom in the future for me, which I don’t have right now.”
He also contends that in his ideal world, “I’d definitely be living my own life, doing my own thing at this age” — free of the many constraints of guardianship that affect all aspects of his life.
While Totalik wishes to be a cautionary tale to others, he’s also an example of someone who can, despite adverse circumstances, overcome what life has thrown his way.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained an error regarding the terms of supervision and misidentified Byward Market. NNSL Media apologizes for the errors and any confusion or embarrassment they may have caused.