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The Healing Dance

Network, Summer/Fall 2004

A thousand First Nations and Métis people arrive from four directions across northwestern Ontario, gathering along the sandy shores at Migisi Sahgaigan (Eagle Lake) First Nation for the 22nd annual midsummer Gathering of the Eagles powwow.

Traditional Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) drums, their keepers and singers sit at the heart of the outdoor arena under a shaded arbour. From afternoon until midnight, hundreds of dancers in elaborate, rainbow-coloured regalia spill out onto the grassy dance area, joined in turn by visitors and spectators. The master of ceremonies encourages everyone to “dance your style.” Conversations and announcements can be heard in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) and English. Friendly smiles greet familiar faces and newcomers alike.

A closer look at this gathering offers a glimpse of the many faces of healing among Aboriginal people in Ontario. People on a journey to health, much of it across rougher ground than the soft, inviting turf of the dance arena, a lot of it uphill, a long haul that began in the 1960s and 70s. For more than a generation now, Aboriginal people have been on a journey of healing and renewal, taking slow, self-determined steps. Now, First Nations and Métis are gathering strength, midway on a path to recovery from an era of oppression.

Since the signing of Treaty 3 in 1873, the Anishinaabe of this region have weathered more than a century of isolation and tyranny imposed by government and churches, convinced that Aboriginal people would eventually be better off if they became like white men. Identity, language and culture were eroded, autonomy diminished. The Indian Act ruled even the most basic choices that other Canadians took for granted — where to live, learn, work, hunt, fish, who to marry, how to speak and raise children. Indians could not vote, nor leave reserves without written permission. Over 100,000 Aboriginal children across Canada — 16,000 in Ontario — were pressed into residential schools from the 1930s to 1970s. For most of the 20th century, ceremonial gatherings such as the one at Eagle Lake were forbidden by law.

“Gathering Strength” is the title of Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, published in 1997 by Indian Affairs and Northern Development. The plan follows the federal government’s “Statement of Reconciliation: Learning from the Past,” acknowledging the “negative impact” of government policies and assimilation practices and affirming Canada’s commitment to advance the well-being of Aboriginal communities. This commitment included $350 million over five years to promote healing for survivors of residential schools, channeled through the Aboriginal Healing Foundation into community-based healing programs. Those programs have now begun to wind down, while the impact of colonization continues to be felt at the heart of Anishinaabe communities.

In the East

On the last evening of the traditional powwow at Eagle Lake, on the eastern edge of Treaty 3 territory, Arnold Gardner comes to the podium to address the crowd. He is Ogichitaa — leader and spokesperson for the chiefs of Grand Council Treaty 3, representing 28 First Nations spread across 50,000 square miles.

After thanking visitors and community members, his voice measured and heavy, he shares news of a tragedy from the day before. A young man, 19 years old, son of another well-known leader from further north, is on life-support in a Thunder Bay hospital. The details echo similar events in past months and recent years — violence, substance abuse, accidents, and suicides, mainly involving young First Nations men.

Gardner has given tobacco to one of the traditional drums, to request a healing song. He especially calls on the young people to hear his words.

Every Aboriginal community today, on and off-reserve, is primarily young: 60 percent of the population is under 25 years of age. And it is young people who are most at risk. The First Nations Indian and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada tracks the statistics. The most common causes of death are injury, accidents, drowning, poisoning and suicide. And even though the last of the Indian Residential Schools closed in the 1970s, a staggering number of children and youth continue to be removed from their homes to foster care and youth corrections facilities.

From the South

Gilbert Smith comes to the microphone before the healing song begins. On behalf of one community where six young men have taken their lives over the past 18 months, Mr. Smith invites citizens from across Treaty 3 to another assembly in late August to gather strength and ideas to stop this cycle of self-destruction. Gilbert is a traditional drumkeeper, teacher and healer, but also works full-time at Anishinaabeg Counselling Services in Fort Frances on the southern border of Treaty 3, one of a number of Aboriginal agencies now providing mental health support services in the region.

As the drum starts the healing song, Elder Ann Wilson, in her late 70s, of Rainy River First Nation also to the south, rises to her feet and makes her way into the dancing area with the help of a cane and women friends. She is determined to add her strength to the mass of people that have filled the dance area. Ann is known and respected across Treaty 3, Ontario and other parts of Canada, as a gifted teacher who somehow evaded residential school for a life on the land, steeped in the language and traditions of her ancestors.

Earlier that morning, a young Aboriginal woman, Danielle Morrison of Kenora, almost 18 and ready to leave home for university, was one of many who stopped by to visit at Ann’s camp. She had dreamt of the Elder a few weeks earlier, of wanting to take her along on a trip, but not having room. Ann talks to Danielle about being out in the world on her own, away from family and community. “There’s many things you’ll come across out there,” she says. “You have to watch, to understand what is good and what is not, be patient, to know how and when to choose what to take in, what is right for you.”

Ann speaks in English, knowing that few young people now speak the language of her heart, a powerful vivid language full of images and life. She speaks of the responsibility to live well, to treat every part of creation including ourselves with respect, as we are all connected in a delicate web. She looks upon every experience, even illness and death, as an opportunity to learn and then to live life more fully, more wisely.

Few in number, Elders and traditional healers like Ann Wilson quietly go about their work in every community, usually outside of organizations and offices. People call on them at home, offering tobacco and simple gifts to sit with them at kitchen tables, around a fire, in sweat lodges and ceremonies.

To the West

Newer, emerging Aboriginal health care services, such as Wassay-Gezhig Na-Nahn–Dah-We-Igamig, the Kenora Area Health Access Centre, bring the expertise of Elders and traditional healing practices together with Western mainstream medicine in a wide range of services to 14 First Nations and urban Aboriginal people. The centre is located in Washagamis Bay First Nation on Lake of the Woods. The grounds surrounding the main building are an integral part of the working space, with a sweat lodge and teepee nearby. Staff members include a physician, nurse practitioners, a diabetes nurse/educator, a nutritionist, a dental hygienist, a social worker, and a traditional healing coordinator. This recognition of Anishinaabe healing practices began in Kenora back in the 1970s with the Traditional Healers Program that operated out of Lake of the Woods District Hospital by Elders and healers, with the support of physicians and staff. Patients at the hospital could access traditional healing while getting mainstream medical treatments.

The Health Access Centre is one of an array of programs and services, from downtown Toronto to the James Bay coast, funded by the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy of Ontario. The AHWS, formed in 1994, “brings together Aboriginal people and the Government of Ontario in a unique partnership to promote health and healing.” The strategy directs $33 million annually into First Nations and Métis designed health outreach, treatment and prevention programs. A “continuum of care… designed from the Traditional Medicine Wheel, it also addresses all age groups.” This summer the strategy announced an additional $25 million in funding over five years, some of which will be channelled into mental health initiatives in the north.

Improving health remains one of the greatest challenges facing Aboriginal people. Even though gains have been made, people continue to live and die with infectious and circulatory disease, tuberculosis, respiratory illness, diabetes, dental decay, HIV/AIDS, at rates two to 20 times higher than national averages across age groups and gender. At the same time, employment, education and income rates remain significantly lower than for Canadians at large. Not even half of the houses in First Nations are connected to water treatment or sewage systems.

These realities take their toll on body, mind, heart and spirit. While there’s been a return to sobriety and healthy living in many families, a lot of people continue to cope through poor eating habits, substance abuse, gambling and other addictions. Mental health professionals agree that the unusually heavy burdens of everyday life affect most people, showing in low-grade, chronic or situational depression and anxiety, attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and chaotic functioning. There don’t seem to be any quick cures for what social analysts refer to as “intergenerational trauma,” “ethno-stress,” and “ancient pain.”

Even with increasing numbers of staff and services, individuals and families tend to be more isolated from each other than in the past, more difficult to reach. “It’s hard to connect people in need of help with resource people in their own communities,” notes June Mandamin, mental health worker and one of 50 staff at the Kenora Area Health Access Centre. Aboriginal health and social services are beginning to look at how to link up and cooperate more, network, and share resources. Skills training, information sharing, and mentoring are critical for the hundreds of front-line workers in small communities or organizations who try to carry the load on their own. As June says, “There’s lots of good people out there, they just need some support… We need to have someone go in and get people together to learn to work as a community or group.”

Little of this stress or isolation shows at Eagle Lake. Here the open expanse of sky and water add to an air of buoyancy. People are looking up and staying afloat in spite of the odds. Humour and hope prevail. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation calls it “resilience.”

Out of the North

Lorraine Kenny literally wrote the book on it in 2003 — “The Resiliency Workbook for Survivors of Residential School.” A decade earlier she compiled another manual, “Raising the Children: A Training Program for Aboriginal Parents.” She has spent her adult life learning to be the parent she never had, and sharing her stories of resilience with her own four children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, and fellow survivors of residential schools.

With a grandchild in her lap, she reflects on her own journey to healing — and joy.

Lorraine’s mother died when she was only six at Lac Seul First Nation on the northern border of Treaty 3. She spent the rest of her formative years at Pelican Falls and then Cecilia Jaffray, two of the five Indian Residential Schools that operated in Treaty 3.

As a young mother, Lorraine struggled through years of panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and fear. With help she found ways to release pent-up emotions of grief and shame that kept her from a life she yearned for. Now she lives that life. In her late 40s, she fills her day with laughter, listening and healing adventures. “I wake up every morning wondering, ‘What can I get into today…’”

Ms. Kenny coordinates the Bii Waasaya Healing Project, “coming into light,” a three-year residential school healing program funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, working for the first time with her own First Nation at Lac Seul. Her hope for the community and other survivors of the schools is that they too will find their way to healing and joy. And that they will find inspiration as she does, in the eyes of the children.

Closing the Circle

Events like the one at Eagle Lake offer a pause along a sometimes daunting path for Aboriginal people — time to reflect and celebrate, to connect and renew, to learn and laugh, to gather strength. These gatherings offer a model to continue the journey, making room for everyone — women and men, young and old, Aboriginal people and newcomers, traditional knowledge and modern practices. The circle makes it easy to look back and ahead while carefully paying attention to the present. Each person, family and community, together, “dancing their style.”

Mary Alice Smith, or “Kokum Sam” as she is known to her family, spends much of her time learning and sharing with others about how to “get along” in life. She has a BA in Conflict Resolution and 30 years of experience in community development and adult education with First Nations and Aboriginal organizations. A Métis (European-Cree) and lifelong resident of northwestern Ontario, Mary Alice lives near Kenora on the shores of Longbow Lake, where she enjoys gardening, walking, writing and jingle dress dancing.

Aboriginal Identity

The Anishinaabe gathered at Eagle Lake represent a small portion of the 200,000 Aboriginal people in Ontario. One hundred and thirty-four First Nations dot the province, largely across the north, living on small reserves of 200 to 800 people. The population is increasingly mobile, shifting in greater numbers to urban areas for work, school, health care, social services and housing. In the northwest, Aboriginal people make up 10 to 25 percent of the population in small towns and cities such as Kenora, Dryden, Fort Frances, Atikokan, Red Lake, and Sioux Lookout.

Aboriginal people are the descendants of the original inhabitants of North America. The Canadian Constitution defines “Aboriginal” to include Indians, Métis and Inuit peoples. In Ontario, Indian people and Métis are by far the largest groups. Since the 1970s, the term “First Nations people” has come into common usage as a replacement for the term “Indian.”

Aboriginal peoples also identify themselves according to their cultural and national identities. In Ontario, these groups include Miyew (Cree), Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Pottawatomi, Chippewas, Odawa, Algonquin and Mississaugas), Oji-Cree, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois-Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Tuscarora and Seneca), Métis and Inuit. These identities are extremely important to Aboriginal peoples, and represent different heritages, languages, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs.

Related Resources

For related links to First Nations resources, including information about residential schools, youth suicide, federal and provincial health strategies, and the Aboriginal healing movement, see Aboriginal Mental Health Resources.


Thanks to the following who contributed to this article:

Anita Cameron, Executive Director, Kenora Area Health Access Centre
Anita Webb, Executive Director, New Directions Counselling Centre, Kenora
Ann Wilson, Elder, Rainy River First Nation
Brian Beaton, Program Manager, KNet, Sioux Lookout
Danielle Morrison, student, Kenora
Diane Pelletier, Coordinator, Community Mental Health Support Services, Kenora Association for Community Living
Gilbert Smith, Naicatchewenin First Nation, Anishinaabeg Counselling Services
Jackie, Communications Office, Aboriginal Healing Foundation
June Mandamin, Mental Health Worker, Kenora Area Health Access Centre
Lorraine Kenny, Coordinator, Bii Waasaya Healing Project, LacSeul First Nation
Marion MacAdam, Program Consultant, Centre for Addictions & Mental Health, Kenora
Miriam Johnston, Coordinator, Aboriginal Health Office, Ministry of Health, Toronto
Ozzie Seunath, Executive Director, Kenora Chiefs Advisory Mental Health & Addictions Program
Peter Hettinga, Mental Health Consultant, Kenora
Phillip Gardner, Eagle Lake First Nation
Tina Armstrong, Program Coordinator, Youth Healing Lodge, Kenora Area Health Access Centre
Valdie Seymour, Program Director, Migisi Alcohol & Drug Abuse Treatment Center, Kenora

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