The Kwanlin Dün First Nation hosted the Yukon and other First Nations at the three day conference in Whitehorse. The objective was to share local experiences of healing on the land based on culturally safe approaches and traditional knowledge. Guest speakers, community groups, elders, youth and program staff come together in the spirit of sharing and learning. The agenda included panels, keynote presentations, elders and youth working sessions, as well as on-site visits and ceremonies.

Day 1 – Sharing what we know on connecting to land, culture and community to heal The conference opened with the lighting of the sacred fire ceremony to honor the ancestors and the guide the conference in the upcoming days. Jeanie Dendys, Director of Justice, Kwanlin Dün First Nation welcomed those present and briefly introduced the Jackson Lake Healing program. In the afternoon the panel Mental Wellness Team Experience in Canada, brought together speakers representing Mental Wellness Teams in New Brunswick, Quebec (Chisasibi) and Saskatchewan. The experiences of these communities have been very similar in terms of responding to local needs for healing as well as common challenges in building collaborative multidisciplinary intervention teams. The Saskatchewan team is a new initiative, similar to the one in Chisasibi, where emphasis is placed on intervention and aftercare program development. The Maliseet Nations Mental Wellness Team (New Brunswick) has been in existence for 5 years. Its mission of the is to provide an accessible range of holistic mental wellness services that will address the needs of the 4 First Nations partners, in a manner that is culturally safe and appropriate to achieve a happy, balanced and sacred way of life. Cultural activities and land-based healing programs are delivered by a multidisciplinary team made up of a resident doctor, two mental health nurses, and various local cultural resource people such as elders and traditional healers. Taken together the presentations underlined the following challenges in developing and maintaining successful mental wellness teams:

  • Partnerships and cooperation with local entities and community groups
  • Validation and support from leadership (local and regional)
  • Integration of cultural and clinical approaches in the spirit of respect
  • Effective aftercare
  • Ongoing multi-year funding

David Rattray from the Taltan Nation (BC) shared his experience of the effects of trauma on the Brain and Body. It explored how the brain and body systems “store” pain from the past which shapes how we experience life today. Together, David and the participants, looked at the traumatized brain and body and explored ways to let pain go to live a healthier life.  In the afternoon the Chisasibi delegation visited the Jackson Lake Camp where the Kwanlin Dün First Nation delivers the land-based healing program. We were hosted by Johnny Brass, the Community Outreach Worker, and discussed how the program is structured and some common challenges.

Day 2 – Working sessions on braiding relationships, cultural and clinical approaches to programs

Andy Nieman, First Child & Youth Advocate for Yukon Territory and a residential school survivor, discussed the central role of being on the land for improving the mental health of youth and adults. The land is the most effective means by which young people and adults dealing with mental health issues and addictions can learn about traditions, community, history, and language as a means of belonging, health and wellness. Sharing of spiritual beliefs and learning cultural values helps people deal with pain, grief and loss and empowers them to take positive steps towards recovery. Spirituality, cultural traditions, practices and ceremonies give individuals hope in their lives and connect them to people to trust and feel free to talk about the issues that they deal with, as well as accessing alternative intervention options that can be more culturally appropriate for them. Andy is advocating for the development and implementation of a mental health and addictions treatment centre for youth in the Yukon territory.

The day closed with a panel discussion on the Jackson Lake Wellness Team. The Jackson Lake Healing Center offers five or three weeks of an intensive land-based healing program for individuals that are at risk or have already entered the provincial justice system. The Center offers two gender specific (men and women) sessions during the summer. Its mission is to “provide a supportive, land-based, holistic and compassionate environment based on the integration of traditional and modern knowledge in order to create balance and self-empowerment”. The program combines clinical therapeutic approaches such as group counselling with cultural activities such as medicine picking, sweats, cleansing rituals, arts and crafts, and bush activities.  Family visits and special guests help individuals feel connected and build healthy relationships. Overall the camp provides a safe place for participants to get away from their daily struggles and focus on their healing journey. The program received $1 million in funding over three years from the Government of Yukon. At the conference, Premier Darrell Pasloski stated that “Through this funding we are meeting our government commitment to work with First Nations to explore opportunities for land-based treatment of substance abuse. We recognize the importance of this being a First Nations-owned and operated facility.”

David Rattray closed the day with a presentation on Meditation as a powerful tool for dissolving stress in the mind and body. The techniques introduced included Aboriginal ways of engaging meditation such as shifting the mind from being part of the river to being the river; singing / breathing with the land; waterfall breathing; storing “snap-shots” of good memories and exploring methods to bring peace within. These techniques help remove pain from memories; bring calm to angry or stress related emotional states and relieve physical pain.

The evening celebrated the participants at the Gala celebration and Feast with traditional dancing, singing and drumming from local and regional groups.

Day 3 – Building programs through working together into the future

The last day was reserved to discussing the lessons learned on how the land has sustained and how it can support in a gentle healing process. Healthy Aboriginal values, beliefs and culture help to heal and nourish our spirits and ground interventions in personal responsibility, generosity, unity, peace, humour and sacredness. Although challenges remain in terms of aftercare and permanent programming, the experiences shared show that committed local groups, such as the Chisasibi Miyupimaatisiiun Committee and the Mental Wellness Team, are key to developing multiple paths to healing that not only help individuals in their healing journey but can establish vital and successful local institutions that contribute to community capacity building. Ultimately, the goal is to promote and develop culturally relevant programs that ensure healthy relationships and safe spaces where individuals feel loved and appreciated for who they are. The healing journey is a lifelong process that requires a sustained and collaborative support from everyone.

We would like to thank Health Canada for their financial support as well as the Chief and Council.

Chisasibi conference participants: Eddie Pash, Chisasibi Land-based healing program; Larry House, CMWT coordinator; William Bearskin & Linda Bearskin, Justice Committee; Ann Martin, CHB Mental Wellness Department; Ioana Radu & Mike Wong.