The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Project
Last Friday, November 24th I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Nicole Redvers, a Metis naturopath and Elder Be’sha Blondin at the Institute of Circumpolar Health Research in Yellowknife. I had reached out to Nicole in mid-September to discuss hosting an Indigenous health symposium. My podcast guest, Jean Cardinal and my cousin and nurse practitioner, Julie Lys (read our interview Healing on the Land: My Vacation in Yellowknife Part 3 of 4) recommended her as a valuable resource for Indigenous health and wellness. I decided to ask for Nicole’s email from her sister and my podcast guest, Tunchai Redvers.
While I was recording my second season of the Women Warriors podcast, I had been exploring the idea of bringing together the Indigenous health researchers that I had the pleasure of knowing through my connections with the University of Calgary and the Indigenous health professionals I knew in Yellowknife. My initial idea, a gathering of Indigenous academics and health care providers was based on the idea that our inherent wisdom as Indigenous peoples is told to us through our connection to the land, our cultural teachings, and our bodies. Our blood carries the voices of all the ancestors before us, known as the field of epigenetics, and we have the strength and support of all our ancestors – 10,000 Voices was the initial name for this gathering. The exact purpose of the gathering needed to be clarified, but I had a strong feeling that it was needed.
Nicole and I connected late September on a phone call in which she described her role in the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation (AIWF) as a board member, and assisting local Elders to develop an on-the-land urban camp in Yellowknife. The ultimate goal was to build a traditional wellness center: “The vision for the centre is to serve the needs of the NWTs 30 First Nations, Inuit and Métis in a distinctly Indigenous way,” stated in this APTN video, Elders discuss how to bring Indigenous wellness center to NWT. Furthermore, it is an act of reconciliation as highlighted in this CBC North article, Indigenous health group strikes out on its own in quest for wellness centre, “Increased respect for Indigenous health practices in the Northwest Territories is one of the recommendations from a recently-released report into the death of Hugh Papik and is one of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” In specific, this healing centre enacts the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s twenty-first call to action:
We call upon the federal government to provide sustainable funding for existing and new Aboriginal healing centres to address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harms caused by residential schools, and to ensure that the funding of healing centres in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories is a priority (2015: 3).
In addition, it fulfills the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, article twenty-four, point one and two:
Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services (2006: 9).
Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States shall take the necessary steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of this right (2006: 9).
Before our meeting I knew that Nicole had entered their on-the-land camp, The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Project defined as, “A healing program for Inuit, First Nation and Métis who are at risk of suicide and/or incarceration in the Northwest Territories, the project aims to combine Indigenous cultural education and traditional interventions in a “wilderness urban setting” into the Arctic Inspiration Prize. On Thursday, November 30th, they were shortlisted for the $1 million dollar prize category, which you can read about in this CBC North article, Arctic Inspiration Prize announces 10 finalists for up to $3 million in funding, or watch their CBC Northbeat interview with Dr. Redvers and Elder Rassi Nashalik starting at 19:53.
During our meeting Nicole and Be’sha both stressed that the traditional wellness knowledge and healing held by Elders is in jeopardy of being lost to future generations. There are many factors contributing to this loss including:
1) Inability to access federal funding dollars due to the funding structures in the NWT. During the 80’s the health transfer agreement was amended so that health dollars went directly to the territorial government. They oversee all First Nations health dollars instead of Indigenous government/communities.
2) No designated facility for traditional healing. For now, they are starting their camp in canvas tents with Elders providing traditional healing and cultural teaching for half days, five days a week. Anyone is allowed to access these services, but their main demographic is the homeless.
3) A small population base in the NWT means there are fewer Elders with this specialized knowledge. Recently, an Elders’ passing served as an urgent reminder that the wellness Centre is top priority.
The part of the conversation that I wanted to focus on is Nicole’s insights about western medicine not helping Indigenous people heal from the legacy of residential school. She discussed high youth suicide rates and stated, “What we’re doing right now is not working. And what we’re doing is trying to indigenize western models of care, which is not the same as Indigenous healing. We need to ensure that the structure is what we need and to fit western medical protocols into that as opposed to the other way around.”
Nicole refers to not just the need for decolonizing research, (which our Master’s student Megan discussed decolonizing evaluation approaches in our last newsletter, Reflections from the Tamarack Institutes “Evaluating Community Impacts” Workshop) but also the need for new research methodologies and performance measurements for Indigenous health.
Elder Be’sha stated in our meeting, “The cultural way is very different than the modern system – the way they look at people. The modern systems don’t have a spirit, but the traditional way has a spirit. We make sure when a person comes in for healing that it’s up to me to diagnose them for healing. Before I can heal that person I need to know their story because what that story tells me is what created them to be where they’re at. I look at it as a spiritual person and healer; I make sure they have a way of healing themselves first. I give them homework and I look at what they’ve done through storytelling, writing and letting it go, then the doors open for healing.”
I alluded to the spiritual aspect of healing in my newsletter, Healing on the Land: My Vacation in Yellowknife stating, “Indigenous knowledge systems including spiritual healing through the land cannot be validated through Western research methodologies, thereby discounting their significance.” Reconciliation in health research is the understanding that spirituality cannot be measure through current evaluation methodologies and frameworks, and that we need news ways to validate our Indigenous healing practices.
The outcome of this meeting was the collective agreement that this coming fall Dr. Redvers, the Elders from the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, and select Indigenous academics that we invite will meet in Dettah to discuss how we can develop new methodologies and frameworks for capturing outcomes from Indigenous healing. This gathering speaks to the possibility of saving Indigenous knowledge and healing practices by validating them and perhaps creating and refining these methods to use on a global scale.
This gathering is about awakening the collaborative spirit and building new ways of evaluating. I feel that my role in this gathering is not to be the expert, but to connect the experts. With that in mind, I am looking forward to someday becoming the expert and I hope that this project will lead me on the path. I have no answers about “how” we’re going to do this challenging task, but I had a dream about it. In my dream on Novemeber 10th, when I had my doubts about going to Yellowknife to meet with Nicole, I received a message: I am ready. I am willing. I am open. In my experience over these past two years of creating a program from scratch, sometimes the most important part is showing up and the “how” will find you.
If you have any questions aobut this newsletter please feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women Warriors Podcast Season 2 Highlights
2) EP13 Carly Morton on Strengthening Intuition, Mediumship & Our Spiritual Connection
3) EP14 Chief Lady Bird on Art, Celebrating Our Bodies & Fighting Racism & Stereotypes in Tattoo Culture