Reconciliation in Health & Healing in the North

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation wins the $1 Million Dollar Arctic Inspiration Prize

Members of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation going home with their cheque from left: Jean Erasmus, Nicole Redvers, William Greenland, Donald Prince, Magnolia Unka-Wool, (MP) Michael MacLeod. Front from left: Rassi Nashalik, Be’sha Blondin

This article was published in the Yellowknifer newspaper on Wednesday, February 7th. It was based on the original Women Warriors newsletter, Reconciliation in Health Research: Spirituality & Science published December 14, 2017. 

When I met Dr. Nicole Redvers, the chair of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundationand Elder Be’sha Blondin at the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research in Yellowknife this past November they had no administrative help and no access to federal funding for their program, The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Project.

What they lacked in funding they made up in passion and commitment to making operational, their urban land-based healing program, targeting at-risk First Nations, Metis, and Inuit in Yellowknife. Their goal was to keep it simple – grassroots – canvas tents set up for Elders, staffed half days during the week, to share their traditional knowledge, provide mentorship and traditional counseling, share their traditional language, do traditional food preparation, and facilitate cultural gatherings.

From the start, they were concerned about funding. Their current grant would run out in June 2018 and they could not rely on the Government or Western institutions for money because of skepticism of Indigenous based healing programs. Evaluations to prove the validity of health practices often rely on hard, biomedical outcomes, which are not compatible with the spiritual nature of Indigenous healing.

Elder Be’sha states, “The cultural way is very different than the modern system – the way they look at people. The modern system doesn’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.”

Also, the policy framework of health institutions and research often has the assumptions of Indigenous inferiority – how can speaking your language or making a drum possibly heal trauma and disease?

Nicole states, “The primary point is demonstrating that when people go back to culture, not necessarily just going out on the land, because there are lots of on-the-land programs that do cultural work, but they don’t do healing – let’s bring in this healing aspect as an effective tool and revitalization process where young and old reconnect with the healing traditions of their culture. It is addressing some of the traumatic issues people have had in their lives, and finding ways to get people excited about coming to work on the issues they have in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable.”

Nicole highlighted during our meeting that western medicine was not helping Indigenous people heal from the legacy of residential school. She states, “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.”

The outcome from our meeting was the collective agreement that this coming summer Dr. Redvers, the Elders and knowledge holders from the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation (AIWF), and allied scholars would meet in Yellowknife to create new methodologies and frameworks for capturing outcomes from on-the-land cultural activities and traditional healing practices. We recognize the need for change in how we deal with traditional medicine projects, and the creation of funding policies that align with the sacred work of traditional healers, while not sacrificing the sacredness of the practice.

The $1 million dollars Arctic Inspiration Prize has given the AIWF the opportunity to conduct long-term research and create new, culturally appropriate methodologies and frameworks. This program, which likely would not have been funded by Western institutions, has become the ultimate act of reconciliation in Indigenous health.

It has also given the Elders the opportunity to pass on their traditional knowledge, which was at risk of being lost due to the lack of spaces to practice traditional healing, and because our elders are passing away.

This prize, and the further committed $60 million dollars on behalf of the founders of AIP, Ms. Sima Sharifi, and Mr. Arnold Witzig, has given the Metis, Inuit and First Nations of the North the ability to heal on our own terms. It is a gift of health, and an important step in recognizing that Indigenous ways of knowing, and healing are as valid as Western methods.

The sixth annual Arctic Inspiration Prize Awards Ceremony was held in Ottawa, Ontario, January 31, 2018.


Jean Erasmus states on her facebook profile, “Having a nearly million dollar cheque in my hand was awesome!”


Please listen to my interview with Jean on the Women Warriors Podcast
Season 2, Episode 2: Jean Cardinal (Erasmus) on Vulnerability as Medicine & Supporting Men on Their Healing Journeys

Jean is the co-founder of Dene Wellness Warriors, an Indigenous focused wellness business based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories that offers one-to-one counseling, wellness coaching, and workshop facilitation. She is a member of the Canadian Professional Counselors Association, and she is the only Indigenous therapist recognized by Health Canada to work with Residential School Survivors and their families. Dene Wellness Warriors has recently been contracted to facilitate a New Day Program, a program for men who have used violence in their relationships but want to change this behavior to better their relationships with themselves, their partners, their children and their communities.

Marcel Petit is a proud Metis. He is a well-known Saskatchewan filmmaker and photographer. He has worked with several community action groups in the Saskatoon area, such as STOPS to Violence, STR8-UP, Core Neighbourhood Youth Coop, Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre, Saskatoon Indian Metis Friendship Centre and Saskatoon Open Door Society.


Oct 2016. Marcel was a presenter at our violence awareness and prevention conference, Rise Up Mighty Warrior. He discussed the importance of art in healing and his photovoice workshop with Women Warriors.


With the theme of this weeks newsletter being reconciliation and Indigenous healing, I’d like to discuss supporting our men on their healing journeys. When I hosted our violence awareness and prevention conference, Rise Up Mighty Warrior in October 2016, the feedback that I received from the 90 attendees, composed of mainly Indigenous women, is they want more healing resources and conferences for their men.

This request to heal our men is echoed in many articles I read on CBC North including:
1) Abused as a child, became abusive husband: Man testifies at MMIWG Yellowknife, then supports others
‘We are healing. But without you we are nothing. Women give life,’ says James Jenka.

2) MMIWG hearings shed light on lack of mental health services in Canada’s north
Families testified about struggles with poverty, addiction, abuse, and violence.

Excerpt from the article:
Advocate Lydia Bardack, that has worked in the justice field for many years in Yellowknife states, “I know we want to focus on the women, but the women are asking for help for their men.”
She says sheltering a woman from an abusive relationship is a start, but there has to be a focus on preventing the trauma in the first place.
She frequently speaks with men in custody who have witnessed and suffered abuse as children and later became violent as adults, which is why she says programs need to focus on helping them.
“Because if we want to keep the women and children safe, we have to heal the men.”

3) In this Globe and Mail article, Fred Sasakamoose: Survivor, trailblazer, leader, hero, Fred speaks about the devastating effects of residential school on his emotional well-being. He states, “It was hard to continue because my life was always away from my parents. I never received a hug or a kiss for 10 years.”

My friend and artist, Marcel Petit openly shares his healing journey with people. I met Marcel in 2016 in his role as a SaskCulture Community Engagement Animator. I invited him to Lloydminster to do a Photovoice workshop with members of Women Warriors so they could present their viewpoints on health and safety at our conference, Rise Up Mighty Warrior. You can view these photo voice presentation on the Women Warriors Youtube channel: Ashley and Chris.

Marcel shared with me that his mother was a residential school survivor and placed him in foster care at a young age. During our interview last Sunday he talked about his unstable childhood. He stated, “Everyone kept leaving me. In your spirit you become disposable. That’s how I felt and I didn’t realize how much I hated myself and my mom. I didn’t want to be my family. I wanted them out of my life. I spent twenty years of my life trying to die.”

The trauma from his childhood manifested in alcoholism, anger, and self-hatred. The turning point came at the age of 31 years old, when he was stabbed 19 times in Wekwheti, NWT and knowing if he didn’t quit drinking and hiding from his past, he was signing his own suicide.

His greatest mentor and healing ally became his mom. He stated, “She was the cause and effect of everything that was awful about me in the first place. My mom taught me that everything we need is inside of us. We just need to wake-up.”

Marcel’s healing involved participating in Sundance, sweats, weekly counseling sessions, and forgiveness. He said about his mom, “I had to learn to forgive her. I learned about her experience in residential school and all the things that happened to her including sexual abuse. She didn’t leave because she hated me. She let me go because she needed to. I had to learn how to forgive, and how to forgive myself.”

Marcel now mentors youth and talks about how every single relationship brings him healing because “most of these kids we work with are a reflection of ourselves.”

He discussed a specific youth that triggered him after disclosing that his mom had been murdered and found by a garbage dump. He stated, “I just wanted him to cry. I hate the fact that kids have to be so strong. It killed me to know this kid can’t be a kid, and I know what that feels like. I told him ‘just cry’ and don’t hold that stuff in.”

He believes that “Indigenous peoples are born with resilience. It is in us. It’s a prerequisite because of the hell we’ve been through in this country.”

His advice for healing from trauma, “First step, talk about it. Don’t hold it in. Don’t make it about you. Don’t hate your parents for what they are. Talk and deal with it. You’ll never fully be you until you figure out who you are. Go stand where your Great-grandparents have. Those ancestors overcame great odds to make sure we knew our culture. And don’t pretend to be perfect. We’re going to make mistakes when we’re changing patterns.”

The Power of Mentorship with Marcel Petit 
1. Who was the most important mentor in your life?
The most important person in my life was my mother without her guidance and love I wouldn’t have found my way out of the dark2. How did you find them or approach them to be your mentor?
I was lucky she was always there, I just needed to open my eyes and ears3. What are your top three lessons learned from your mentor?
Confidence is inside you
What do you want from life

4. What qualities make a good mentee?
Share Knowledge
Guidance without judgment
Just be there

5. What have benefits and/or rewards have you received from mentoring?
‘I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve worked with over the past 20+ years. It has been such an amazing journey. The rewards has been just the honoured to work with and alongside some amazing people along their journey

6. What personal development practices do you have?
Art (film, Photo)

7. What book most impacted your life?
The One and Half Men (the story of Jim Brady and Malcolm Norris) and any book on Poetry.

I am now a proud bi-weekly contributor to the Yellowknifer newspaper. If you’re interested in staying up-to-date on the North please subscribe to their newspapers here. My content for the newspaper will be original so you won’t want to miss out. Also, make sure to subscribe to the Women Warriors newsletter here.