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Why Indigenous People Need Other Indigenous People To Heal

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
Introducing Every Day Indigenous, our series centering and celebrating Indigenous people. Through strength and resistance, comes joy. It’s time to share that.
When the news broke last month that 215 children’s bodies were found in an unmarked grave outside a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., I felt destroyed. For what those children’s lives were and could have been. For the families torn apart when their little ones didn’t return home, and the re-opening of those wounds when their bodies were discovered. And that was just one school. One instance of remains found. This month, 104 more potential graves were detected in Manitoba. Thirty-five more bodies were found in Saskatchewan. There will doubtless be more.
The outpouring of grief shared by the entire country is an extremely valid reaction, but for Indigenous people, the heartbreaking stories are a re-opening of extremely old wounds and trauma. When conversations about residential schools are everywhere, we are unable to escape from the evidence of how society has and continues to try to eradicate our cultures, our bodies, and our spirits. The Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc news warranted a National Indian Residential School Crisis Line phone number accompanying most stories, (including this one) to provide emotional and crisis support. It’s a start, but mental health services for and by Indigenous people are needed beyond this moment. It shouldn’t take a crisis to get people's attention: Indigenous people need other Indigenous people to heal.
Having an Indigenous social worker, doctor, or health-care worker can bring a certain level of comfort, an understanding of our histories and experiences, that can’t be found elsewhere. I’ve spent a lifetime hearing that Indigenous people should “just get over it” — the intergenerational trauma and centuries of hurt caused by this country’s brutal treatment of Indigenous people. The residential school next to where I grew up, on the Six Nations reserve, shut down in 1970 and its survivors are still in our community.
Because of the on-going effects of colonization and continued mistreatment of Indigenous people, we experience higher rates of mental illness. There are also barriers to accessing adequate mental healthcare, especially in remote communities where there are limited services and spaces. COVID has made things worse. In Her Circle, a recent report on Indigenous Women’s Health commissioned by the B.C. Women’s Health Foundation, said that the pandemic has forced community health programs to shut down, while the lack of in-person interactions has caused isolation and loneliness.
We need better support.
Instead, we experience racism — in a 2020 survey of 9,000 Indigenous people from the In Plain Sight report, 84% of respondents said they experienced some form of discrimination in healthcare, which can range from the explicit, and gross, practice of emergency room care providers playing guessing games on how high the alcohol level of a patient is, to smaller microaggressions. In 2020, the racist mistreatment came to light when Joyce Echaquan livestreamed her abuse in a Joliette, Que hospital. She later died and an inquiry was launched into her death. While the coroners inquest report and its recommendations will likely take months, Coroner Gehane Kamel says her hope is that it would be the "foundation of a new social pact that will bring us to say, 'Never again."

Having an Indigenous social worker, doctor or health-care worker would bring a comfort level, an understanding of our histories and experiences, that can’t be found elsewhere.

All of this recent attention to the inequalities and racism was years away when I was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and a panic attack disorder after the birth of my son in 2014, and then premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a more severe type of premenstrual syndrome. I was handed a prescription and recommendations for anxiety workbooks. Sure, the prescription and therapy definitely helped me manage my anxiety and depression, but I wasn’t asked if I wanted or needed culturally appropriate health care. And medication is really just one part of a wellness plan. A culturally specific approach considers engagement in culture as good medicine.
Anishinaabe doctor Lisa Richardson co-led a set of 10 suggestions for health leaders to advance the health-related recommendations from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls To Action. One states that health-care workers should practice trauma-informed care and land-based healing. That approach is foreign to every medical experience I’ve had off-reserve, and I’m not alone.
“Traditionally, Indigenous people have had their own ways of managing crises and of healing from very difficult circumstances, through ceremony, sharing songs, being on the land,” says Nicole Ineese-Nash from the Constance Lake First Nation in Treaty 9. “So many of those practices that we would normally have engaged in as Indigenous people have been taken away from us through colonization or displacement.”
Ineese-Nash is the co-founder and director of Finding Our Power Together, an organization that focuses on the mental health of young people, particularly on suicide prevention. Suicide rates of Indigenous people are three times higher than the rate among non-Indigenous people and suicide among Inuit is 10 times higher.
Finding Our Power Together’s aim is to build on that missing link of land-based cultural healing. In 2020, it launched an online program called Building Your Bundle in which staff uses an Indigenous cultural healing lens with clinical Western approaches. One example of this practice includes sending participants an actual bundle bag to carry their medicines (tobacco, sage, cedar) in. “What we find from talking to the survivors of suicide is that a number of young Indigenous people are disconnected from who they are, their culture or their land, and that's what leads to loss of life,” says Ineese-Nash. “What we try to do is create connection — to another young person, a mentor, culture, members of their family, community, land, and spirit.” She continues: “For us, it's about bringing those tools back and fostering an environment where the next generation of Indigenous leaders already know who they are and are able to pick up their bundles and support one another.”

Traditionally, Indigenous people have had their own ways of managing crises and of healing from very difficult circumstances, through ceremony, sharing songs, being on the land.

Nicole Ineese-Nash, co-founder of finding our power together
Teaching or connecting to culture is something that social worker Lisa Osawamick does in both her private practice on Unceded Wiikwemikoong Territory, and as a care provider for a new online counselling service, Noojimo Health. Osawamick often gives her patients the resources to connect with the Elders, get their spirit name, engage in ceremonies, or teaches them songs, stories and hand drumming. She says she is guided by the medicine wheel teachings, which focuses on spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health, and uses it as a tool in her counselling.
Noojimo Health care providers come from a range of Indigenous communities across Ontario (although the service is available to any self-identifying Indigenous person across Canada). This was purposeful, to ensure that people seeking mental healthcare could speak with someone from outside of their own community, avoiding the stigma of sharing with someone they’re related to.
Equally important: Every counsellor is Indigenous. According to Randi Ray, an Anishinaabe woman from Flying Post First Nation, who founded Noojimo Health, the perspective of the person providing care is as important as the process itself. “Having all Indigenous counsellors helps to bring that holistic model and approach to care,” says Ray. “There are many shared experiences, unfortunately many of those being traumatic, across that mosaic. Those shared experiences help with understanding from a counsellor perspective.”
Ray also wanted to eliminate wait times and work for those without high-speed internet, or access to smartphones or computers —so accessing the service by telephone is possible. If I still lived in my parents’ home on-reserve, I’d be dealing with their turtle-like internet speed (although they recently got wi-fi!). All that’s required to sign up is a quick registration online, and every one-on-one session can happen via video chats or simply by telephone. 
But there also needs to be government support. Strategies and frameworks have been formed in past years, like the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework, National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy, and the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy, but it’s clearly an in-progress movement. "The need for support may be growing at a faster rate than the current funding," says Ray. "In my opinion, those needs are growing as a result of better awareness around mental wellness (which is good), but sadly also due to the ongoing impacts of colonization and colonial policies over many generations, and the regular re-traumatization of our communities.”
Before I wrap up with Osawamick, I ask what a healthy client of hers looks like, and she tells me it’s when everything is aligned and they’re not struggling with their spirituality or emotional well-being. They’re walking in balance. “Sometimes I tell them they're glowing, or growing up. They laugh at that one,” she says. She loves hearing updates that they’re happy, or haven’t relapsed, or they don’t have panic attacks anymore.
I haven’t had panic attacks in a while, but news like the 215 children has brought me very close to that again. I’ve tried to spend as much time as I can outdoors, with the sun on me, and I tried some of the grounding techniques mentioned by Osawamick. I’m hoping that in time, with some help, I’ll be glowing, with a full bundle. 
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of Indian Residential Schools. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
The Refinery29 Canada team acknowledges that we are settlers on the land now known as Canada. We stand in solidarity and support of Indigenous people and we recognize that all of us have an ongoing part to play in reconciliation. We thank the Indigenous community for allowing us to live and work on their land.

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