Gathering medicine: A journey to healing

On two of Ottawa’s coldest and snowiest days at the end of January, a small group of Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) staff members joined with Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors to chart a course to greater understanding and better working relationships.

“We’ve made a lot of missteps as a non-Indigenous organization,” admitted Ed Mantler, the MHCC’s vice-president of programs and priorities. “We have to own those mistakes and learn from them if we want to move forward in a good way with Indigenous partners.”

Held at the Wabano Aboriginal Health Centre, in a light-filled circular room decorated with stunning Indigenous art, the air was filled with the scent of sage as a smudge set the tone for a day of sharing and reflection. Elder Barney Williams offered an opening prayer, sharing his wisdom in the form of a poignant story about his grandmother. He recalled her teaching that their native language (Nuu-chah-nulth) has no way of distinguishing between groups of people, because there is only one word for our race: human.

“Our idea going into this gathering was to create a statement on reconciliation,” explained MHCC president and CEO Louise Bradley. “Something that would guide our future work and hold us to account. But one thing we’ve learned from our interactions with Indigenous partners is that it’s wiser to come to the table without a preconceived notion of outcomes. We have to be prepared to bend and meld our ideas, goals, and worldviews to create something that is meaningful to everyone sitting around the room.”

That is no easy feat, acknowledged residential school survivor Eugene Arcand. “Our people have been ignored for so long. We’re not going to find all the answers here today. But I’d rather you be dazed and confused with the will to make things right here in this room than turn a blind eye to the challenges faced by our communities.”

Equally compelling were remarks delivered by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, who encouraged everyone to build bridges through shared understanding. “Don’t shield me from your experiences because you assume mine are worse. That isn’t how relationships are built,” he said. Obed also urged all non-Indigenous organizations to hold up a mirror to their governance, funding, and research structures — to see whether their investment is proportional to the pressing need for mental health services in Indigenous communities across the country.eng_tweet_2

Facilitated by Harold Tarbell, much of the two days was spent focusing on understanding the history of colonialism that continues to put Indigenous peoples at a disadvantage. 

“I call it focusing on the backswing, to use a golf analogy,” said Rod McCormick, senior professor in Aboriginal child and maternal health in the faculty of human, social, and educational development at Thompson Rivers University. “You’re never going to hit the ball as far as you want it to go if you don’t pull back and take the long view.”

The event evoked powerful emotion, as Indigenous participants reflected on the repeated frustrations and hurt that have broken trust too many times. Long-time CBC broadcaster Shelagh Rogers, a staunch mental health advocate with Métis heritage, underscored the need for ongoing humility — which ultimately breeds understanding: “Whatever kind of quilt we make, it must be stitched together with gratitude for those residential school survivors, and their families, who are showing us the meaning of dignified leadership. What a gift.”

“We can begin to see themes emerging,” explained Tarbell. “We see a desire for choice. The regaining of lost identity. Reclaiming pride in culture. The acceptance of traditional healing. The appreciation for rich diversity within our distinctive cultures — Inuit, Métis, and First Nations. And in all of this, we can see that the MHCC has a role to play to hold the space for Indigenous voices to be heard and respected.”

Lori Lafontaine, who held the role of the MHCC’s senior advisor of Indigenous affairs for many years before moving to a position with Health Canada, expressed her view of the MHCC’s role this way. “If you are the keeper of the wood, don’t build a fence. Build a longer table.”

And as the MHCC looks ahead at what will emerge from this important conversation — whether a quilt of ideas or a table set to welcome the diverse voices rising from Indigenous communities across the country — McCormick put it best when he said, “What you are doing, what we are doing, is gathering medicine. We need to gather this medicine before we can begin to heal.”