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VOL. 1 • ISSUE 1


VITALSIGNS Dedicated to diversity in health

the ABORIGINAL issue

Aboriginal midwifery 4 Reaching out to the homeless 11 Communicating with care 22 Health care challenges on reserves 24 VERONICA JOHNNY // TRADITIONAL ABORIGINAL HAND DRUMMER



Sola DaSilva Naomi Grosman Lauren LiBetti Ali Raza

FROM THE EDITORS We are proud to introduce the inaugural issue of Vital Signs. The magazine you now hold in your hands is a result of our dedication to educate our readers about the health of Canadians. We saw a need to cover the stories of Aboriginal communities, something that is lacking in the mainstream media. This inaugural issue will focus on the health of the indigenous peoples of our beautiful province. What we found were stories of optimism and resilience. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed telling them.







“We really do feel that in our culture we should not leave anyone behind.” PAGE 11

SPECIAL ISSUE: Aboriginal Health 4 Aboriginal midwifery

24 Inadequate access

11 Feeding the body & mind

27 Sweat lodge ceremony

18 Cheering for the Cowboys

30 Okichitaw martial arts

22 Communicating with care

37 Cigarette smoking

A holistic approach to childbirth

Reaching out to the homeless

Residential schools & its toll on culture

Practising cultural safety in health care

The challenges of health care on reserves

Exploring the traditional healing process

A new form of empowerment in Toronto

How it effects native traditions VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013 3


A holistic approach to childbirth By Lauren LIBETTI

Aboriginal midwives offer women an alternative to hospital births.


fter what she calls a nightmarish birthing experience with an obstetrician, Ashley Lickers was convinced she was never going to have another child. “Five years after that, I got pregnant again with my second and I thought, ‘There has to be a better way. There has to be a better way to do this,’” she said. And a better way is what she found. Lickers, who was completing a business diploma in Barrie at the time, discovered an alternative to obstetricians – midwives. She turned her back on what she calls a cold and unsupportive birthing experience and walked into the arms of her midwife, Marie. Lickers birthed two healthy children and developed a passion for the midwifery profession.


“The more that I got into it, I thought, ‘I want to do this. This is exactly what I want to do. I want to be a part of this life,’” she said. Today, Lickers is a first-year student in the Tsi Non:we Ionnakeratstha Ona:grahsta’ Aboriginal Midwifery Training Program at Six Nations of the Grand River. The program is the first formal training program for Aboriginal midwives in Canada. Aboriginal midwives deal with low-risk pregnancies only and are available 24/7 for clients during their pregnancy, labour, birth and six weeks of postpartum care. Melodie Smith, program graduate, instructor and Aboriginal midwife, says this holistic, all-encompassing approach to childbirth sets midwives apart from obstetricians. She says midwifery is not just about mom and baby. “For us, it’s about family, and your other children, and your partner, and your mother, and your grandmother,” Smith said. “It’s important for everybody else to feel comfortable. If the mother of the client is sitting there and having all this anxiety, her

daughter is going to feed off that anxiety.” The four-year Aboriginal midwifery program starts with coursework on subjects such as physiology and reproductive anatomy. For the next three and a half years, students are in clinic, actively participating in the midwifery services of the birthing centre. Students are required to participate in at least 60 births to graduate. Courtney Purcer, a thirdyear student, looked at other midwifery programs in PHOTO COURTESY OF MELODIE SMITH Ontario, but it was the The birthing centre at Six Nations of the Grand River in Ohsweken. emphasis on traditional teachings that drew her to don’t know how often I hear, ‘I’m so sad this is my the program at Six Nations. last appointment today with my OB.’” “Traditionally, our babies were born at home Clients of Tsi Non:we Ionnakeratstha Ona:grahsand were born with our families. There were no ta’ birthing centre choose whether to deliver their hospitals; there wasn’t any of that,” she said. “So I baby at the centre or at home. All of the midwives really wanted to embrace that and offer that back are trained for emergency situations, but Smith to the community.” says those circumstances rarely arise. Almost Purcer gave birth to her first child with an 1,000 babies have been born since the birthing obstetrician at a hospital. She says she kind of centre opened in 1996. felt like a number going through the system. She “Everyone here wants to sit down and talk found out about the Six Nations birthing centre about midwifery; we love it so much,” Smith said. from a friend and decided to have her next two “When babies show up for Mom and Tots (classchildren with midwives. es), I go, ‘that one’s mine, that one’s mine, that “Looking at her pictures and seeing how beauone’s mine.’” tiful it was…it wasn’t like a scary thing, it was Six Nations Aboriginal midwives visit clients normal,” she said. in their homes as far away as Niagara Falls and Lickers and Purcer both say their midwives made them feel safe, secure and supported during London. Smith says clients have come for their midwifery services from far and wide, including their pregnancies and childbirths. As future Abvarious U.S. states and even South America. original midwives, the two hope to return this “Our belief is not that we deliver babies,” Licksame care to their clients. ers said. “The idea is that the baby and the mother “They build that relationship. They’re able to give you a part of themselves and you really get to work. We are there to support them and care for become friends with them,” Lickers said. “Where I them throughout their journey together.”



Healing with traditional hand drumming Aboriginal hand drumming is beneficial for holistic healing and improves mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health. The traditions upheld during drumming circles can also help with substance abuse prevention which has benefited at-risk youth. By Naomi GROSMAN


n the elder room of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, the soft sound of a beating drum fills the room and is the ideal soundtrack as Jacqui Lavalley tells her story. Lavalley, 70, is a traditional Ojibwe grandmother. The story is about her ancestor who, while going through menopause, was inconsolable when she realized that she would never become a mother. She headed into the woods on her own, unable to stop crying. Finally, the only thing that soothed her was when the moon bestowed upon her a hand drum, as consolation for not being able to bear children.


That is the tale of how the hand drum became a source of healing for her people. The healing power of the drum is well known within the Aboriginal community. Ghislaine Goudreau, 40, is the principal author of ‘Hand Drumming: Health-Promoting Experiences of Aboriginal Women from a Northern Ontario Urban Community.’ The healing aspect of drumming was in the focus of Goudreau’s paper, which researched different groups of female hand drummers. “When we look at health, we try to get a holistic component,” Goudreau said. “Anything that you do, such as drumming, that will bring out

“If you are able to feel comfortable with who you are as an Aboriginal person, you’re more likely to make better choices.”

those four elements is something we call healthy… under the influence of alcohol or drugs if they want something that will bring us healing.” to enter a drum circle. The holistic components to healing are physical, Both Johnny and Goudreau say that they have emotional, mental and spiritual. Goudreau says that seen change in people who enter drum circles. the drumming helps heal all four components. Johnny has worked with youth in her hometown “It (drumming) brings you into the brainwave to of Fort Smith, N.W.T. She started a circle for teens. get into that deep sense of calm,” Many were high-risk youth. She Goudreau said. “Then it forms like a said that at the start they were calm sort of feeling in your body.” too timid to even touch the drum. It also calms the beat of the anxA year later, the youth even ious heart, according to Goudreau. brought friends along to particiShe added that because a lot of pate. women who come into the circle are Johnny noticed that one of the in a state of anxiety, the steady and boys in the circle felt a real sense often slow beat of the drum slows of healing after participating in down their heartbeat and therefore the drum circle. calms them down. “He said: ‘I used to see the Although the physical healing world as half empty. Now I see it properties of the drum are an important aspect, as half full.’” Johnny said. the drum can heal in other ways. Veronica Johnny, This is an example of a young person returning a traditional Aboriginal hand drummer, says there back to his culture. Goudreau says that is a major is need for ceremonies, like hand drumming cirpart of substance abuse prevention. cles, among Aboriginal people because some suffer “Any time you are returning to our culture you’re from substance abuse problems, with which bringing back a sense of pride, and these are the drumming can things that are lacking in some of help. our youth,” Goudreau said. One of the “If you are able to ways drumfeel comfortming can able with prevent subwho you stance abuse are as is that there an Abis a ceroriginal tain reperson, spect that you’re needs to more be upheld likely to when handling make a drum. Accordbetter ing to both Goudreau choices.” and Johnny, Aboriginal people, The holistic generally, want to uphold those healing that AbILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF DARREN BRYANT traditions and therefore refrain original people experience from drinking or doing drugs through hand drumming is before entering a drum circle. evident. People participating “You want to make sure that when you are hanin hand drumming circles improve their physical, dling the drum that you’re in a good place within mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. yourself,” Johnny said. “If you’re feeling like you’re Just like in Lavalley’s story when the moon gave in the wrong place…you don’t want to be touching the woman a hand drum to console and to heal, to the drum. That really matters.” this day the drum continues to help heal Aboriginal Goudreau said that participants may never be people in need.

“I used to see the world as half empty. Now I see it as half full.”


Exercise and health promoted by community By Ali RAZA


ctive living initiatives encourage and motivate many First Nations across the province to get in shape. And keeping in shape can do more than improve your golf stroke. To stay healthy and fit, one man discovered an opportunity. “I went to Myrtle Beach to play golf and I couldn’t play five days in a row without getting tired,” said Michael George, from Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. “So at that point I realized I need to do something to get healthier and back in shape.” The Assembly of First Nations held a 5-km walk/ run in July 2012 as part of its IndigenACTION program aimed at supporting healthy living and exercise. Donna and Michael George from Kettle and Stony Point First Nation participated in AFN’s


event. “There’s the Learn to Run program at our health centre,” said Donna. “The program taught us how to run properly, to avoid injury and how to effectively stay hydrated.” She started the Learn to Run program at Kettle and Stony Point in March 2012, where she learned how to run properly without causing major injuries. The program was for all ages. Donna’s interest in fitness led her from the Learn to Run program to the AFN 5 km walk/run. Her enthusiasm convinced her husband to join her. Michael George’s foray into fitness had a slower start than his wife’s, but it caught up with him. “My husband was not a runner at the time,” Don-


na said. “But he entered in the walk division so he could participate in the AFN event with me.” As the couple improved their running, they decided it was time to take their skills and fitness to the test. They ran a marathon in Chicago on Oct. 13 of this year. “We decided in February of this year,” Michael said. “For me it was to keep going. I’d always liked the thought of having something to train for.” A small program that started at the Kettle and Stony Point health centre expanded to get the entire George family running. Matthew George, Donna and Michael’s son, has also participated. “We did our first 5k run this summer,” Donna said. “We entered as a family and we crossed the

“You can’t have an unhealthy mind and think you’re going to run a marathon, your mind has to be in the proper place as well.”


finish line together.” As well as building confidence and boosting health, fitness programs like 5k runs also boost social skills. “We have a run group that meets every Monday night,” Donna said. “My son really looks forward to it. He gets to meet so many people because it’s so social.” Community-based programs at the Bkejwanong First Nation also do their part to encourage a healthy mind, body and spirit. They are one of the communities in southern Ontario that has its own programs to help its youth become more active. “Everybody is allowed to be involved,” said Steve Tooshkenig, the youth co-ordinator at Bkejwanong Youth Facility. “Everybody is allowed to share in the goodness that we bring.” The Bkejwanong Youth Facility offers programs for youths between ages 11 and 18. But also offers programs for people of all ages. Through the program, he aims to fight prejudice and boost the confidence of First Nations youth. Tooshkenig says decades of forced cultural assimilation through residential schools have resulted in low self-confidence and low self-esteem for many First Nations youths. “Society today, any time a First Nations youth has the opportunity to lead, the rest of the world says, ‘You’re just a nobody,’” Tooshkenig said. “Society has built it that way. It’s been driven into the minds of minorities for centuries.” Tooshkenig believes this negative attitude discourages those wishing to take advantages of the opportunities available to them. From lacrosse to drama clubs, the Bkejwanong Youth Facility pro10 VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013

vides these opportunities in a community-wide organization. “First they come here and they belong,” Tooshkenig said. “The youth pick a spot in where they want to be. Some like to just drop in and hang out, while others are playing football and other sports.” With the use of sports and exercise as a means


of confidence- and leadership-building, Tooshkenig and other organizers of the program believe that it’s not just a healthy body that succeeds, but a healthy mind, body and spirit. “You can’t have an unhealthy mind and think you’re going to run a marathon,” Tooshkenig said. “Your mind has to be in the proper place as well.”



Julien Lachance and Donna Bates are outreach workers at the Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence), a shelter for Aboriginal men. I joined them on Thursday, Nov. 22 on their daily outreach shift during which they provide support to people living on the streets or in homeless shelters.


Lachance and Bates stay outside for about ten minutes laughing and talking with people. Four aboriginal men spot them and walk over. “How’s it going?” Lachance asks one of the men, A man, likely in his 40s, pushshaking his hand. es through the glass doors of St. Later, as we travel to the next Stephen’s corner drop-in, holding stop, he shares his philosophy. a steaming hot drink in his right He explains that taking the hand and a sandwich in the other. time to ask about the well-being He is wearing an over-sized white of a client and converse with him and blue jacket and his grey and or her shows you care. white hair and beard are overThe dinning hall located downgrown and unkempt. With an stairs is packed. unsteady gait, and his legs spread People sit at the tables eating, wide apart, he heads off into the chatting, reading newspapers, streets of the Kensington Market watching television or using the neighbourhood with its grafficomputers. There is a meeting ti-covered walls. room to the side where workMen and women stand outside shops and training sessions take the shelter chatting and drinking place. hot coffee and tea. The weather With nothing going on in the is nice; mild and nine degrees meeting room at the time, some centigrade. The shelter opens at clients seeking peace and quiet 7:30 a.m. and anyone who walks stay there. A man takes a nap in can get a free nutritious break- with his head against the wall. fast. According to Lachance, close The black GMC Acadia that to 300 clients pass through the Julien Lachance and Donna Bates doors of the corner drop-in every drive is well-known to their day between 7:30 and 10:45 a.m. clients who immediately start to access a plethora of services: saying hellos and stretching out hot meals, laundry, showers, their hands for handshakes as the computer and printing, mail regpair get out of the car. istry and telephones.

You have to care. You can’t just do this job for the paycheque. It’ll show and the clients will feed off that. You’re trained not to get too close to the clients. But you start caring for them. - Julien Lachance




Julien Lachance and Donna Bates in front of the Na-Me-Res outreach van. “As a homeless person, there is no reason to be hungry in Toronto,” Lachance said. “But housing is a challenge for these guys because of how they look.” Clients rely on organizations like Na-Me-Res and St. Stephen’s for the essential services needed to get back on their feet, which could mean overcoming and coping with drug or alcohol addiction, physical and mental disability or health problems. However, Lachance explains that despite these services, people who are homeless still need encouragement to make use of them. Sometimes, they are not even aware of services they are entitled to. Lachance believes it is his job to help them follow through on the process, especially where addictions are involved. Nurses, doctors, psychologists, addictions counsellors and trustees visit the corner drop-in on a regular basis to meet with clients. On the way out, it is hard to ignore the wall surfaces covered in multicoloured fliers for free hair


cuts, yoga sessions, aboriginal men’s talking circles, crafts and workshops. 9:05 A.M. EVANGEL HALL MISSION 552 ADELAIDE ST. W.

Much like St. Stephen’s corner drop-in, the Evangel Hall Mission (EHM) provides hot meals, laundry and showers. But Evangel Hall is also part of Out of the Cold, a program run by several social service organizations in Toronto with the aim of giving homeless people a warm place to sleep each night during the winter months. On Tuesdays, the tables are cleared out of the kitchen hall at EHM and mats are placed on the floor for 30 people. If you need to know where you’ll spend Wednesday night, just pick up an Out of the Cold program schedule that lists other overnight shelters in the city. It is rare that a homeless

person freezes to death, Bates explains. Most people who die on the streets do so because of health issues associated with street living and alcohol and drug abuse. So far, this year, the team has lost seven Aboriginal clients according to Lachance. Bates says a client recently died of liver cirrhosis, a chronic disease caused by alcoholism. Another one died of flesh-eating disease. Many homeless people also end their own lives, perhaps due to mental illness. Outside the EHM, Lachance opens up the trunk of the SUV to give an older man a toque. What the man really wants is a winter coat. The one he has on is too big and worn. Lachance apologizes, explaining he is out of winter coats. “You guys have more socks?” a man says, seeing that Lachance has just handed out a toque. In less than a minute, nearly six men are at the back of the SUV asking for items like gloves, boots and backpacks. Bates joins in and helps Lachance rifle through the boxes in the trunk looking for items to hand out to people. But somehow, their supply is mostly limited toques. A man in a red motorized chair had rolls to the back of the car. He asks for gloves. His hands are pale, dry and chapped. Again, Lachance apologizes for the lack of gloves and offers him a toque. He places it on the man’s head, while Bates arranges the ruffled blond hair sticking out of the hat. “I wish I had a brother like you,” the man says to Lachance, while stretching his left hand out for a hug. “Be careful what you wish for,” Bates says, bringing everyone to laughter. 9:50 A.M. TORONTO COUNCIL FIRE 439 DUNDAS ST. E.

The ride to the Toronto Council Fire provides an opportunity to get to know a little bit more about how Bates and Lachance handle the pressure of their work. “Relax, count my blessings, make dinner, just be thankful that I have a home and family,” Bates says. She explains that although the work is rewarding, it is sometimes hard to leave it at the door. Lachance chimes in that they support each other and are a close team. Originally from Manitoulin Island, he says he enjoys being outdoors. He spends the weekends out of the city in nature to “let go.”

The visit to Toronto Council Fire is like being at home court, as it is also an Aboriginal organization. Yet Lachance stresses that when they go out on outreach they help everyone, “men, women, all races and transgender.” The Gathering Place is in the basement of the blue building. It is a social hub for clients, where the kitchen and a weekly food bank are located. The crowd is a mix of Aboriginal, black, white, south Asian, young, old and middle-aged people. Lachance and Bates spend some time talking to clients here again. LAST STOP 10:20 A.M. THE MEETING PLACE, ST. CHRISTOPHER’S HOUSE 588 QUEEN ST. W.

The Meeting Place is unique for some of the services it provides. Instead of having food served to them participants cook their own food in a communal kitchen. A man has pulled three chairs together and is using it as a make shift bed. While trying to avoid waking him up, Lachance checks to see if he is okay. DEBRIEF 11:00 NA-ME-RES 20A VAUGHAN RD.

Back at home base, the morning shift is over and Lachance and Bates are happy to take a lunch break. Outreach Manager, John Waites, is in the office and eager to hear about the morning’s experience. His friendly demeanour sobers though, when he starts talking about why he chose to work in social services. “I became an addictions counsellor because it’s something that’s so close to me,” he says. His father was an alcoholic, and he too has suffered from the disease. At 28, Waites made the decision to get cleaned up. Now 49, he is almost 22 years clean. “We really do feel that in our culture we should not leave anyone behind. This is just not about the Aboriginal voice; we help everyone,” Waites says. “It could just be as easy as providing a Tim Hortons card, movie pass, or wheelchair. This is just about helping people live.”


Fighting diabetes with health workshops By Ali RAZA


ating in a healthy fashion can prevent many diseases and keep your body and mind in good condition. Type 2 Diabetes is common among all Canadians, but within Aboriginal communities the levels are much higher, according to Statistics Canada. Healthful eating workshops in Toronto and in communities across Ontario aim to change and educate Aboriginal communities to make healthier choices. John Croutch from Muskrat Magazine led healthful eating workshops at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT) last year. When he works with First Nations youth, he likes to bring them into the 14 VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013

kitchen with him and make a meal together. “I think that’s vital and very important,” he said. “If you get kids to cook with you, they’re more prone to eat what they’ve prepared themselves.” Croutch explains that many of the ingredients that are popular in cuisines all over the world originated from the indigenous peoples of North and South America. “Tomatoes, chilies, corn, beans, squash, berries, quinoa, potatoes are all from the Americas,” Croutch said. “I stress this because people identify tomatoes with Italian cuisine or potatoes with the Irish, but prior to 1492 they didn’t have any of those ingredients.” In his workshops, Croutch often makes use of these traditional ingredients, the aim being healthy, wholesome, made-from-scratch food.


According to Statistics Canada, Aboriginals are the fastest-growing community per capita in Canada. Croutch says that the largest proportion of the Canadian Aboriginal population is between 15 and 24. Because of this, educating youth about healthful eating is a crucial step in improving the well-being of communities. At the NCCT there are various workshops that help Aboriginal youth make better choices with their food. “We’ve done some 14-week workshops,” said Justin Chiblow, youth co-ordinator at NCCT. “We tackle different issues, like healthy eating, diabetes awareness and budget shopping.” A program called Transforming Diabetes at the NCCT last year was designed to inform participants about diabetes prevention. It consisted of various workshops aimed to educate youth on health foods. “We worked with John,” Chiblow said. “He taught us on healthy eating. His presentations had many educational uses, like different recipes and food facts.” Although the program took place last year, Croutch offers to lead workshops whenever he has time. Communities far from Toronto in the remote north also have some programs led by dietitians. Suzanne Hajtó, a registered dietitian, has worked extensively with over 40 different Aboriginal communities across Canada. “There’s a huge difference between urban and communities closer to big cities versus remote communities,” she said. “There are more challenges in remote communities because of access and cost.” Hajtó travels to different communities working for different projects. One of her workshops included a seminar on high-sugar drinks. “I’ve done fat and sugar displays of commonly eaten foods,” Hajtó said. “If a drink had so many teaspoons of sugar, we would measure that number of teaspoons on a plate just to show how much sugar was being ingested.” Unlike Hajtó’s work, the NCCT is based in Toronto. The programs it offers to Aboriginal youth in the GTA have proved beneficial. “We had a 60-day challenge for the youth,” Chiblow said. “They were supplied healthy meal replacements and would be doing physical activities. After 60 days, whoever lost the most weight won a prize at the end.” Making healthy choices in the GTA proves much


Whenever he has time to spare, John Croutch likes to gives healthy cooking workshops at the Native Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. easier than remote communities, due to access and availability of food across the city. But in remote areas, everything is interconnected. “The access to food, the cost of food, historical trauma from residential schools,” Croutch said. “These are all related and make it that much more challenging for smaller remote communities to gain access to healthier foods.” Some communities are on boil-water advisories or lack proper electricity. They have a difficult time preparing food, let alone making healthier choices. These challenges make it difficult for many First Nations to access healthy options.

Many foods we eat today originate in the Americas, such as:

Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, squash, berries, quinoa, turkey, peanuts and chocolate VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013 15




ever underestimate the ability of a single, determined individual to bring about change. Like a pebble cast into a pond, EJ Kwandibens, a self-employed health educator, is creating a ripple that’s transforming the health of Toronto’s Aboriginal community. Kwandibens, who is part of the Ojibwe Loon clan, recognized that the Aboriginal community in Toronto was struggling with nutrition and fitness. So with his fitness equipment, extensive knowledge of health and nutrition and his sense of responsibility, Kwandibens set off to community parks and started running boot camps. That was five years ago. “It was the hope, the thought, that people would stand by and watch. And they did,” he said. He intentionally placed his boot camps near services that many Toronto Aboriginals use, like Anishnawbe Health and Native Women’s Resource Centre. “Many people would watch; many people would walk by. Many people would ask questions and it was all a strategic move,” Kwandibens said. “And eventually, they began to approach me.” His business, Miino-Ayah-Dah Fitness and Nutrition Solutions, offers personal training, nutritional assessments, boot camps and fitness and nutrition workshops. Many of Kwandibens’s clients are

One man takes responsibility for the health of his community. part of the Toronto Aboriginal community. He says diabetes and obesity are the main health issues he sees in clientele, followed by, and in conjunction with, low self-esteem. “The body and the mind cannot function successfully, optimally, unless they are connected. And unfortunately, within the Aboriginal community, we’ve neglected that physical aspect of our wheel,” Kwandibens said. Nadine St-Louis, a long-time friend of Kwandibens and member of the Toronto Aboriginal community, says the most important service he offers to Aboriginals is education on nutrition. She says poor eating habits are passed on from generation to generation and Kwandibens is helping break those bad habits. “And that is bringing change. Because that woman that’s in his class will go back to her house and pass that on to her kids, or her sister, or share it with her siblings or her family,” St-Louis said. “He’s an important element for change.” Kwandibens is the child of an army father and a mother who survived residential schooling. Many of his students are also children of parents who have been through residential schools. He acknowledges that Aboriginals in Canada have a dark history that still haunts them in many ways. However, he says the Aboriginal community needs to move forward and make change, especially in regards to nutrition

and fitness. “Blaming is not going to make anything better. We, as a community, as a whole, need to regain ourselves, regain our control, regain our identity and learn to live the best, healthiest way of living in the now,” Kwandibens said. “That doesn’t mean forgetting where to place the past, but learning how to live in the now and allow ourselves to grow healthy.”

“There’s this


happening across the country where indigenous leadership is emerging.” Jennifer Martin is one of many individuals who have experienced a health transformation thanks to Kwandibens. Martin says she cannot imagine reverting to the life she lived before she met him. “I just felt like I was in pain before,” she said. “I’m so thankful and grateful that I met him. He has literally turned me around.” Before she met Kwandibens, Martin knew little about nutrition, physical fitness or her Aboriginal culture. Martin reflects on the first time she ever met Kwandibens, during a 15-week

boot camp at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. “The program changed my whole outlook. For me, it was all encompassing,” Martin said. “I lost seven inches on my waist. From beginning to end, I was down 40 pounds. I had a huge, dramatic change and I felt great.” St-Louis says three years ago, urban Aboriginals were barely talking about nutrition and fitness. Now, she says there has been a shift in people’s awareness. Despite what his clients and close friends say, Kwandibens still remains incredibly humble. “People are engaging in dialogue now, which never happened before. And I’m not going to say I’m the one who created that…I’m just glad I’m part of that process,” he said. “And I’m glad that people are on board and are taking the necessary steps to improve their lives.” Loon clan members, like Kwandibens, are known to accept the responsibility of being change-makers in their community, even if they must do so alone. However, Kwandibens no longer stands alone; his knowledge of nutrition and fitness continues to ripple through Toronto’s Aboriginal community. “There’s this vibration happening across the country where Indigenous leadership is emerging in the different sectors, whether it’s arts, culture, politics,” St-Louis said. “And EJ is definitely that leader for health.”


“They showed a lot of cowboys and indians and we always wanted the cowboys to win because we identified more with the cowboys.”

uhnúhméahkazooh / pretending to pray Paintings courtesy of Robert Houle’s Sandy Bay Residential School Series, York Wilson Endowment Award


Cheering for the Cowboys

The last residential school remained in operation until 1996.

How residential schools devalued Aboriginal Canadian culture By Sola DASILVA


uth Cyr was 15 years old when she witnessed a sun dance ceremony for the first time. It was the early ‘50s on the Pasqua reserve in southern Saskatchewan. Sun dances and powwows were outlawed in Canada in 1925 through the Indian Act, but many ceremonies continued in secret. One summer day, the Indian agent in charge of the reserve invited Cyr and Herbie, a boy from the reserve, to his house for dinner. After feeding them a nice meal, the agent took Cyr and Herbie for a drive. “Show me where the sun dance is,” the agent said to Herbie. “So, Herbie took us to this place on the reserve,” Cyr recalled. It was in the plains and they had this tent erected and in the middle of the tent were the men playing the drums and singing and praying and the women were on the outside. They were dressed in costume and just moved like this.” She gets up from her office chair and drags her feet across the floor while swaying her hands. “…And they had a whistle. It was actually very nice.” Cyr is Aboriginal – half Cree, half Saulteau – yet she was separated from her culture at an early age. She vaguely remembers the day she went to residential school. She was about seven when her parents took her there by

l horse and buggy. An older cousin who was returning to school was told to look after her. According to Cyr, Aboriginal people in Canada are in the midst of a health crisis and much of it has to do with the Indian residential school experience. Cyr says she was made to feel ashamed of who she was. “You were told you would never amount to anything and they called [native culture] paganism, and paganism was a bad thing,” she said. “At the time when I was growing up, the encounters with white people was like they are reverend and you are not.” Dr. Brenda Restoule is the chair of the Native Mental Health Association of Canada. She also works as a psychologist at Nipissing First Nation Health Services, and she believes the effects of the kind of cultural abuse Cyr experienced are deep and can get passed down from generation to generation. “It varies from residential school to residential school…but I think the cultural abuse was fairly wide-spread across the residential schools. I think the intention of eradicating cultural identity was likely one of the main reasons for the residential school experience and therefore [culture] was one of the things that was attacked,” Restoule

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in residential schools

l Over 130 residential schools were located across the country



night predator

the road home 20 VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013

said. “For some, when they spoke their language, they had pins placed on their tongues so they wouldn’t speak the language again.” It was Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent general of the Department of Indian Affairs (now the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) who said in 1920 before a parliamentary committee examining amendments to the Indian Act: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone…Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.” Canada’s policy of assimilation predated Scott; still, he remains in history as an advocate of the residential school system that sought to “civilize” Aboriginal children while denigrating and attempting to stamp out their culture and languages. “We were brought up to be like little white boys and little white girls,” Cyr said. “We all dressed the same, with shoes and stockings. We all went to church. When we had important people, especially government people from Ottawa or Regina, come to the school, they would dress us up in little aprons. We had to put on a show for them, like ‘here are these little Indians and look at them, they can sing.’” A recent study released in summer 2013 by Canadian food historian, Ian Mosby, revealed that Aboriginal children were used as subjects in nutrition experiments. According to the study titled Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952, these experiments were conducted with the knowledge of the federal government. Alfred Oshie, 68, attended Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont. from 1954 to 1957. Oshie was shocked by the revelation, and he wondered if he too was a victim of scientific experiments. “Each and every morning, I noticed there was a whole slew of boys lining up to see the nurse and sometimes I was one of them because either I had stomach pains, a headache or nausea,”

Oshie said. “What kind of medicine they gave us? We don’t know, I don’t know. Medicine through the nose and through the mouth.” It is now known through personal testimonies, news reports and government commissions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that individuals who went to residential schools experienced several forms of abuse, from sexual trauma to physical and psychological abuse. Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, delivered a formal apology in June 2008 on behalf of the Government of Canada, calling the treatment of Aboriginal children “a sad chapter in our history.” Cyr was fortunate not to have experienced physical or sexual abuse. Yet, she knows that her experience at Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School left her feeling “inferior.” “There was one little girl who came from a ways off, about 100 miles. She didn’t speak English. At night, she would call for her papa. I felt so sorry for her,” Cyr said. “She didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand her.” Catholic priests and nuns ran Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School. Cyr explains that it was like any

other school around today in the sense that it was a big building with 300 students attending; they were taught to read and write; they were encouraged to compete in hockey and baseball or participate in drama or dance. Cyr moved to Toronto when she was 23-yearsold. Living nearly 2,000 kilometres away from home, in a new place, she found it hard to cope. She hit a brick wall of depression and was hospitalized. Cyr, now 75, is a nurse and runs the Urban Aboriginal Healthy Living program at the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre in downtown Toronto. The program promotes a healthy lifestyle with a focus on good diet, physical activity and stress reduction among Aboriginals living in the city. “Speaking only for indigenous people in Canada, culture is a critical part of how we see the world,” Restoule said. “If you don’t have a strong sense of who you are, where you’ve come from and where you’ve been, those things play a part in making a person less resilient and more likely to be affected by negative experiences.”

noodin is my friend VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013 21

Communicating with care By Naomi GROSMAN


n 2008, Brian Sinclair died while waiting for treatment at the emergency department at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Man. He was an Aboriginal man and although he came in with a treatable bladder infection, he died. An inquest into the death of Sinclair and why he didn’t get proper treatment is still ongoing. Some experts say Sinclair’s mistreatment and subsequent death is due to racism and stereotyping. One of them is Dr. Alika Lafontaine, vice-president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada. “He had difficulty expressing himself so people who were sitting there, assessing him, might have latched on to a certain diagnoses,” Lafontaine said. “The unreasonable, racist part is they didn’t feed back what was actually going on.” Racism and stereotyping are concepts that most of us would like to think are no longer a part of our modern society. Unfortunately, Sinclair’s story depicts that both might still be present in our health care system. According to Lafontaine, mending the communication


between doctors, nurses and Aboriginal patients is vitally important when it comes to eradicating racism and stereotyping in the health care system. One of the things that sustain it is the fast-paced world in which doctors operate. “In any situation where you have high stress, where you have


cultural safety

“asks people to learn about the real history and think about the own stuff they carry.” limited time and limited resources, I think it’s human nature to try to find shortcuts,” Lafontaine said. “But it’s a double-edged sword. When you try and create shortcuts, you also inevitably skip over important things.” Important things like an accurate diagnosis, he added. Lafontaine stressed that the

health care system is full of people with good intentions. However, situations like limited time and resources make it harder for health care professionals to examine their own prejudices, which can lead to diagnoses and decisions based on assumptions. In a quieter environment, health professionals have more time to consider proper care and diagnoses. Nurse Caitlin Freeman, a former nurse at Atikokan General Hospital in Atikokan, Ont., attributes the smaller size of the hospital to the thorough care she and her colleagues were able to give their patients in the year that she worked there. Atikokan hospital is small, with 41 beds, and it serves up to four surrounding reserves. Freeman said the treatment that Aboriginals got there was fair and free of stereotyping. She added they often chose Atikokan General Hospital over another hospital that was also close by. She believes the small size of the hospital played a role in that. “Being such a small community…everybody knows everybody,” she said. “When people came in they already had a background

“There’s a lot of grey areas (in medicine) that’s filled by opinion and ideology.” on people and they would already know a lot about them.” In addition, Freeman mentioned that the hospital’s policies allowed for Aboriginal ceremonies to be included in treatments. According to Lafontaine, practices like that are called ‘cultural competency.’ He says they are important as they create a welcoming environment for patients and introduce different cultures to medical personnel. Freeman’s interest in working with Aboriginal people arose after she took a course during her studies at the University of Toronto. It focused on providing health care in Aboriginal communities and was led by Nurse Pamela Walker. Walker has extensive experience working in Aboriginal communities since graduating from the University of Toronto in 1989. For her independent practice experience, she worked on a reserve in northern Manitoba. She was “hooked after that,” she said. After hearing stories of strength and resilience, she felt inspired to work with those communities and wanted to know more. Her expertise and competency were rewarded in 2011, when she won the Sensitivity to Equity and Diversity Award at the University of Toronto. According to the University of Toronto


website, the award celebrates instructors’ sensitivity to equity and diversity in designing course curriculums and student experience. Walker said teaching nurses about Aboriginal history and culture is a vital part in removing stereotyping and racism from the health care system and improving communication. She believes strongly that a basic understanding of Aboriginal culture is important in order to make an impact. “If lots of our nursing students have a sense of this (Aboriginal culture) for themselves and help other staff try to change the colonial thinking, that informs a lot of the interaction between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal health care staff,” she said. She said that part of that colonial thinking is that historically we haven’t been listening to Aboriginal people’s needs, which in turn has generated their distrust in the medical system. However, courses for new nurses and cultural competency don’t address the whole prob-

lem, according to both Lafontaine and Walker. “It’s good to be competent in understanding that there are different cultures, but the bigger problem in communication is that we are not reflecting on our own prejudices,” Lafontaine said. “There’s a lot of grey areas (in medicine) that’s filled by opinion and ideology…(doctors) have a lot of power within our system to support those ideas.” Walker and Lafontaine suggest practising cultural safety, a method of critical thinking, that helps communication and “asks people to learn about the real history and think about the own stuff they carry,” Walker said. Cultural safety will be a game changer according to both Lafontaine and Walker, in eradicating prejudice within the health-care system. Lafontaine says his organization strongly recommends that doctors practise it. “Let’s just think about it (history and prejudice),” Walker adds. “Let’s just challenge ourselves.”



Six Nations of the Grand River is Ontario’s largest First Nation, with an estimated population of 15,000.


There are four full-time physicians at Six Nations.

The challenges of health care on reserves



hen Ontarians think of healthcare, we’re often reminded of the privilege of universal healthcare so many Canadians benefit from. But there is a group of Canadians that overcomes a lot of obstacles to have the same healthcare. Aboriginal reserves across Ontario have their own healthcare systems, the efficiency and availability of which vary from community to community. In a very general sense, healthcare on reserves is similar to what Ontario offers to everyone else. “There are public health programs at Kettle and Stony,” said Janet George, Health Director at Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. “The programs keep

in line with what’s available with the Ontario health system.” As non-Aboriginal Canadians rarely worry over the stability of their healthcare, for Aboriginals the case is different. Aboriginal citizens are covered by OHIP, but healthcare on reserves balances between provincial, federal and community funding. The differences in funding sources and amounts lead to several difficulties. “There’s no long-term care money,” said Don Maracle, Chief of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. “There’s only five communities in Ontario that have long-term care programs and a huge chunk of mon-


ey goes to northern communities.” Due to funding inequity the challenges are exceeding. One community faces these challenges head-on. Six Nations of the Grand River, the largest Aboriginal reserve in Ontario, offers several healthcare facilities. “We have a family health team, which is primary care,” said Karen Hill, an Aboriginal physician at Six Nations. “We also have a federal health centre, but it’s not really functional as primary care.” The federal health centre at Six Nations is similar to federal health centres across other reserves. It’s a health centre established by the federal government in accordance with treaty laws. As a result, it is very limited. “The federal government always looked at their relationship with First Nations communities from the treaty point-of-view,” Hill said. “They’ve decided that historically they believe that the treaty right would only provide certain things, like immunization and public health nurses for tuberculosis outbreaks.” On Six Nations, the federal health contribution is minimal at best. The case is worse for reserves further away from major centres like Hamilton or Toronto, like Tyendinaga. “The social detriments of housing and drinking water is a problem in our communities,” Maracle said. “We’re one of a number of communities on

“You can’t get a doctor to come and work here for peanuts and have to do twice as much work.”

boiled water advisories.” The lack of funding can prove frustrating for doctors like Hill. Hill and other physicians at Six Nations negotiated a salary model for Six Nations physicians with the Ministry of Health. “We were running on a fee-for-service model and I explained to the Ministry it doesn’t work,” Hill said. “The Ministry offered to hire a person full time to convince us to sign a roster.” Hill believes that the Ministry of Health’s efforts 26 VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013

“There’s an adversity we’ve come through to get where we are.” to “convince” Six Nations people to sign a roster echoed of colonial and assimilative relations between First Nations and the Canadian government. The salary model was finally given to physicians at Six Nations through the provincial government, but was not offered outside physicians working in the provincially-funded family health team. With only four doctors for an estimated population of 15,000, salary and funding inequalities make it difficult to attract doctors to work on the reserve. “I make about half of what I could make working with my own family doctor in Hamilton two days a week,” Hill said. “I work full-time, I cover the nursing home, I’m on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can’t get a doctor to come and work here for peanuts and have to do twice as much work.” Medical care in Aboriginal communities is complex according to Hill. A lot of health issues that people experience have deeper roots. “The increase in chronic disease, the level of addiction and mental health issues, a lot of it comes from chronic stress,” Hill said. “A lot of that stress is due to ongoing oppression from the past and by the people from communities around us.” Hill believes the continued medical inequity is remnants from the days of residential schools. “The residential school system really saw our people as less than others,” Hill said. “But if they were truly successful in their goal, I would not be here as an aboriginal physician.” Hill now continues to work as a physician at Six Nations. She is trying to integrate Western medicine with traditional Aboriginal medicine at a collaborative health centre. She rejects a higher salary for the chance to help her people and community. “There are people here that have resilience,” Hill said. “There’s an adversity we’ve come through to get where we are.”


The sweat lodge ceremony


The rooftop garden of the Native Child and Family Services of Toronto has a very modern sweat lodge. They host monthly sweat lodges and bring in elders, preserving the age-old traditions. By Naomi GROSMAN


neeling down on a bed of cedar, Rick Rogers, 60, firmly says, “Close it up.” He is talking about the tarp, which covers a man-made wooden lodge and encloses the group inside. Fifteen of us are sitting in a circle around a pile of rocks, which have been heating up in a fire since early afternoon. It’s now after sundown. The tarp falls down and it becomes intensely hot as Rogers pours water on the fire- hot rocks, which fills the lodge with steam. Then it gets even hotter, unbearably so, and we all start to sweat. Inside the lodge, it is pitch black. I have been told the only thing to fear in there is fear itself. This is a traditional Aboriginal sweat lodge cere-


mony. It is intended to heal participants, emotionally, physically, spiritually and mentally. The sweat lodge sits on a piece of land behind the Museum of Ontario Archaeology on Attawandaron Rd. in London, Ont. Rogers, an Aboriginal man, leads this sweat. His knowledge and authority to do so has been passed down to him from elders, over the course of many years. They are performed once a month during a full moon. He explains that traditionally women didn’t participate in sweats, which are considered purifying, because that’s something that happens for them naturally every month. Now, Rogers welcomes anyone who wants to

participate. He says he is not in a position to deny teachings, otherwise it’s nothing like the one in anyone who wants to try. People need to experiLondon. Here, plastic cushions are used instead of ence it to understand how it can help them. cedar and the heat is regulated electrically, like in “I can talk about it till I’m blue in the face, but a sauna, replacing the hot rocks in the centre. you won’t get the full understanding of it,” Rogers “This is very contemporary,” Hashemi said. told me after inviting me to participate. “You won’t “Some people don’t believe in it and some people grasp the full meaning of the words I say until you won’t participate, but lots of people will because are there.” we are adjusting to who we are here and now.” He was right. He said it She adds that there is a would be hot, but that descrip“We are adjusting to who we need to welcome everyone tion doesn’t do the fierce heat and to reintroduce Aborigare here and now.” justice. The healing properties inals who want, to their of the lodge are difficult to culture. Anyone who wants explain. They are felt and to sweat in a ceremony is experienced before and after welcome to do so, even the ceremony, and have a though it’s not exactly like whole lot to do with the surthe traditions that have rounding company. been passed on from generThat is one of the reasons ation to generation. TradiDuncan Doxtator, 30, has tionally, sweats should be been coming to the lodge performed on undeveloped every month for the past two land, as is the case with the and a half years. property in London. “It’s nice to feel that you Even Rogers acknowlbelong to something,” he edges the importance of a said. “There’s a sense of conlodge like the one in Tonection coming to this place. ronto, as it gives people a It connects you to the earth chance to experience and and helps you to centre.” participate in the teachings The traditions that Rogof their culture. Because it ers shares are important to is such a modified version, him and the people who are it’s not like the one in Lonthere. Everyone seems happy don, which has been in the NAOMI GROSMAN // VITAL SIGNS and enthusiastic to particisame form throughout the pate. years. Kelly Hashemi is events and commuStill, many people do not Despite my fears and have the time or means to panics I felt connected to nications co-ordinator at the Native take part in the ceremoChild and Family Services of Toronto. each and every person in ny that is so far away from the lodge. I heard them Toronto. For those, there is a say my name and I felt my chance to experience it in the heart of the city. neighbour Alena’s hand holding onto mine. When On the rooftop of the Native Child and FamiRogers leaned over to me, I heard him whisper ly Services of Toronto, among the skyscrapers, ,“You are doing great. You are doing fine,” and I there’s a small garden, in which there is a modern believed him. sweat lodge. Doxtator told me before I went in: “Everybody Kelly Hashemi is the events and communicais in there to help you…we are all here to support tions coordinator for Native Child and Family Ser- each other.” Now I understand. vices of Toronto. She and a cultural co-ordinator The healing that comes from the sweat is not bring elders to the centre’s lodge to perform sweat just because of the ceremony itself. Rogers said it ceremonies monthly, as well when people request best. It’s living these age-old traditions and feeling them. They include the traditional medicines and connected to others.


There’s a new kid

in town


Warriors of peace By Lauren LIBETTI


George Lépine is keeping Aboriginal traditions alive and leading students to healthier lifestyles with every class.

t’s a cold, rainy afternoon and the whole world seems to be moving slowly. George Lépine recognizes his martial arts students feel sluggish and pushes them harder. Why run on flat ground when you can jump on tall blocks? “Don’t think for one second that life won’t be challenging. It will be challenging every day and some challenges will be worse than others,” said Lépine, director and founder of Okichitaw martial arts. “The idea is to just embrace those challenges… take on as many challenges as possible in order to build your strength.” Okichitaw is held three times a week at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto and is open to all members of the public. The Indigenous martial arts system incorporates Lépine’s Plains-Cree background with the structure of other martial arts systems, such as Taekwondo. Students benefit from Okichitaw in numerous ways, both on and off the mat. Within minutes of starting the warm-up, students’ faces sweat with exhaustion. It’s easy to see that Okichitaw improves physical health. Students learn new, explosive fighting techniques in each class. Lépine says Okichitaw helps strengthen even the most complacent bodies. However, students learn that their strength is something to be used with extreme discretion and only when defending oneself or others. “We develop people of moral character here… where other martial arts systems talk about fighting, the difference is we are warriors of peace,”



Lépine said. “We train very, very aggressively….but we never want violence. But if violence comes, we’ll deal with it and we’ll deal with it very well.” Long-time student Alberto Gonzales reflects on how he used to respond to everyday challenges, such as bullying. He says he typically reacted with physical violence. Today, that’s no longer the case. “In a life and death situation, where you have no choice, then you can use something like this (Okichitaw),” Gonzales said. “But if it’s just some punk on the street….you can easily just walk away from it. A guy might call you a name, but it’s not going to kill you.” The ability to possess combat skills, but only use them when necessary, exemplifies the discipline of Okichitaw students. Judy Neshkawa, 14, who’s been practicing for seven years, says the workouts are still extremely difficult. Sometimes, all she wants to do is quit. But it’s her desire to achieve a black belt that keeps her from giving up. She says this discipline helps ease daily obstacles. “I have challenges every day so I push myself,” Neshkawa said. “When I’m other places, like school or home, and I have these challenges that I have to deal with, I don’t give up.” Lina Lépine, George’s wife, says she’s watched so many different people reap the benefits of Okichitaw. Over and over again, she sees students release stress and improve their mental health through her husband’s classes. “If they are upset with something, they have a place where they can go and let the steam out. They

can do it and it’s a safe environment,” Lina said. “By the time you finish, you totally forget that you were upset about something.” Lépine says pounding the mats and battling other students naturally releases stress. Additionally, the complicated technique of Okichitaw also has students forgetting about their worries. “If you have to jump up onto something, or pull someone down, or lift them up, you forget everything that’s bothering you that day,” Lépine said. “Because this is kind of scaring you more than any of that other stuff in your life.” In each class, Lépine explains Okichitaw techniques by giving examples of how they were once used in Aboriginal history. Through this, he hopes to not only keep Aboriginal traditions alive, but also break down commonly held Aboriginal stereotypes. Lépine says it is an extraordinary thing to witness non-Aboriginal students explaining Okichitaw’s Aboriginal roots. “We’d like to promote the tradition and the culture so people can have a better understanding of the way things work among the First Nations communities,” Gonzales, who’s not Aboriginal, said. “Everybody knows about the drunk Indian stereotype. As a result of a few bad eggs, the rest of the carton gets affected by it. We’re here trying to change that.” Lépine says Aboriginal traditions are typically passed on through oral stories. He hopes Okichitaw will serve as an additional way to preserve and carry forward his culture to the next generation. Lina says George teaches students something about the Native way in every single class. She says they might not be hunting or gathering anymore, but kids right now still need to know where they came from in order to decide where they’re going. “We take that negative stereotype and say this is the new Native. This is who we are. We never went anywhere. We’re changing and we’re actually rebuilding our renaissance,” Lépine said. “This is a whole new development of our spirit and we’re not afraid to show you.” The students push their bodies to the limits, pounding tirelessly against the multi-coloured mats. They are physically and mentally getting stronger, while simultaneously breaking down stereotypes, changing perceptions and keeping Aboriginal culture alive. It’s a tall task, but a challenge they are not afraid of.


Okichitaw is held three times a week at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto and everyone is welcome to participate.


A Silent Epidemic By Sola DASILVA


n adult with undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) goes through life living in an invisible wheelchair. Bruce Ritchie is the moderator and CEO of FASlink Fetal Alcohol Disorders Society. Ritchie’s son was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), shortly after birth. Failure to thrive, poor suck reflex, microcephaly, height and weight less than the fifth percentile, hernia, seizures, night terrors, developmental delays, tremors, gross and fine motor difficulties and genetic testing (to eliminate other causes of the symptoms), combined with knowledge of the quantity of alcohol to which he was exposed, led to the diagnosis, Ritchie explains. Both birth parents are Canadian born professionals of Scottish heritage. FASD affects all types of Canadian families; yet, there is an assumption that FASD is an Aboriginal problem. The Canadian FASD Research Network explains that it is a misconception that FASD is associated with social, ethnic or cultural background since the majority of Canadian women, 79 per cent, drink alcohol. However, according to Health Canada’s website, there are significantly higher incidences of FASD in “Aboriginal populations, and in rural, remote and northern communities.” It may be unclear as to whether or not FASD is an “Aboriginal problem,” but it is clear that members of the Aboriginal community are taking the disorder seriously. Jonathan Rudin, a lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto and Dr. Chandrakant Shah of Anishnawbe Health Toronto (AHT) - both orga-

nizations serve the Aboriginal community - are working on a project to help Aboriginals with FASD in the criminal justice system get better sentencing outcomes. “This isn’t about using FASD as an excuse. It’s about saying now that we know something about this person, what can we set up for this individual that will respond to their needs and also protect the community,” Rudin said. Shah is also pushing for a medic alert bracelet that will alert police officers that the person they are dealing with has FASD. People with ongoing medical conditions or allergies often wear medic bracelets to provide an overview of their condition to doctors and paramedics before they start treatment. “The bracelet alerts the system that there’s much more than meets the eye because most of these kids look like you and me,” Shah said. “If the apprehending officer sees (the bracelet), it will trigger their mind. They might not know (about FASD) but hopefully they’ll say let’s find out more.” The majority of those who suffer from FASD do not possess obvious physical characteristics of the disorder. FASD is an umbrella term used to describe a series of permanent birth defects, including the physical manifestations of FAS, caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Due to the invisible nature of the disorder, many sufferers go undiagnosed. “They go through school and people can’t understand why they can’t do the schoolwork and they’re called stupid,” Rudin said. He explains that far too many undiagnosed people have ended up in his

“This isn’t about using

FASD as an excuse. It’s about saying now that we know something about this person, what can we set up for this individual that will respond to their needs and also protect the community.”


office after getting into trouble with the law. “There is no question that by the time someone who has FASD that’s undiagnosed gets to be an adult, they will likely have other issues in their lives.” The default position in Canada’s criminal justice system is that when a person commits a crime, he or she knew what they were doing, Rudin explained. “If we had an FASD diagnosis, we’ll be able to say you know what, that may be part of it. Maybe we are asking this person to do something they can’t actually do.” A person born with FASD will likely have delays in development, learning disabilities, communication difficulties and physical disabilities such as cleft pallet, heart or kidney problems. Health Canada describes these issues as primary disabilities associated with FASD. Secondary disabilities often arise when the disorder goes undiagnosed or is not managed. FASD sufferers may drop out of school, be unable to keep a job, have mental health problems like depression and anxiety, and eventually, may get in trouble with the law. Ritchie argues that many persons affected by FASD should not be incarcerated in the first place. “They’re being incarcerated and punished for being born with an invisible disability,” he said. “They are not misbehaving. They’re behaving normally as their brain is wired. To punish them for something over which they had little or no control is wrong… they have brain damage and you cannot cure brain

damage with punishment.” Ritchie, 69, understands the challenges of FASD as the sole caregiver to his son. “When it comes to FASD, unless the professionals have been raising kids with FASD themselves, they haven’t got a flying clue,” he said. “Standard behaviour modification techniques do not work, because we are dealing with physical, neurological damage, not behaviour. Supports at the grassroots level are desperately needed and they are almost non-existent. Our children have disabilities, but the biggest handicaps are the battles we have to fight to get the services to which our kids with FASD are entitled.” A group of parents, including Ritchie, started the Fetal Alcohol Support Network (FASN) in 1991. Ritchie credits the successes of his son to “early diagnosis and intensive intervention, along with the assistance of thousands of parents on FASlink.” After completing high school as an Ontario Scholar, Bruce’s son started post-secondary education as an online student at Athabasca University, and then as a full-time student with a 60-per-cent course load at college. For an Aboriginal adult with undiagnosed FASD involved with the law, if it can be confirmed that his or her mother drank alcohol during pregnancy, with the help of a lawyer and several professionals including a physician, psychologist, social worker, and a traditional healer, a diagnostic assessment of FASD may bring justice and healing.

My Name is Sam is an Android app. It provides an introduction to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. It contains a story book for children and a guidance section for parents and carers. The app was developed by the FASD Trust. http://


Cigarette smoking harms native tradition By Ali RAZA


moke from a pipe rises from its embers and into the sky, as the wind throws a gust, the Creator accepts the gift of gratitude. It’s not how most of us would describe smoking tobacco, but for centuries the use of the plant among First Nations has been an important tradition. This tradition has been compromised with the rise of commercial tobacco use, mostly in the form of cigarettes says Lisa Beedie, program lead for Tobacco-Wise. “There are 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke,” Beedie said. “Educating our people about the difference between commercial and ceremonial tobacco is what we do. Tobacco-Wise means a person is wise enough to make a choice.” Tobacco-Wise is a program offered by Cancer Care Ontario. Beedie, along with other program leads, travels across Aboriginal communities in Ontario educating them about the harmful effects of tobacco and the significance of ceremonial tobacco in First Nations traditions. “There are four traditional medicines in our ceremonies,” explains Veronica Johnny, a Cree and Dene drum-carrier who also hosts drum ceremonies. “Tobacco, cedar, sage and sweetgrass.” When cigarette smoking became popular in the 20th century, the harmful effects of tobacco also accelerated. But ceremonial tobacco is quite different than the tobacco found in a conventional cigarette, says Johnny. “The way commercial tobacco is produced with additives is much more harmful,” Johnny said. “The traditional style of tobacco is braided, still in leaf form and it’s usually green because it hasn’t been toasted.” Its ceremonial use is very diverse, differing across all indigenous peoples of North America. For the Oneida Nation of the Thames, Chief Joel Abram explains tobacco is a medicine that the Creator bestowed upon the people.

“It’s generally used for prayers, but one of the common uses among the Oneida is for feasts,” Abram said. “After a person passes, there is a 10day feast in which in the elders will burn the tobacco and pray helping the person’s spirit go to the spirit world. They offer the tobacco to the Creator for his assistance.”

There are

four traditional medicines used by First Nations:

Tobacco, Cedar, Sage and Sweetgrass Aboriginal communities in Ontario, about two per cent of the population, have higher smoking rates than the rest of the province. Tobacco-Wise started nine years ago to address this issue. “Cancer is increasing with certain populations,” Beedie said. “Depending on the community, 55 to 85 per cent of the people are using commercial tobacco.” Beedie claims high smoking rates are a result of trauma from residential schools, learned behaviour and the lack of educational knowledge to make healthy choices. The program’s reception has been extremely positive. For some communities Tobacco-Wise was their first introduction to any kind education regarding commercial tobacco. “I’ve had people emailing me saying ‘I didn’t


“The traditional style of tobacco is braided, still in leaf form and it’s usually green because it hasn’t been toasted.”


know all these things about cigarettes,’” Beedie said. “Many people from communities have quit smoking commercial tobacco as a result.” Many elders in First Nations communities consider the use of commercial tobacco disgraceful to the plant’s traditional heritage. It is used as a form of offering or currency. This is because before the rise of commercial tobacco, the plant was a rare medicinal commodity. “For the Iroquois, the act of burning it and creating smoke is more important than inhaling it and blowing it out,” Abram said. Generally, tobacco is offered during ceremonies. But this tradition varies. “It’s a type of spiritual payment to the four elements – earth, fire, water and air,” Johnny said. “You’re basically paying homage with the tobacco. When you offer with your left hand, you’re giving thanks. With your right, you’re asking for something.” As an integral part of First Nation culture, Tobacco-Wise believes it is important to set out a clear difference between ceremonial and commercial tobacco. 38 VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013

“The most important thing is we’re not imposing our view,” Beedie said. “We’re educating and teaching. If we just throw legislation at people that’s not being respectful.” Although smoking rates are still higher, they are gradually decreasing for some communities. “Tobacco use is higher in First Nations communities because it’s more easily available,” Abram said. “Although it is not as bad as it was, I remember when I was younger everybody smoked. It has declined a lot keeping up with society’s trend.” The harmful effects of cigarette smoking have overshadowed the spiritual and medicinal side of tobacco use. First Nations communities aim to retain their cultural traditions, while promoting wellness through programs like Tobacco-Wise, by educating Aboriginals about tobacco use.

For more information about Tobacco-Wise, visit their website:

Dealing with diabetes Val Devoer is one of many Aboriginal Canadians that have diabetes. It is estimated that 20 per cent of people in Aboriginal communities have the disease. By Naomi GROSMAN


n 1987, Val Devoer spent three weeks in hospital. In and out of consciousness and unaware of her surroundings, she was eventually diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. Instead of getting the appropriate treatment, Devoer remained in denial about her disease for years to come. The burden of administering shots and measuring insulin every day, a necessity in her treatment, was too much for her to bear. A bottle of pills and

some beer was the only thing she saw to relieve her suffering. “At that time in my life I wasn’t mentally stable either,” Devoer said. “That (administering shots) was the last nail in the coffin…I tried to commit suicide.” Devoer is one of many Canadian Aboriginals who suffer from diabetes. According to a 2012 report by the Canadian Diabetes Association and Diabetes Quebec, 20 per cent of people in Aboriginal communities have diabetes.

Now at the age of 62, Devoer has finally received the help she needed and found the strength to cope. According to a 2011 report, Urban Aboriginal Diabetes Research Project Report, initiated by the Ministry of Health, it is important that the medical treatment of diabetes in Aboriginal cultures be integrated with cultural teachings. “The integration of some indigenous basic principles…are really


Val Devoer has Type-1 diabetes. Now immersed in her culture, she has found the strength to cope. She made this blanket to express her feelings about living with diabetes. VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013 39

important resources that can help people to navigate the biomedical system,” Heather Howard said. She is one of the authors of the report. The report was collaboration among researchers, staff at Anishnawbe Health Toronto and their clients, who are all Aboriginal. “This report allowed us to get the communities perspective on what is important in regards to higher rates of diabetes in the community,” Howard said. “It’s a serious health issue.” Howard added that the indigenous methodologies used in the report included first person accounts from people who have diabetes. They shared their experiences through arts, crafts and storytelling. “It gets at the heart of what people are living with,” Howard said. Devoer participated in the research project. Like other participants, she expressed her relationship with diabetes through making art. She crafted a blanket that depicted how she deals with the disease. Devoer said the help at Anishnawbe was pivotal when it came to her dealing with diabetes. The staff at Anishnawbe helps the Aboriginal community a lot, especially when it comes to treating and educating about diabetes. Teresa Salzmann is a chiropodist at Anishnawbe Health Toronto and leader of its diabetes team. According to Salzmann, they help their clients manage their diabetes in a variety of ways. They 40 VITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013

have two diabetes teams, an education program to help people manage their disease and an outreach prevention program. Salzmann COURTESY OF FIRST NATIONS HOUSE , UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO said that the uniqueness of their programs lies tance of managing diabetes and including cultural aspects in the treatment. After years of being disconnected with her culture, she felt she needed a change. “I reconnected with my culture and I found out how you’re supposed to respect your body,” Devoer said. In addition to administering insulin every day and eating properly, she uses traditional healing practices, like seeing healers, in the incorporation of Aboriginal to manage her diabetes. Devoer culture to their treatments. They said that reconnecting with her culture and having a place to go base all their programs on the to like Anishnawbe, helps her in teachings of the medicine wheel her journey to a healthier life. balancing emotional, spiritual, “They (Anishnawbe) are the physical and mental health. ones that helped me,” Devoer She also added that the whole said. “I still have to do my neeidea of the program is not to dles, I still have to do my testing… scare people about the extreme but there is so much support out negative complications that can there. You are not alone.” follow untreated diabetes, like Devoer’s success story is an gangrene and leg amputation. Rather, they want to inspire peo- inspiration. She is doing much better but still has hopes for a ple to be educated and get help. “If you manage your diabetes… cure. “Now that I’m in my culture, learning about it and living it… the likelihood of you developI’m better at testing my blood,” ing any problems is very low,” Devoer said. “I’m much better, Salzmann added. Devoer agrees with the impor- but I can still improve.”

“I reconnected with my culture and I found out how you’re supposed to respect your body,”


A youth committee spreads awareness and reduces the prevalence of suicide.

a taboo subject, and saving their friends in the process. “A lot of young people think it’s (suicide) the easy way out,” Miller said. “A lot of my friends try to hide it. Try to hide what’s going on. They don’t like talking. I don’t like talking about my feelings either, t’s Suicide Awareness Day at Six Nations of the but I don’t just go around and drink them away.” Grand River. Families sit at round white tables St-Jean says a lot of youth in the Six Nations in the large community hall. Trays of food line community have committed suicide in the past few the right wall; mental health booths line the left. A years so it’s important to reach youth today. Three PowerPoint presentation on suicide loops continyears ago, a classmate of the two girls, Jewel Monuously on a projector. Some attendees look around tour, committed suicide at age 12. warily, almost as if they’ve been caught doing some“My first thought was I should have done something they’re not supposed to. thing to help her, but it was just so sudden. Today, “Nobody wants to talk about it. It’s just taboo,” I still feel like that didn’t happen,” Miller said. “It’s said Crystal St-Jean, suicide prevention co-ordinakind of sad, too, that I’ve become used to people tor at Six Nations. “What doing that to themselves I’ve learned is that a lot around here because there’s of people think that if you so many.” even say suicide to some Miller and Sabourin body they are going to go talk with ease about Moment and commit suicide…they for Life, but shift uncomdon’t even want to say the fortably on their feet as the word.” conversation seeps closer For Native youth in Canto home. Montour’s death ada, the suicide rate is six was particularly shocking to seven times higher than because she didn’t fit their the general population mould. in Canada. The Moment “I did dance with her for a for Life youth committee, year. I didn’t know she was LAUREN LIBETTI // VITAL SIGNS with the help of St-Jean, going to be like that,” Sabis trying to change that. Community members release butterflies ourin said. “She was a comThe organization was petitive dancer….she was for those they’ve lost to suicide. started in 2011 by four just real happy and everyyoung people who didn’t thing.” want to see any more of their peers take their lives. At barely five-feet tall, Jewel’s mother, Janie The youth group plans and runs suicide awareness Jamieson, spoke at Suicide Awareness Day with events. strength, although there’s a quiver in her voice that Mya Miller and Dakota Sabourin are part of Mocauses listeners’ chests to tighten. ment for Life and led the suicide awareness event “We’ve lost several young people in the last few held in early September. The bubbly two look like years. And when you lose your own child, there’s your typical 15 year-old-girls. Then they open their no loss comparable to that,” Jamieson said. “And mouths and suddenly you realize the work they’re you find yourself places you’ve never been. You find doing goes beyond the typical high school charity yourself finding strength you never knew you had. work. They’re forcing the community to talk about Every day is a battle.”




Jamieson was exposed to suicide early and often. Her first memory is her mother’s suicide when she was three, and she buried three uncles during high school. Jamieson says she wanted to be the mother she never had and shield Jewel from the rippling pain of suicide. While physically Jamieson was often with Jewel, there was an evil she didn’t know Jewel was battling. “I thought I did everything right. I thought I built this safe home that my kids could always come back to, where the outside world couldn’t affect them. But I forgot about things like the cell phone, the computer, the Internet, the social media,” Jamieson said. “It was only after her death that I found out there were texts happening. There were all these other things that were taking place.” Jewel was a victim of cyberbullying. For Miller, cyberbullying exacerbates the “small town” phenomena on the reserve. “You cannot keep secrets on the reserve,” Miller said. “Everybody knows everything. So it’s hard if everyone knows what’s going on in your home.” St-Jean takes a deep breath as she tries to articulate what exactly causes such high suicide rates in Aboriginal communities. It’s a question she’s been

asked before and something she deals with on a daily basis. She says there are numerous contributing factors, but one stands out to her as most significant. “We have a loss of culture, language, identity. A lot of people don’t know their culture or who they really are,” St-Jean said. “And a lot of people don’t know traditional means of healing. And I think that’s really important to our people, but it’s lost due to residential schools and colonization.” With every event, Moment for Life is making the conversation a little easier. The words flow a little quicker, a little stronger and a little louder for others to hear. “The day before she passed away she spent that whole day with me. She was laughing and talking. There was no place she’d rather be that day and I know that,” Jamieson said. “So every day I get up grateful for what I have left.” What started off as a quiet room of strangers ended as a community of people eagerly sharing their own stories of suicide. “Find somebody to talk to and wait it out,” Jamieson said. “You’re needed, you’re loved. You are a part of your family, a part of our community, and a part of us.”

“I thought I built this safe home that my kids could always come back to, where the outside world couldn’t affect them.”



GRIEVING IS NOT A CHOICE “THE ELDERS ALWAYS SAY YOU SHOULD CRY EVERY DAY. TEARS RELEASE TOXINS FROM OUR BODIES. IT’S YOUR BODY’S WAY OF HEALING” By Sola DASILVA Take a fully inflated ball and try with all your might to bury it in a pool of water. If you’ve ever attempted this, you know that the moment you let go, the ball will shoot right back to the top. This ball represents suppressed grief. Aboriginal traditions and teachings recognized the importance of grieving long before modern science understood the physical and mental processes involved with loss and grief. Janet Hill and Amy Desjarlais are both Aboriginal women who have suffered losses and have used their cultural traditions and teachings to help them

through the grief. “Basically, Aboriginal health is about the human mind because the mind is where all illness begins in the first place. When you heal that mind it reflects on the body,” said Hill, an Iroquois. “In our ceremonies, it says ‘our grief becomes such a part of us that our eyes perceive the world through this grief, we talk with our mouths through this grief, and we hear through this grief.’ Grieving from a cultural focus is really important.” Today, we now understand that grief and sadness affect our immune system, Dr. Susan Schulman, a ToVITAL SIGNS • DECEMBER 2013 43

ronto physician practising in psychotherapy, explains. “Cortisone suppresses the immune system. Killer T-Cells, a component of the innate immune system, are our main defence against viruses and tumours,” she said. “Cortisone and adrenaline are the main hormones released by the body as a reaction to stress.” Hill describes the abandonment by her parents as the biggest loss in her life. When her mother left with her oldest and youngest sibling, her father found it hard to cope. He took the rest of his children, including Hill, to a residential school. “There were times when I was in residential school and I just missed my parents so much. My brothers were also in there, but they were in the other building and we were never allowed to see them. I would see them passing in line on the way to the cafeteria or see them passing at school, but we were never allowed to play with them or visit them. It was awful,” Hill said. “It was a loss at a double end. First, my mom leaves. Then, my dad leaves and puts us there (residential school).” Despite these traumatic childhood experiences, Hill made it to adulthood but she says she found “she couldn’t function.” She also had physical and emotional ailments; back pain, anxiety and panic attacks. So, she started working on herself. She put herself through grief recovery. A part of the grieving process is writing letters, Hill says. She used this technique while grieving the death of her mother. She explains that the letter has two components. The first she calls “the forgives”. “The forgives” are things that you forgive that person for and things you are asking them to forgive you for. The second part of the letter is “the amends” where you can say things you are sorry for and say things you perhaps

never had a chance to. Afterwards, “you burn the letter and send prayers to the creator.” Today, Hill works at the Aboriginal Health Centre in Hamilton as a grief counsellor, although she prefers to see herself as a facilitator of grief recovery. Desjarlais lost both her parents in the same year; her father died in April 2010 and her mother died in November 2010. “The way that I learned when my parents passed is that we have a specific purpose for being here and then once that purpose is fulfilled we are called back to the spirit world,” Desjarlais said. “At the end of the journey here, we have a celebration of life, so it’s not necessarily a sad time because the way we understand it is that we’re returning to all of our elders and relatives that passed on before.” Desjarlais, who grew up in Wasauksing First Nation, near Parry Sound, Ont., is part Ojibwa and part Pottawatomi. Like Hill, she believes grieving is key to being healthy. “The elders always say you should cry every day. Tears release toxins from our bodies. It’s your body’s way of healing,” Desjarlais said. “The act of suppressing (grief) keeps those toxins floating around in your body. When you have physical ailments, it’s a result of those toxins concentrating in that area.” In dealing with the death of her parents, Desjarlais says it is a long process. “Every time I sing with drums, every time I danced, every time I drew a picture, every time I wrote a blog’s still part of the process. Every single thing helps you to heal.” According to Schulman, when we experience loss, whether it is the loss of a loved one or a significant disappointment, “it’s not that it’s important to grieve; it’s that we don’t have a choice.”

An excerpt from a grieving blog post by Amy Desjarlais. Visit her website at:

Just one more… I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents lately. Time is coming around again soon…reminders…the lives we celebrate, the spaces left behind. You know, some days are harder than others. I wonder sometimes what my life is…my son and I together…facing the world and all the teachings…two peas in a pod. I have been missing my mom lately, there have been many endings lately…and she was always the one to help me through. What I wouldn’t give for just one more hug from her… to just ball my eyes out, head on her lap…she was always there when it hurt most. Even though, all she could do was sit there and hug me…willing the hurt away.



“We, as a community, as a whole, need to regain ourselves, regain our control, regain our identity and learn to live the best, healthiest way of living in the now.” - EJ Kwandibens




Inside the Longhouse at the Native Child and Family Services of Toronto.




VITALSIGNS Dedicated to diversity in health

Vital Signs  

Vital Signs is a health magazine produced by four journalists based in Toronto. The inaugural issue focuses on Aboriginal health in Ontario.

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