‘I’ll cry with you, laugh with you’: Finding hope through traditional Indigenous healing

At Misiway Milopemahtesewin, in Timmins, counselling is grounded in traditional teachings — helping people process a shared set of traumas and reconnect with their cultures
By Nick Dunne - Published on Jan 21, 2021
Jules Tapas (left) and Gary Martin run Misiway's traditional-healing program for the Indigenous community in Timmins and the larger Cochrane District. (Nick Dunne)



Jules Tapas is telling a story about how his younger brother once shot him with a rifle after a particularly nasty fight. “I died twice that night,” Tapas says to the sharing circle gathered in the basement of Misiway Milopemahtesewin’s traditional-healing facility. “If somebody ever tells you there's a heaven and hell, there’s none of it. You just go in a dump.”

He pauses. “Nah, just kidding!”

The other five people in the room laugh, and Tapas — a traditional healer — continues his story, mentions the scars on his body. “Say Jules, those marks weren’t from bingo dabbers, eh?” says Gary Martin, Misiway’s traditional-healing coordinator, to more laughter.

After others there share their stories and the three-hour session in November comes to an end, the group closes with a smudge. “To me, when I talk about it now,” Tapas says later, “it's like I'm telling a story. This is not hurtful. This flashback is no longer there. I can manage my own life now. It doesn't control me.”

“We might put you off with our humour sometimes,” Martin says. “But it helps snap you back. We’re not back in that trauma. This is 2020: we’re sitting in a basement here in Timmins.”

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Traditional-healing programs offered through provincially funded Aboriginal Health Access Centres or Community Health Centres, such as Misiway, provide services through counselling, ceremony, and cultural teachings to help local Indigenous communities process a shared set of traumas and reconnect with their cultures.

a man building a structure
Volunteer Paul Archibald helps build a tipi. (Nick Dunne)

Though the main clinic at Misiway offers primary care through doctors, nurse practitioners, and other specialists, its traditional programming includes one-on-one and group sessions, sweat lodges, and such ceremonies as ancestors’ feasts, which are held at the Timmins Native Friendship Centre. The  counselling is grounded in the Restoring Balance program, which incorporates standard methods and Indigenous teachings, looking at a person’s development in seven stages, mirroring the Seven Grandfather Teachings, and using the four directions to represent the steps to change: identifying, feeling, understanding, and changing. During lockdown, sessions are conducted over the phone. “I think my job here a lot of times is teaching my people about the things that were taken away from them and reintroducing that,” Martin says.

For Martin, overseeing the the Misiway program — which he’s done for 20 years — is the culmination of a journey to understanding the traumas of his family’s past and help provide healing for his community.

Martin didn’t grow up learning about Cree culture, language, or teachings. One of 14 children, he grew up in Fraserdale, a railside town of about five families between Cochrane and Moosonee. His parents didn’t want him learning Cree, he says, because they didn’t want him to get beaten up at school.  When he was 24, he found his father dead on the kitchen floor, with his head on a pillow and a gun under his chin. “I had never heard of suicide before that,” he says. About 10 years later, one of his younger brothers also took his own life: “‘Why are these guys killing themselves?’ I’d ask. There’s got to be something wrong here.”

A decade after his father’s death, Martin’s mother told him that his dad had attended St. Anne’s residential school, in Fort Albany. St Anne’s was known as among the worst such institutions in Canada; sexual abuse was rampant; administrators created their own electric chair to punish children. “In residential school, a lot of the workers in the system were abusing the kids,” Martin says. “Those kids were taught that — how to abuse. When they became older, they started abusing younger ones.”

His need to understand what had happened to his father and his family led him to learn what had happened to his community. Eventually, Martin says, he finally grieved — and forgave him. “I can get up and talk about my trauma, everything in my childhood. Sometimes where I still get emotional because this is not normal pain,” he says. “I made some changes after I found out what happened in my childhood. And once I got that understanding, I changed my behaviour. I didn't get it overnight — it took me a while — but I'm pretty solid with my life right now.”

After working as a high-school guidance counsellor for Indigenous students, he moved to Barrie to work at a traditional-healing centre — in 2000, he joined Misiway and introduced the Finding Balance program.

Although the facility is in the North End, Martin spends time downtown, talking to those experiencing homelessness. Indigenous people, who make up 16 per cent of Cochrane District’s overall population according to statistics Canada, but constitute 41 per cent of its homeless population. For Martin, the opioid crisis and the growing levels of homelessness in Timmins are a continuing legacy of St. Anne’s and other residential schools — of cycles of abuse that have extended across generations. “These kids went through hell,” he says of the survivors of St. Anne’s, which closed in 1976. “But they're still here, today, on the streets.”

Paul Archibald, a former client who now volunteers with the program, says that, growing up, he didn’t fully understand the impact that St. Anne’s had had on his mother or that St. Phillip’s in Fort George, Quebec, had had on his father. “I was never hungry — they always had clothes for me, they’d buy things for me growing up — but it was that alcohol and drinking and partying and violence that took place that created trauma on me,” Archibald says. “But I grew up living on the land.” He dropped out of school after Grade 6 and began using drugs. It wasn’t until he started having sessions with Martin and Tapas a little over a year ago, he says, that he “connected the dots” and understood how his childhood environment had affected his behaviour patterns as an adult.

men standing by tipi poles
Paul Archibald, Gary Martin, and Doug Davey stand by the tipi poles at the traditional-healing facility in Timmins. (Nick Dunne)

He now lives with his daughter and is working to rebuild their relationship. When they argue, he says, “We take five minutes to talk to each other tell each other what we’re feeling. And then when we're done talking to each other, we hug and hold each other for a long time.” If not for Misiway, he believes, he’d be in jail — or worse. “I feel it’s a new beginning for me — breaking that cycle, that dysfunctional way of life,” he says. He’ll tell his daughter about his earlier life, he says, but stress “it doesn't have to be the same for you.”

Marion Maar, the chair or northern and rural medicine at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, has worked with Noojmowin Teg on Manitoulin Island on a traditional-healing program. A 2010 article she co-authored for the Journal of Aboriginal Health notes that “Aboriginal and non-aboriginal mental health team members alike expressed observing positive results in clients who accessed traditional healing.” The article notes that further research is required and that such research would require an “interdisciplinary approach” that considers “traditional and clinical health indicators.”

According to Maar, the definitions of success in Western medicine are different from those in community-based Indigenous medicine. “Success might be, with some traditional programming and land-based activities, to get more in touch with your culture, with getting a greater sense of hope, meaning, belonging,” she says. “Maybe you're getting reconnected with your family. And all those things are markers of success, markers of healing.”

Tapas believes that Western medicine and counselling practices should play a role in traditional health care. He himself graduated with a degree in counselling from the First Nations Technical Institute in Tyendinaga, near Belleville. But his own path to healing, joy, and forgiveness, he says, came through his culture and his journey to becoming a traditional healer. It was at a sundance ceremony, he notes, that his father, another St. Anne’s survivor, finally opened up to him and apologized. “My culture disciplines me today,” he says. “Ceremonies are our discipline.”

Martin has more plans for Misiway. If it could get canoes and camping equipment, he could take youth out for hunting trips. He wants to host more ceremonies at the property. And, eventually, he wants to see a land-based detox facility on the property.

His goal, though, remains helping his community move away from stories of tragedy and toward ones of healing and reclamation. “Being able to sleep at night. Getting up in the morning. Having enough energy to go to work and provide a program that's going to help break that cycle so kids can do the same thing — sleep at night,” he says.

“We went through a lot as Indigenous people,” says Tapas. “We went through hell on Earth.” For him, healing means hope: “And I have so much hope today, I don’t know what the hell to do with it. I just keep sharing it: ‘Hey, there’s some hope for you, man.”

The first step toward healing, Martin says, is to acknowledge and feel your pain. “Tell me what your pain is,” he says.  “I'll cry with you. I'll laugh with you. If you don't know how to cry, I'll show you.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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