Chester Herman was refueling his vehicle when he noticed a poster for a men’s wellness conference organized by the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) Outreach Team.
It’s not something that would usually stop him in his tracks, but the poster listed grief and loss among the topics to be discussed.
“It kind of hit me hard. I’m going through a lot because of my loss,” he said, describing the immense grief he’s been feeling since his wife’s death.
The main theme of the conference – which took place last week in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. — addressed the root causes of current issues facing some Indigenous men, such as mental health issues, addictions, grief and guilt.
Herman, a widow from the Clearwater River Dene Nation, signed up alongside more than 200 other men.
MLTC Vice Chief Richard Derocher said many Indigenous communities are suffering because of unresolved trauma. He said they were trying to break the cycles of violence among men.
“Before contact, our men were very loving, very protective, providers to our communities. The men you see today – I won’t say all the men but a good number of men – were injured, and when you get hurt you go into defensive mode,” Derocher said.
“I’m talking about drugs, alcohol, abuse.”
Root causes of problems
Derocher said organizers want to help men understand the emotional pain and violence that has been passed down from generation to generation. The trauma stems from colonial practices that alienated people from their culture and family, such as forced attendance at residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, he said.
“We have to get to the root of the issues, the root of what drives us to behave the way we behave as First Nations men, as Indigenous men,” he said.
Derocher said men need to know that recovery is possible.
“In our communities, women are leaders in healing, and women have been asking us for many years to get men involved.”
For Derocher, the first way to intervene is to open up and talk. He said it was encouraging to witness this at the conference as issues between all generations were brought to light.
“We’ve got 16, 17 year olds and guys in their 80s here, and they’re sharing, they’re talking about their experiences like residential schools, they’re talking about their experience of gangster life.”
The men spoke of homicides involving loved ones, the loss of their children to suicide, the shame of having been abused or having perpetrated acts of violence.
Norman Opekokew, a Cree participant from Canoe Lake First Nation, said many men realized for the first time that they were not alone in their struggles.
Until the conference, many had buried their feelings instead of caring about them, he said.
“I did it myself, the things that hurt me in the past, I hid them.”
Herman said the discussions were intense, but he heard many ideas that helped him understand some feelings for the first time.
“As an Indigenous person, it hits you in places that – you know, it’s always been there, but you don’t know how to deal with it, so you never talk about it, but at this conference we have opportunity to express ourselves,” he said.
“It’s an eye opener and a journey for us Northmen to begin to heal from all the pain.”
Tools of vulnerability and humor
The men present at the conference collaborated to create solutions for change. Guest speakers shared stories from their own journeys, offering hope, inspiration and guidance.
Opekokew said some of the teachings that stuck with him the most were the importance of prayer and the value of being vulnerable with others.
“Reveal your own emotions, allow yourself to cry, allow yourself to feel that pain and let it go,” he said.
He also learned how important it is to laugh “from the gut, from the bottom of the heart.”
Humor can be used to balance heated discussions, said guest speaker and Cree comedian Don Burnstick of Alexander First Nation.
Burnstick said Aboriginal men were traditionally community protectors, who “fought” for the hunt but were gentle at home.
“Through the process of residential schools and colonization, we lost the softness. We just know how to fight and we turned too hard,” he said. “We know how to punch things, when we’re angry. Men don’t know how to deal with emotional pain.”
He said emotional pain has been heightened within Indigenous communities. He said he has seen many triggered over the past few years by public discussions, reports and findings that reveal or confirm the extent of violence against Indigenous peoples.
Burnstick pointed to the thousands of unmarked graves found in boarding schoolsthe Pope’s visit and apologythe Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
He said people need to be able to share joy and laughter as they go through their pain.
Patricia Main, MLTC outreach worker, helped organize the rally.
“I think our people are ready to heal, to say we’re going to start taking responsibility…start dealing with their own issues,” Main said. “We don’t need to stay on this path of trauma and feel stuck.”
Her colleague and fellow organizer, Geneva Kelly, said men have never shown up at MLTC programs focused on healing and breaking cycles of violence, but this men’s conference has reached capacity.
“I want to see more communities in Saskatchewan doing this,” she said. “I’m tired of hearing about suicides and domestic violence. People are screaming for help like, ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to fix my life,” and I think that’s an answer, or part of the answer.”
Main hopes the conference will spark a movement.
“I truly believe we’re in a season of renewal, a season of recovery, a season of redefining who we are as Indigenous people,” she said. “It’s our turn now to write our script. We don’t need the government. We don’t need the church.”
She said the MLTC will hold more gatherings and workshops locally, also focusing on terrestrial programming and story sharing.
Senior Chief and Vice Chief Derocher would like to see the men who attended the conference take the lessons home, creating their own Men’s Circles to inspire healing, empowerment and change.
“We have to make our house a home,” Derocher said. “A safe place where there is no abuse of any kind – be it spiritual, be it sexual, be it physical, be it emotional – for our children to grow up and our grand- children grow up normalizing this good behavior.”
This resonated with Chester Herman. After the conference, he felt motivated to create change.
“I hope it grows, because you know what I get, I would love to pass it on to my community,” he said.
“It is time for us men to step in now. We are the protectors of our homes, of our communities.”
Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.
A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counseling and crisis support is also available 24/7 through the Hope for Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.