Traditional parenting visits from Cree elders connect urban First Nations families with culture

With 49 years of marriage and nine children between them, Harry and Elsie Watchmaker have seen and done it all when it comes to family life.

Elders Harry and Elsie Watchmaker pass on traditional teachings and tips to disconnected parents

Harry and Elsie Watchmaker are passing on years of experience and traditional teachings to First Nations and Metis parents in Calgary who need guidance and help when it comes to parenting and culture. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

With 49 years of marriage and nine children between them, Cree elders Harry and Elsie Watchmaker have seen and done it all when it comes to family life.

The couple's latest journey is the regular drive to Calgary's Native Network-Parent Link Centre from the Kehewin Cree Nation, located northeast of Edmonton, where they pass on their years of wisdom, tradition and experience to help struggling First Nations and Metis parents in Calgary.

Many parents living life in the city, away from reserves, can struggle to balance the challenges of parenthood with a long list of problems including poverty, addictions and a lack of cultural identity and family connections. For some, moving to the city also involves a big culture shock that can be difficult to adjust to.

The parenting visits from Harry and Elsie are helping many Native Network-Parent Link clients and their children re-connect with their culture and traditional teachings, while receiving education around positive parenting and life skills.

"I come from a traditional family. I'm a Cree, my parents are Cree and my grandparents and I learned traditional teachings from my grandparents. They'd make me sit down at a table and they'd talk to me about life and to prepare me for the future," said Harry Watchmaker.

He says he was taught about work, supporting a family and keeping a family together. His wife Elsie had similar teachings passed on from her family. 

"At home we sit at a table and that's an important place to share with our kids. We have to respect our home. No swearing, no arguing. They respect the home of their parents," said Harry.

Harry Watchmaker had traditional Cree teachings passed on to him from grandparents and family members. He is now passing on some of those lessons and teachings to urban parents. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"Whenever we get food we say a prayer and whatever we do we do a ceremony, before we go hunting, shopping, travel, ceremony always comes first," he said.

"We have one road that we follow — traditional teachings — but somehow we derail. Like with foods, we have to get back to traditional foods like Moose and Deer. The artificial foods are not good for the body and people."

Harry and Elsie also perform smudges, prayers and ceremonies for parents, passing on old songs and traditional stories, along with providing advice and guidance on a wide range of topics and issues many urban First Nations and Metis families are facing.

"The dad and mom have to work together. Parents are very important. Elsie and I have been together for 49 years and we went through lots but still we survived. Now we finished our work it's time for us to remind people about life, to respect their lives," he said.

Whitney Boss with Metis Calgary Family Services says she sees what a difference having access to elders make to parents. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"It's nice to have elders like Harry and Elsie to remind us who we are and where we come from and to continue on with our traditional ways," said Whitney Boss with the Native Network-Parent Link Centre.

"We have clients that forget, but by the end of the day when they're done with Harry and Elsie it's like their spirits have been lifted," said Boss. "The energy they have that they carry with them is a nice feeling."

"We had a couple of clients that came in to see Harry and Elsie and he did a smudge for them and it was very nice to watch and see that comfort in the clients and to see them leave with a clear mind, ready to focus. He dug out the negativity and took it away from them," said Boss. 

Some just want practical parenting tips and tricks and advice on how they can do better as parents in the face of numerous personal and social problems.

Others need to access basics like diapers, milk and gift cards from the centre, and somebody to talk to when family aren't around or aren't accessible.

"If they didn't grow up with a grandpa or a grandma, to have that feeling here, it's a good thing for sure," said Boss.

The Native Network-Parent Link Centre is a government-funded initiative targeting early development up to age six in Alberta.

The centre is located at 19 Erin Woods Drive S.E.

About the Author

Dan McGarvey

Journalist

Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist covering all kinds of stories from northeast Calgary for web, radio, TV and social media, using only an iPhone and mobile tech. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at: dan.mcgarvey@cbc.ca or tweet him @DanMcGarvey