Residential school survivors face long waits for counselling, healing services

A Winnipeg healing centre is struggling to keep up with demand from residential school survivors for counselling services.

Funding cuts have led to long waits for counselling, healing services for survivors: Winnipeg healing centre

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. Local healers say survivors and their children are facing waits for healing and counselling services. (Library and Archives Canada/Reuters)

A Winnipeg healing centre is struggling to keep up with demand from residential school survivors for counselling services.

"Some people have given up because they've been waiting since December 2012," said Mel Chartrand, one of the co-founders of Eyaa-Keen Healing Centre. "[That date] was our last bit of funding that we had. From then, it was kind of cut cold-turkey."

The centre provides traditional healing and counselling services for people who have suffered trauma — including residential school survivors.

The cost of doing nothing is worse than the cost of doing something.- Justice Murray Sinclair

"The need is stronger than ever before — especially the cultural component. A lot of them want to come in for teachings and for the traditional healing aspect of what we do," he said.

Mel and co-founder Shirley Chartrand were in Ottawa on Wednesday for the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission events, and said back in Manitoba, residential school survivors are struggling to access healing services.

"It's very difficult because we know the people are still needing us," said Shirley.

They only have three healers, including Mel and Shirley, and their hours are maxed out.

Now, they're getting calls from younger generations who feel they have nowhere to turn.

"Mainly, before, we were working with survivors but then the intergenerational — the children and grandchildren who are now adults — are requesting services, and they don't know where to go," said Mel.
Mel and Shirley Chartrand had their funding cut for programs supporting Indian residential school survivors. They now see only a fraction of the clients they did three years ago. (Mel Chartrand)

The agency relies solely on funding from the United Way and a bit from Manitoba Justice, but has been unsuccessful in drumming up more.

"We've submitted many proposals and we were declined for every single one of them," said Mel. He said the rationales for declining the funding proposals varied and were often vague.

"In terms of actual financial support, there isn't much out there in terms of the traditional ways of doing healing and treatment work," he said.

One of the major things the healing centre works on with survivors and their children is parenting, according to Shirley.

"It's different than before. Now, it's more of coming back to what our people need to learn and what they can do and support themselves moving forward," she said. "I believe that the parents need support so they can take care of their own children."

Culturally-appropriate parenting programs

Mel said many of the people who access the healing centre's parenting program are clear on what needs to be done and what they need to do it, but when they're triggered by stressful events, "there isn't enough appropriate based training or services."

In his report released Tuesday, Justice Murray Sinclair stressed the need for culturally-appropriate parenting programs. He also wants Ottawa to fund existing and new aboriginal healing centres to address the ongoing harm caused by residential schools.
Residential school survivor Annie Gordon shares an emotional moment at the opening TRC ceremonies in Inuvik, N.W.T. Advocates worry about the lack of counselling and treatment programs, especially in the North. (James Mackenzie/Canadian Press)

"We must understand that the lives of aboriginal people across Canada are connected very closely to the lingering effects of residential schools," he said.

"We recognize that there's a practicality element here. The economy being what it is, things need to be kept in mind as we go forward. But the one thing I'm confident of is that the cost of doing nothing is worse than the cost of doing something."

The Chartrands would like to see more funding allocated to traditional healing services, especially at the federal level, and in fact, that was one of the TRC report's recommendations.

The report calls for all levels of government to develop culturally appropriate parenting programs for indigenous families.

"There are qualified organizations, groups that know what to do, know what the steps are required for different stages of where a person is at in their healing and their development," said Mel, who is one of the centre's lead behavioural health specialists. "If we had the funds, we would be able to not only provide service but also training of individuals."

He said an infusion of funding for healing and training services would pay dividends in the future.

"I know that our children, grandchildren are going to have better lives if we can continue passing these things on and model the good ways," said Mel.

Ongoing help needed

Duncan Mercredi worries the inter-generational effects of the residential school era will never end, if ongoing help isn't provided.
Duncan Mercredi isn't confident the support will be available to help families of residential school survivors break the cycles of abuse and bad parenting. (Karen Pauls)

He learned about alcoholism and emotionless parenting from his mother, who spent most of her life in the Brandon Indian Residential School.

He wants to stop that cycle in his own family.

"There is a need. You can't just say once it's done, it's done," he said.

Despite the recommendations the TRC has released this week, Mercredi doesn't expect any more funding or support from Ottawa.

"You can talk all you want: 'This is what we should do,' but as long as the government has this mindset that we've done all we can, it'll stop."

With files from Karen Pauls