New Brunswick

Mi'kmaw Elder Noel Milliea helps his people see their culture as a source of healing

Mi’kmaw Elder Noel Milliea of Elsipogtog has devoted about 40 years of his life to helping people heal from alcoholism, trauma and systemic racism.

‘Brunt' of what people are healing from stems from systemic racism, says elder from Elsipogtog

Mi'kmaw Elder Noel Milliea says he tries to empower people to heal themselves. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

The third in a series of weekly stories about Wabanaki elders — knowledge keepers, teachers, healers and spiritual guides — who have made remarkable contributions in their own communities and beyond.

Mi'kmaw Elder Noel Milliea of Elsipogtog has devoted about 40 years of his life to helping people heal from alcoholism, trauma and systemic racism.

"The greatest gift is to help my people," said Milliea.

These days he focuses on spiritual healing through sweat lodge ceremonies, pipe ceremonies, smudging ceremonies and talking circles.

"There's no magic to healing," said Milliea. "It's really just a desire for change."

The Elders: Noel Milliea

1 year ago
Duration 4:20
This Mi'kmaw elder from Elsipogtog uses his past to bring spiritual healing to his people and reconciliation with the non-Indigenous community.

Milliea sees healing as a journey that never ends.

His own healing journey began in his 20s, when he got sober.

"I always felt that I was taking away from the community," he said. "And so part of my sense of recovery was to be able to give back."

As a young man, he began by coaching sports and leading Scouts. 

He worked as a band constable for a while, but found policing wasn't really his thing. 

He wanted to play basketball with young people while he was on duty.

And he didn't like arresting people and putting them in jail. If he caught someone drinking and driving, he'd usually give them a ride home and let them off with a threat.

"If they didn't stay off the roads, I would tell either their mom or their grandmother," he said. "They didn't want that to happen."

Coloured cloths tied to trees at the sacred grounds at Elsipogtog. Milliea says they represent the prayers of those who take part in fasting ceremonies here. A different colour is tied for each day of fasting. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

When he became an addiction worker, he found a better fit.

With the help of a "wise mentor" named Anthony Francis, Milliea helped get an addiction treatment centre in Elsipogtog.

They wanted to incorporate Indigenous culture in the programs, he said, so people could use it as a way to heal themselves.

Since the community had become mainly Catholic, an Indigenous priest from Manitoulin Island was brought in to help,  introducing smudging, drumming and pipe ceremonies at mass.

The priest's spirit name was Lone Eagle. And they named the treatment centre after him.

Milliea worked at the Lone Eagle Treatment Centre for about 20 years.

From time to time, elders from different places would come in to share teachings.

One elder from Nova Scotia taught Milliea about the medicine wheel.

The medicine wheel is a circle, usually divided into four sections, coloured yellow, red, black and white. It's used by various Indigenous groups across North America to represent many different ideas, such as the north, south, east and west directions, races of people, ceremonial plants and stages of life.

The concept really struck a chord with Milliea.

After he went to St. Thomas University as a mature student to study social work, he developed his own version of a medicine wheel, to be used as a self-help tool.

The medicine wheel is a circle split in four quadrants, most commonly white, yellow, red and black. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

He said it's based on ceremonies, talking circles, personal truth and self-empowerment.

"That's the most powerful type of healing that one can do," he said, " is to know that you can heal yourself."

During his time at the Lone Eagle centre, MIlliea also helped start a drop-in program for people in recovery from addictions.

It was like a "relapse prevention program," he said. "Somewhere for them to go in the evenings to play cards, play games. … We had pool tables there and some entertainment."

He also helped create networking opportunities to improve the job prospects of those in recovery.

"Just to give them a little bit of hope that they don't have to go back to the same way of life that they had before."

Later on, Milliea took his counselling experience, social work training and healing knowledge to Corrections Canada.

As a liaison worker, he went into prisons and tried to "build a bridge" between Indigenous offenders and correctional staff. 

It was challenging work that required him to walk "a fine line."

Inmates were always asking him, "Are you one of us or one of them?"

But Milliea said he enjoyed giving those inmates a voice.

"I found justice really intriguing because of all of my people that were incarcerated that really didn't need to be there" — if not for racism and trauma, that is.

A view of the Richibucto River in Elsipogtog (Mike Heenan/CBC)

In 25 years of working with inmates, Milliea got a lot of practice in "the art of non-judgment."

It wasn't always easy. He was sometimes dealing with "murderers," "serial killers," "pedophiles," "rapists" and "wife beaters."

To get past the stigma he'd been trained by society to feel toward them, he used a method he learned from an elder.

"You can't be a judge and help others at the same time," he said.

"You have to be able to connect with another person's purity and innocence and work from there."

A couple of years after he started the prison liaison work, the Parole Board of Canada asked Milliea to help develop a model for an "Aboriginal assisted parole hearing."

The ceremonial grounds include three sweat lodges and a sacred fire area. Milliea says the sweat lodge ceremony is for purification and cleansing of mind, body and spirit. He and his wife do ceremonies here every week. Milliea also does ceremonies as needed for people in personal crisis. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

Elders, other community members and correctional staff were asked to participate in parole hearings, where everyone sat in a circle.

The model "seemed to really grab hold" within the institutions, he said.

But Milliea believes to this day that there are still many people, in the justice system and elsewhere, who lack understanding and carry stereotypes about Indigenous people.

And that causes a lot of hurt, he said.

"The brunt of what my people are healing from is all of having to live within systemic racism," he said.

"When you're faced with racism, it gives you the idea that there's something the matter with you."

He sees systemic racism and systemic trauma still going on "side by side."

"It's handed down pretty much in the same way from generation to generation."

At this point, said Milliea, everyone in his community is in a way a survivor of the residential school system.

Milliea does a lot of "cross-cultural work" to try to help people understand that.

Milliea facilitates the medicine wheel model, which can include sharing from the group to better understand the healing process. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

He gives cultural or sensitivity training sessions for various government employees, businesses and organizations.

"If we don't address the truth," he said, "healing will never happen and the relationship that we need to build can never be built."

Milliea thinks his people are going to need help for a while on the road to independence and trust needs to be built to get there.

"Probably one of the biggest and most damaging normalizations that has happened, unfortunately, in my communities, is the normalization of dependency," said Milliea.

His people want to feel empowered and "break free," he said, and many individuals and government agencies want to help.

And he sees other hopeful signs.

"I already find that the young people today … have a very different mindset," said Milliea. "They're very open minded."

It's "beautiful," he said, that young people are questioning and challenging perceptions. 

It gives him the assurance to say, "At some point in time, the end of systemic racism will come," he said. 

"Maybe three or four generations down the road, we may be able to nip this in the bud."

With files from Myfanwy Davies