Natoaganeg spirit lodge offers mental health support rooted in culture
Intergenerational project aims to tackle stigma around treatment for Indigenous men
When Roger Augustine looks out along the Miramichi River, he knows the place where eagles often circle overhead is the perfect spot for healing in his community.
The regional chief had long dreamed of a centre to support men and boys in Eel Ground First Nation who face mental health challenges. Then came the opportunity to buy a dedicated property and make it a reality.
"It's all about making our community strong," he said.
The Gitpo Spirit Lodge recently opened up in a former two-storey house on the banks of the river. In a more secluded area in the Mi'kmaq community of about 650 people, it's an intergenerational centre aimed at taking a culture-focused approach to men's wellness.
The lodge is intentionally designed without a formal structure to be more inviting — and feel similar to a home. While the coordinators can offer referrals to counselling services, people are encouraged to come just to watch a drum circle or visit the space.
There are also plans to organize traditional medicine walks, build a sweat lodge on the property and offer talks outdoors.
Co-coordinator Galen Augustine said the stigma around mental health is especially strong for men in Indigenous communities.
"They don't want to go into these structured places like the health centres that we have or the hospitals and be seen as needing help, and not being seen as strong," he said. "We want to provide a place for that."
They're seen as weak so they'd rather just tough it out on their own.- Galen Augustine
While the programming is specifically targeted at men, women are welcome to visit.
Galen Augustine said the historic role of men as hunters and providers subconsciously plays a role in Indigenous culture — contributing to the stigma. It's something the lodge aims to address.
"They're seen as weak so they'd rather just tough it out on their own and their mind, body and spirit just takes a longer beating as it goes," he said. "Instead of healing, they're holding it back."
The focus at the spirit lodge is on offering a sense of peer support between different generations in each activity, from boys to elders.
It has a cultural group that teaches Mi'kmaq singing and drumming, led by an elder who also teaches the language during sessions.
While Natoaganeg already offers some support, the lodge coordinators say there's little geared toward young men in need of guidance. The new lodge is creating programs aimed at reaching that age group.
"They seem to be lost. We want to fill that void and provide opportunities for them to see what's out there and also to look at where some of these things are within themselves — that we can work on," Galen Augustine said.
Non-Indigenous people from surrounding communities are also welcome to come and participate.
Roger Augustine, who is the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, said the goal is to make the lodge a model for wellness that other First Nations can replicate.
"I'm hoping to see that every community gets to have one of these centres," he said.
"This is something you're going to see flourish and help the communities as we move on."