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Indigenous groups descend on Whitehorse to discuss mental wellness

Mental wellness in aboriginal communities was in the spotlight in Whitehorse this week, as teams from across the country descended on the Yukon capital to share their knowledge and culture.

Teams give ability to 'approach mental wellness from a two-eyed seeing perspective,' says keynote speaker

Participants in the conference gather in a ceremonial circle at Yukon's Kwanlin Dun First Nation. The conference highlighted a "two-eyed" team approach to wellness, combining indigenous and western practices. (Alistair Maitland/Kwanlin Dun First Nation)

Mental wellness in aboriginal communities was in the spotlight in Whitehorse this week, as teams from across the country descended on the Yukon capital to share their knowledge and culture.

The conference, titled "Bringing our voices together in wellness," took place at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre and included participants from Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Yukon.

Though the conference's participants all approach mental wellness in their home regions in different ways, one thing that brings them together is their team approach, said Carol Hopkins, the executive director of the National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation.
Carol Hopkins speaks to conference attendees. Hopkins is the executive director of the National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation, and was one of the gathering's keynote speakers. (Alistair Maitland/Kwanlin Dun First Nation)

"The mental wellness teams... blend two worldviews," Hopkins told host Sandi Coleman on CBC's A New Day. "They approach mental wellness from a two-eyed seeing perspective, [bringing] Western worldviews and indigenous worldviews together to address mental health and addictions issues in First Nations communities." 

"They might have elders and cultural practitioners... who have knowledge of indigenous teachings, can facilitate healing circles, maybe other types of ceremonies," she added.

"They're familiar with the land and the people, and they work with addictions counselors, social workers, and psychiatrists."

Using the team approach, Hopkins said, allows wellness resources to be coordinated over vast geographical areas, so that services are available in more communities than they might otherwise be.

'Our communities need culture first'

One of those teams is the host Jackson Lake Wellness Team, facilitated by Yukon's Kwanlin Dün First Nation. 

Jeanie Dendys, the director of justice for the First Nation, said she was "very motivated" to share knowledge with similar groups across the country — the group's intention when they decided to host the event.

They even billed it as a "national knowledge exchange," she said.

"It was amazing to listen to what is happening across this country," said Dendys. "And that was our motivation to host this. We really wanted to bring that knowledge to the Yukon and inspire our other Yukon First Nation communities."

In Yukon, the Jackson Lake team offers land-based healing programs — they'll be expanding to include youth in the summer of 2016 — and has also developed a culture-based crisis and emergency response program. 

Jeanie Dendys, the director of justice for Kwanlin Dun, says that it was 'amazing' to listen to what mental wellness teams are doing in other parts of the country. Yukon's Jackson Lake wellness team is expanding their on the land healing programs this summer to include youth. (Alistair Maitland/Kwanlin Dun First Nation)

"We've really taken a full community development approach to how we see wellness and safety, and just the really strong connection between the two coming together," said Dendys. "So I'm really excited about the future."

Hopkins added that the Jackson Lake program is leading the way when it comes to culturally based healing programs. 

"The Jackson Lake program was actually the first land based program that I heard about. And now they exist across the country."

Conferences like this, said Hopkins are important in connecting similar groups, allowing them to share experiences with one another as they work to develop a program that blends two often-differing world views.

Culture needs to be at the centre of indigenous wellness efforts, she added.

"It's absolutely critical that we approach wellness from an indigenous lens, an indigenous worldview. Our values, our traditions, and our cultures. 

"When you're working through a First Nations lens, and you're grounded in the culture, such as the elders and the cultural practitioners, you're able to facilitate a deeper sense of wellness and well being for people who are in communities."

with files from A New Day

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