Grads of First Nations healing program share tears, laughter

There were tears, applause and booming drums in the Kwanlin Dün First Nation's potlatch house this week, as the community honoured twelve graduates of a sobriety program.

Kwanlin Dün's Jackson Lake program includes sweat lodge, counselling on the land

There was plenty of laughter during the ceremony on Wednesday. Grads (from left) Winston Boss, Garry Brown and Rich Nagano laugh as they listen to fellow grads. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Kwanlin Dün First Nation's potlatch house reverberated with drumming this week in Whitehorse.  

The performance marked the end of a sobriety and healing program for 12 men, who had spent 28 days at the Jackson Lake Healing Centre, outside Whitehorse. 

Each man carried a hand-made drum. Some relatives in the audience wiped tears as they watched it happen. 

Change is not easy for any of us- Andy Neiman, Jackson Lake counsellor

"Some of you have waited a long time," acknowledged Andy Nieman, a counsellor who is part of the Jackson Lake Wellness Team.

"We wait a long time for our loved ones to start on their healing journey."

Neiman told the families their support is essential. "These men have worked very hard over the last 28 days, and you being here is very important," he said.  

"Change is not easy for any of us." 

Sweatlodges and cold swims 

The Jackson Lake Healing Centre offers cabins and on-the-land experiences such as a sweat lodge and counselling. 

Counsellor Phil Gatensby (left) is hugged by Joseph Fraser during the ceremony. Gatensby says family support is essential for sobriety. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

In 2014, the Yukon Government announced $1 million in funding to be spread out over three years, doubling previous support. The camp also receives an annual federal commitment of $500,000 from Health Canada.

Potential clients must apply to the First Nation and are screened and interviewed prior to being accepted. So far, Jackson Lake has mostly welcomed members of Yukon First Nations, but it is also open to non-Indigenous people.

On Wednesday, graduates told stories of starting every day with a cold swim. 

They also shared some laughter and camp stories. 

"[I want to thank] all the people taking care of the camp. There was always firewood, water, everything available to us. All we had to do was focus on ourselves, and that was a huge relief off our shoulders," said graduate Joseph Fraser.  

Hugging one of the graduates, counsellor Phil Gatensby said "I'm so grateful to have spent the 28 days with you, brother. I appreciate it."  

'Welcome home' ceremony 

A phrase often said at the ceremony was that a 28-day sobriety program is only "the beginning of a journey".

Relatives were thanked for showing their support. The 'welcome home' ceremony has become a tradition of the healing program. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Gatensby urged the importance of loving families to help the men maintain sobriety. 

"Every single person who came to the camp spoke about their family," he said. "They said, 'I am doing this for myself but I'm also doing it for my family,' which is incredible."  

Jeanie Dendys, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation's justice coordinator, says the "welcome home ceremony" has become a tradition of the program. 

"Seeing all of you come here today to support your men and help them come home in a good way is very important to their success." 

While the latest program was for men, the healing program also hosts programs for women. A new program for youth is scheduled to begin this summer.

The latest class means 165 people have graduated from the Jackson Lake healing program since 2010.  

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