New YMCA on First Nation blends exercise with spiritual health

The new YMCA branch opened Wednesday in Cape Breton's Membertou First Nation. More than 150 people in the community have signed up as members.

'To me it shows that once there is something Indigenous people are comfortable with ... we go to it'

Marie Burrows, a fitness instructor and membership services representative, works at the newly opened YMCA in Membertou. (Andre Gallant/YMCA of Cape Breton)

A new YMCA on a Cape Breton First Nation is aiming to combine physical activity with the spiritual health and traditional healing needs of its members, some of whom still struggle under the long shadow of the residential school system.

The new branch opened Wednesday at the Membertou Sport and Wellness Centre in Membertou First Nation. In the preceding weeks more than 150 people in the community have signed up as members.

It's just like other YMCAs in some obvious ways, such as the exercise equipment. But the branch takes a wider approach to consider the culture and spirituality of the Mi'kmaq people.

It's prompted "an awakening to start building healthy minds and bodies" in the community, said Adam Gould, the communications manager for Membertou.

"To me it shows that once there is something Indigenous people are comfortable with, especially seeing it in their own community, we go to it," he said. "I think this will create a lot of very healthy new people."

Trust relationship

The branch is the result of an agreement signed last year between the First Nation and the YMCA. Membertou will pay 80 per cent of the YMCA membership fee for band members.

Andre Gallant, the CEO of YMCA of Cape Breton, said the new branch "isn't just about being good at customer service," but about having a deeper understanding of community needs.

"We have to understand some of the effects of colonization and residential schools," he said. "This is one of the things that will keep people from developing social relationships because they can't build trust relationships."

Gallant said staff are not only personal trainers, but are among the first in Canada to pursue "wellness coach certification" with YMCA Canada. That qualifies them to help members manage lifestyle, stress and nutrition issues.

Those who join the Y may also be dealing with trauma related to the residential school system that can carry over from generation to generation.

Physical and mental health

The Y has applied for money from a Status of Women Canada fund focussed on empowering Indigenous women, Gallant said.

"The idea is to combine traditional YMCA fitness activities with traditional healing methods and train women to lead in their own communities across Cape Breton," he said.

"Wellness is more than physical health. Depression affects your physical health; physical health affects your mental state. There's a proven relationship."

​Gallant also noted that Membertou, like many Mi'kmaq communities, has a high incidence of diabetes, the effects of which can be reduced by physical activity.

He said the trainers promote a concept known as "functional fitness." It addresses problems such as shoulder stiffness with appropriate exercises, as opposed to a person trying to solve the issue on their own by lifting weights, a strategy that might cause more harm than good.

With files from Mainstreet Cape Breton