Ontario psychiatric hospital offers sweat lodge ceremony

Waypoint Centre for Mental Health in Penetanguishene, Ont., has hosted its first traditional sweat lodge ceremony for patients.

‘We’re moving slowly, but in a positive way’ says Waypoint Centre traditional healer Austin Mixemong

Waypoint Centre for Mental Health held its first sweat lodge ceremony on Aug. 23. The fully constructed sweat lodge and sacred fire are seen here in Waypoint's courtyard. (Photo courtesy of Waypoint Centre for Mental Health )

A Catholic psychiatric hospital in Ontario has introduced a new treatment option for its patients — the traditional First Nations healing practice of the sweat lodge ceremony.

Waypoint Centre for Mental Health in Penetanguishene, Ont. — approximately 125 kilometres northeast of Toronto, on the shores of Georgian Bay — is a 305-bed psychiatric hospital that serves the immediate catchment area between Orangeville and Perry Sound and draws in patients from across Ontario who require a high level of care. 

Fourteen years ago, the hospital hired its first traditional healer. And this summer, it offered its first sweat lodge ceremony for patients.

"We were the first organization in Ontario to recognize the role of traditional or Aboriginal healers — the first place to have a person on staff in a psychiatric facility with the title of a traditional healer," said Glenn Robitaille, director of ethics and spiritual care at Waypoint.

Waypoint's first sweat took place on Aug. 23 and was led by Waypoint's traditional healer, Austin Mixemong. 

"Part of my role here is to work with the Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit peoples in the organization to help guide them in their spiritual belief system, their faith and their cultural needs," says Mixemong.

Saplings are bent to create the frame of the sweat lodge in the courtyard of Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care. (Photo courtesy of Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care)

He is the second traditional healer to work at Waypoint and met Robitaille seven years ago through John Rice, the facility's first traditional healer.

A patient does not have to have an Indigenous background in order to receive the traditional treatment through ceremony, as Mixemong accepts all patients who are looking for traditional healing.

"There's four parts that I look at to help them to get a better understanding of who they are — the emotional part, the spiritual part, the mental part and the physical part — in order to help them in their needs as a whole person," says Mixemong.

Being able to offer services to patients that support them emotionally and spiritually — not just mentally and physically, as is the focus in traditional Western medicine — is especially critical for facilities that serve Canada's Indigenous people, said Robitaille.

Kelly Brownbill, Ziigwen Mixemong and John Rice work together to construct the sweat lodge at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care. (Photo courtesy of Waypoint Centre for Mental Health)

Mixemong, who is Potawatomi and Anishnaabe, is a mide. The Midewiwin, also known as the Grand Medicine Society, is an ancient spiritual society once widespread among the Ojibwe or Anishinaabe people and many other Great Lakes Indigenous groups.

Its practitioners, mides, are medicine men, traditional healers who practise ceremonies that have been handed down orally for hundreds of years. Through these ceremonies, like sweat lodges and smudging, a mide helps guide people on their spiritual paths.

There are four levels of learning that a Midewiwin can complete, much as there are different levels of schooling in Western society. Mixemong has been training as a mide for 30 years — both he and Rice are third-level Mides.

They are also both part of the Three Fires Lodge, a group of 150 elders who meet three times a year in Wisconsin for ceremonies to keep up with their teachings.

Hope to offer 4 or 5 sweats each year

Before the sweat lodge could be assembled, Robitaille, Mixemong and Rice had to develop a policy to assess any risks that might arise from the ceremony. They had to research medications taken by patients to make sure they would not have a reaction to the intense heat of a sweat lodge. They also had to educate staff and patients on the ceremony, and its origin, benefits and protocol.

Mixemong said that the lodge, which stands in Waypoint's courtyard, was assembled with great mindfulness.

Ziigwen Mixemong places cedar boughs on the path to the sweat lodge. (Photo courtesy of Waypoint Centre for Mental Health )

"Before we even harvest any of the trees or saplings [used to make the sweat lodge] in June, we say a prayer asking the trees for permission to be able to do that. There's always ceremonies before we request those things from Mother Earth," said Mixemong.

The facility plans on holding sweats four or five times a year for patients who would like to participate.

Mixemong says that this is the first step in moving toward reconciliation through traditional healing practices.

It's an important step for psychiatric facilities, he said, but there is still more work to be done to introduce these traditional healing practices at a national level.

"I know in most provincial and federal institutions, they have a land claim and agreement that they say in all of the hospitals that's a positive part of that. We're moving slowly but in a positive way," said Mixemong.

"When you consider all of the evidence that says that when people feel that they're supported and part of a community where there's interdependence — they heal better," said Robitaille.

"For our traditional patients, being able to not only enter a sweat lodge but to be able to practice familiar ceremonies on an equal footing with western medicine is absolutely critical, not only for us, but for all of us and our facilities in Canada that serve First Nations, Inuit and Mé​tis people."


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.