Cree committees highlight efforts to decolonize health and wellness

By Benjamin Powless

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A new report highlights changes that Cree community members believe would help improve physical, social, mental and spiritual health in their communities. Compiled by the Cree Health Board and independent researchers, it brings together nearly a decade of feedback received by committees tasked with improving wellness based on Cree values.

The CHB launched the Iiyuu Ahtaawin Miyupimaatisiiun (“being alive well”) Planning initiative in 2013 to seek community-identified solutions across Eeyou Istchee. Local Miyupimaatisiiun committees consulted members on all aspects related to a broad definition of health.

From 2016 through 2020, CHB staff and McGill University-affiliated researchers interviewed 22 of the committee members to gather their feedback and evaluate their projects, challenges and accomplishments.

Participants say the interviews were based on healing from residential school trauma, revitalizing Cree culture, and decolonizing health systems and policies.

The anonymous members shared that healing from residential school trauma was a long-term journey and that it was important to create spaces for collective healing. They noted that many people didn’t begin to share until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, and it was important to foster more sharing between generations, particularly between parents and their children.

Some felt it was important to recognize that there are both traditional and religious people recovering, requiring a recognition of the spiritual diversity needed to deal with trauma.

In terms of revitalizing Cree culture, it was felt that prioritizing the Cree language was of utmost importance.

Participants identified the need to bring back “Cree traditional practices, teaching rites, as well as skills, knowledge, values, and language, into everyday community life.”

Land-based activities such as hunting, trapping, snaring, fishing, cutting wood, building tents and healthy diets were seen as a key to returning to these therapeutic traditions. Many had experienced a disconnect from their own culture in their lives and acknowledged embarrassment in having to relearn these traditions as an adult.

To build a sense of pride, they identified dancing, drumming, and traditional rites surrounding birthing and aging, such as the walking-out ceremony, as being effective. Traditional arts and crafts, such as beading, snowshoe making or moose cleaning, were also highlighted.

Committee members explained that contemporary institutional policies, programs and bureaucracies limit Cree values and beliefs.

Instead, they want to see health policies and programs designed by Cree communities and Cree decision-makers. Elder-care, abuse prevention, youth protection, school programming and health education were identified as priorities.

Jeremiah Mianscum is the Coordinator of Community Development under the Nishiiyuu Miyupimaatisiiun department of the CHB. His department works closely with individual communities and the Cree Nation Government to reactivate local committees that had almost stopped functioning during the pandemic.

He says there has been high staff turnover since his appointment in 2019, and that there’s still some confusion about who is running the committees, since they were convened by both the CHB and local band offices.

Mianscum’s office is hosting a meeting in Montreal February 21-23 to reactivate the committees and understand the supports they need, the issues they’re facing, and how they can be better organized.

“We’re helping them with action plans, terms of reference, anything that can help them achieve their priorities to keep the committees going,” Mianscum explained.

He said most communities have an active committee with a renewed resolution from chief and council. They had their first meeting as a group in July and Mianscum said there was a lot of enthusiasm and momentum to implement changes that the committees have identified.

Committees are made up of community members with backgrounds in social work, social development, and from fire and youth departments, among others. Mianscum said that if people are interested in joining their local committee, they can contact their local committee chair or the CHB.

Mianscum said the main challenge isn’t a question of funding but rather of collaboration.

“We’re going to need input from committees at a grassroots level to ensure that we’re supporting the population in terms of health and with land-based stuff. Once we have this symposium, we’ll have more of an understanding of what we can do,” he said.

While some communities may feel that they don’t have sufficient funding, Mianscum observed, they may simply be unaware of sources that would allow them to implement their initiatives. Other communities may need different forms of support, which his department is hoping to identify in February.

Mianscum is inviting chiefs and councils to attend the symposium to add political weight to the initiative.

“We really want to work with them and with the CNG as well,” he insisted. “We’ll be sending out invitations shortly, hoping to have a dialogue with committees and establishing working-together strategies.”

Benjamin Powless is a  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the THE NATION

The LJI program is federally funded.

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