Canadian hospital bolsters treatment services for aboriginal patients with sweat lodge

Rob Wemigwans, a therapist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health demonstrates how he introduces himself before entering a sweat lodge following the opening of a sweat lodge/sacred fire on the grounds of CAMH in Toronto on Thursday, June 23, 2016. The new facilities are to be used in the healing process for aboriginal clients with mental health and addiction issues.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital has added a unique service for its aboriginal clients — a sweat lodge to help promote spiritual, physical and emotional healing.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto unveiled the sweat lodge on a tucked-away section of its sprawling campus, fulfilling a goal set years ago to augment its services for indigenous clients by adding the ceremonial structure.

"Having the sweat lodge on-site at CAMH is going to allow us to offer indigenous healing ceremonies as part of the treatment plans," Renee Linklater, director of aboriginal engagement and outreach, said in an interview prior to Thursday's official opening.

"This is going to be really important in our efforts to address what is appropriate aboriginal client care."

The round sweat lodge — 1.5 metres high and four metres in diameter — is constructed from 35 maple and poplar sapling poles, gathered from the Six Nations of the Grand River community. Heavy tarp overlays the frame, with an opening facing a fire pit, where stones for the purification ceremony are heated.

Inside, a second pit has been dug to receive those stones, which will be washed with traditional medicines and the "sacred water" that will turn into a cleansing steam.

Participants sit encircling the pit inside the lodge and engage in prayer, songs and other rituals of healing with the help of a ceremonial "conductor." The process lasts about two hours.

Diane Longboat, an elder with CAMH's aboriginal services, said clients with mental health and/or addiction issues go through a number of individual healing ceremonies before being considered ready for the rituals of the sweat lodge.

Taking part in the cleansing ceremony is meant to cast out negative thoughts and feelings, and to help heal "the wounds in their lives," said Longboat, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River territory in southwestern Ontario.

The stones are called "grandmothers and grandfathers," terms reflective of aboriginal Canadians' great reverence for their ancestors.

"When sacred water is placed on them and steam occurs, that's a release of the spirit inside those rocks we call the eggs of Mother Earth," explained Longboat. "Not only is it a physical detoxification of your body, but it's an emotional shift within you.

"It is sometimes a miraculous adventure when you go in because there are profound and everlasting healings that occur inside the sweat lodge. And people will look back on life and say: 'This was a spiritual milestone for me. It was an emotional, mental and physical milestone.'"

Ed Bennett, an Inuk born in Happy Valley, N.L., who ended up homeless in Toronto, was a client at CAMH about five years ago and was enrolled in its 21-day in-house program to deal with psychological issues and substance abuse.

The program helped Bennett learn to express suppressed feelings, to deal with family-related trauma and to accept his identity as a "two-spirit man and a gay man."

He was able to take part in sweat lodge ceremonies through the Native Men's Residence, a shelter program in Toronto.

"It allows me to cleanse myself, especially of those negative thoughts that keep coming back to me from time to time," said the 56-year-old. "So the sweat lodge ceremony allows me to release those.

"I'm really looking forward to my first sweat lodge ceremony at CAMH and to continue to use this important ceremony in my healing journey."

Linklater, an Anishinaabe from Rainy River First Nations in northwestern Ontario, said she believes Canadian society has become much more aware of the historical scars borne by First Nations, Metis and Inuit as a result of colonization, forced relocations of entire communities, the impact of residential schools and the mass apprehensions of aboriginal children in what's known as the '60s Scoop.

"We know that this trauma does not resolve on its own, but rather intensifies and then becomes extended to the children and grandchildren," she said.

"And that's why we feel that it's really important that health services understand the impacts of multi-generational trauma and begin to offer services that are actually relevant and appropriate."

While the sweat lodge will initially be made available only to aboriginal clients, said Linklater, "we are certainly looking forward to a time when clients from other cultures can participate in our traditional healing processes."

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