Finding the Way Back Home – A Healing Circle


Part One – Finding the Way Back Home – A Healing Circle

Re-igniting the Flame of Cultural Pride and
Self-worth for High-risk Aboriginal Youth


The statistics are not only horrendous and unfathomable but a national tragedy as well. The rate of aboriginal youth suicide is five times the national average (in some of the southern regions) and eleven times the national average in some of the northern more remote communities of Canada. Dennis Lakusta has decided to take his many years working in Canada’s education system and re-focus it on this pressing and timely issue…the issue of aboriginal youth suicide.

Over the past two years Dennis has been quietly developing a unique concept in aboriginal youth mentoring which is aptly titled “Finding the Way Back Home…a Healing Circle”. The healing circle involves a seven day interactive program of workshops and events designed to return to aboriginal youth what had been so callously stolen from them over countless generations of European colonialism, Residential schools, institutional racism and the forced imposition of an alien cultural and religious paradigm. In essence we are talking about a return of the aboriginal youth’s sense of cultural pride and self-worth. This daunting task can be achieved to some degree by re-introducing, reconnecting and re-grounding native youth in those elements and characteristics that constitute ‘being aboriginal’, i.e., their native language, the ancient wisdom and traditional ways of their ancestors, their community-centred societies, their Earth-reverent spirituality and quantum-based understanding of the cosmos. The workshops also focus on connection to the land, the wealth of knowledge and wisdom held by the aging and disappearing elder community, their dances, music and the ancient art of humour and story-telling. It is through a return to the aboriginal youth’s cultural and spiritual foundation that some may in deed ‘find their way back home’.

(Note: This program is specifically targeted at high-risk aboriginal youth in Canada’s prison system and First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities. It requires a two-week on-location commitment from Dennis and other stakeholders. In addition, the initiative will require weeks, if not months of preparation before Dennis even arrives at the prison facility or native community. After this initial proposal is forwarded, lines of communication will need to be established between Dennis and the band councils, the elders, prison administrators, etc. A suitable location needs to be scouted out. Transportation, accommodation and meals…all of these elements need to be pre-arranged before hand. Dennis also has a number of severe food allergies which must be addressed. The selection process of the high-risk youth will require the most attention…a psychological profile of youths who qualify for the program needs to be conducted. Parents, guardians and case-workers need to be brought into the process. Even after the healing circle workshops and closing ceremonies are completed the focus then needs to shift to the long-term follow-up before Dennis leaves the site.  Many of these points will be touched on throughout the following document which provides a detailed analysis of the healing circle program and its many related aspects).

One of the essential ingredients in the workshops is the involvement of local elders (perhaps four, five or six, both male and female) who are knowledgable and well-grounded in the regional dialect, spirituality, values and the traditional ways, and who are familiar with (and preferably related to) the high-risk aboriginal youths who are participating in the healing circle. The native elders can bring a sense of cultural authenticity and symbolism to the circle…they can offer opening and closing prayers, conduct cleansing and smudging ceremonies, drum along to Dennis’ songs, answer questions and in some cases, when necessary, chaperone troubled youths who are having a rough time focusing on the workshops.

Another essential ingredient to the success of the healing circle is to have a local support system in place after Dennis leaves the prison or native community. (This is key and also the focus of Part Two: Keeping the Flame of Cultural Rejuvenation Alive). The ongoing support system is where the elders will play their most important role. If aboriginal youths are inspired by the prospect of having their cultural pride and self-worth returned to them it will be the elder community (as well at the community at large) who can help guide them along that path after the seven-day healing circle program is complete. The healing process needs to be viewed as a long term and community-centred endeavour, therefore preference will be given to communities with existing healing mechanisms already in place. (For communities with little or nothing in the way of healing programs or strong traditional foundations a number of options can be discussed…and these options will be covered in Part Two: Keeping the Flame of Cultural Rejuvenation Alive). For prisons and institutions, the elders can continue to provide support for young offenders after Dennis leaves but when the youths are released from the institution and if they are still inspired by the program then they can be ‘guided’ to return to a community that has a healthy and proactive healing centre (or lodge) at its core.

(Note: The first day of the healing circle titled ‘If Life Gives You Lemons…Make Lemonade’ is intended to establish a close and personal rapport between Dennis and the young folks around the circle. He does not want to be viewed as a teacher, academic or lecturer who speaks down to them but instead as a fellow-survivor who has been through the same system that they (the youths) are immersed in today. This is the general tone that hopefully can be maintained throughout the healing circle. The students need to feel as comfortable with and relatable to Dennis as they are with the other elders participating in the sessions).

The Talking Stick

The daily sessions run approximately three and a half hours (not including the break) and throughout each daily session there will be ample opportunities for the students to have their say on the topic of the day or anything else relating to the healing circle, i.e., stories, personal experiences, challenges and successes they have encountered along their journey. A ‘talking stick’ or ceremonial Eagle’s feather will be passed around giving each participant a chance to ‘speak from the heart’ on issues that interest them. This is also a chance to direct questions to the elders seated around the healing circle.


Some high-risk aboriginal youth participating in the healing circle may benefit from a more personal or private ‘one-on-one’ conversation with Dennis and members of the elder contingent. This can be arranged during the after-hours or evenings. These one-on-ones should be pre-arranged by the band council, the elders or prison officials.

A Location Conducive to Healing

In regards to the location, it would be best to find a quiet, comfortable and ‘out of the way’ space that is the least institutionalized and conducive to healing, growth and introspection. The best word to describe this type of location is ‘retreat’. A neutral environment away from schools, churches, businesses, etc. and all the distractions, bells, whistles and noises they produce. An environment where a group of young folks and some elders can retreat from the busy world for a few hours and discuss some of the more important issues of life. The ideal location that fits all these requirements – according to Dennis – is a spacious living room in someone’s private home. The furnishings can include comfy sofas and easy chairs with a few soft-padded dining room chairs as well. Enough space and seating to accommodate 8-12 students and 4-6 elders. The key word here is ‘comfortable’, with lots of warm lighting from floor and table lamps…no ‘neon’ please. An alternative to a living room would be a large rumpus room in a basement with seating and lighting arrangements similar to a living room environment.

Ps. It is a lot to ask of someone to give up their living space for four hours a day for five consecutive days but hopefully they understand the valuable contribution they are making to a worthwhile cause.

If a private home is not available then the next best scenario would be quiet, comfortable conference room or meeting space that can be converted into a living room type of environment for the five days of workshops. This room could be equipped with comfortable furniture and lighting similar to the living room model. Ideally a space that would allow the least amount of distractions from the outside world.

Note: Because a conventional Christmas tree and string of Christmas lights are both integral parts of the program it would be helpful if the amount of outside lighting from windows can be controlled from time to time…drapes, blinds and simple cardboard shutters could be used.

(Note: These and many other details can be discussed with prison officials, band councils and elders during the two/three days of prep work leading up to Day-one of the workshops. The following provides a day-by-day breakdown and overview of the seven-day program…which includes closing ceremonies, community concert and program assessment).

Day One: “If Life Gives You Lemons… Make Lemonade”

(Note: Day One will begin with an opening ceremony with elders officiating. Dennis will sing a song or perhaps do a little stand-up comedy to help ‘melt the ice’. He will then pass out selected photographic prints from his ‘All My Relations’ collection and allow time for the youths and elders to be amazed by the haunting characters and animal faces he has found in nature using his special technique with mirrors. Dennis then informs the youths and elders that all the images being passed around will be presented to them (the students and elders) during the ‘Give-away’ ceremony on the final day of the healing circle. The ‘give-away’ of Dennis’ photography will provide some incentive for the students to engage and commit themselves to the week-long healing circle).

Dennis Lakusta - Image Give-Away Examples

To view more samples of give-away images, click here.



Dennis begins the first session by posing the questions; what does it mean to be aboriginal and why should we feel pride in our native ancestry? The ancient wisdom, respect for nature, egalitarian social structures, Earth-honouring spirituality and traditional ways of Canada’s indigenous cultures are now widely studied and highly regarded around the world. Dennis will briefly touch upon these many admirable qualities which are, without a doubt, a cause for celebration… the youngsters and elders participating in today’s healing circle have so many reasons to feel proud about their native heritage, their language and their spirituality. This message of celebration is the perfect way to begin the healing circle.

Dennis Lakusta - Childhood - age 6
Dennis at 6 years of age.

Next Dennis will provide a personal and gut-wrenching account of his first 21 years on the planet. A most unusual and challenging adventure beginning with a prenatal history of neurological damage caused by his mother’s dependency on drugs (including phenobarbital), alcohol and tobacco. (The brain damage caused by full-term exposure to phenobarbital – while in his mother’s womb – would go on to affect every aspect of Dennis’ dysfunctional upbringing). At nine months of age he was taken away from his mother (who was aboriginal and severe epileptic), became a permanent ward of the state and was shunted through 17 foster homes and religious institutions before quitting school in grade 10. As a youth Dennis was sexually sterilized (due to an as yet unexplained surgery) and was unable to father any of his own children. Being sexually abused as an infant in two earlier foster homes, he began to withdraw into himself, building a ‘defence system’ to keep others out. He found two escape routes from his pain….music and petty crime. Shoplifting at five, his first ride in the back of a police cruiser by six, breaking and entering by age seven, rolling his first drunk by eight, credit card theft by nine and everything else in between, Dennis was sent to reform school and later to a work farm to ‘straighten’ his life out. Didn’t work…back into crime when hitting the big city again, falling in with alcoholics and career criminals as friends and mentors.

He began smoking at age 11 and consuming alcohol at 14 (two other forms of escape)…engaged in petty crime to finance his addictions. Dennis quit school and hitch-hiked to Vancouver in ’63 for a fresh start. Alone, desperate and broke, he was befriended by a notorious pimp on Granville Street (who specialized in young boys) and worked in the sex trade for that summer. His first and only ‘botched’ attempt at committing suicide also occurred during this period…when running a blade across his right wrist (during a drinking spree) and seeing all the blood he suddenly ‘chickened-out’. (Fortunately the incision had not severed any main arteries but left him with a permanent scar).

Now in his late teens Dennis began drifting and working dead-end jobs throughout the interior of BC. In and out of prisons and drunk-tanks during this period and heavily into smoking and alcohol he noticed his health deteriorating and was issued a ‘death sentence’ by a doctor just prior to his 21st birthday. Based on x-rays revealing early signs of emphysema and lung cancer, the doctor informed Dennis that he only had maybe five years to live (at most)…unless through some miracle he came to his senses and made some major changes in his lifestyle.

On the occasion of his 21st birthday celebration Dennis drank himself into unconsciousness and the next morning found himself alone and curled up in a fetal position on a urine-soaked living room rug, shivering violently and unable to move because of the pain in his body. It was while lying on the floor in that pitiful condition that Dennis had his first and only ‘epiphany’…he could feel ‘death’ trying to take him that morning, that ‘death’s’ hands were hovering over him like a shroud. But there was another more subtle presence in that room as well, a healing and beneficent presence that he could only understand as ‘life’ itself, and that these two ominous forces were engaged in a pitched battle for his soul. In retrospect, Dennis realizes today that he was being confronted with the most important choice of his short and wasted life…and that choice was; whether to live or die, sink or swim, fight or surrender. It was on that cold December morning in 1967, and in that desperate and deplorable state that something inside of Dennis ‘snapped’. Without understanding or being conscious of what was happening at the time, a new force had suddenly awoken within his being… a force that could be best interpreted today as a pure and primal will to survive. On that cold December morning Dennis Lakusta became a warrior. And thus began a life-long battle to confront his many demons – one by one – and slowly turn his life around.

That was then…this is now.

Today (fifty years later) Dennis has become one of Canada’s most creative and prolific artists and innovators. He has mastered no less than eleven art disciplines including; musician, songwriter, composer, producer, photographer, painter, computer wizard, inventor, humorist, author, activist and educator. Many of his recent works including three collections of spell-binding photographic images, musical recordings, videos and e-Books can be viewed, listened to and enjoyed by visiting his new website:

Dennis’ strong suit of course is education. For the past twenty years he has been criss-crossing the country bringing his original programs and unique perspective to tens of thousands of students, from elementary to university graduate levels and everything in between. From the Coast Salish community of Kayoukut on west Vancouver Island to Kitiganzebee in Northern Quebec, from Fort Simpson NWT to Annishnabe and the Mohawk Nations, Dennis is well-remembered for his humour, music, photography and wisdom. He speaks with authority and conviction about the devastating impact of the Indian Residential school system on his family, the history of racism in Canada, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms and of course, the amazing, jaw-dropping account of his own personal journey of survival as a troubled aboriginal youth.

Dennis backs up his ‘lemons to lemonade’ transformation with a display of his amazing photo art, his ‘earthy’ sense of humour and original songs….as well as other samples of his creative genius. After the heart-rendering account of his life story and how he survived (and thrived) Dennis will pass the talking-stick around to the students and elders so they can ask question and recount their own stories about the challenges they face and the victories they have experienced in their own lives.

Ps. What happens in Vegas….stays in Vegas. The personal accounts and survival stories from the students and elders are meant to remain ‘in the circle’. Dennis will make this clear on Day-one of the program.

Day Two: The Allegory of the Christmas Tree

(Note: One of the many ‘props’ or teaching aids Dennis will use throughout the healing circle will be a Christmas tree which can be set up and decorated during the two or three days of preparation leading up to the beginning of the healing circle. The Christmas tree is not used in any religious context but simply as a visual aid explaining how the Great Spirit works via the inter-relationship between the individual lights, the hidden green cord and the boughs. The history of a brightly lighted tree glowing in the wintry darkness predates Christianity by a thousand years at least).

Understanding the subtleties and profundities of the indigenous spiritual worldview is an integral part of the healing circle. Healing and spirituality are inseparable parts of one whole. It is essential for aboriginal youth to re-connect with and be proud of their spiritual roots. After many years touring in Canadian high schools and universities Dennis has devised a simple and effective way to broach this rather abstract subject by using the most common of western icons…that being the Christmas tree. When young children first approach a Christmas tree they are instantly captivated by the beauty of the multi-coloured lights glowing in the wintry darkness. They could be forgiven for assuming all the pretty lights are separate and independent of one another…the Christmas tree is designed to appear that way. It is the closest one can get to a perfect illusion. For hidden among the boughs and branches and out of view of the casual observer is a green electrical cord that runs through the entire tree and powers all the Christmas lights. (The green cord is connected to a power source or generator that is also out of view). So, to the young child all the lights may appear to be separate and independent but those who know ‘what’s happening’ behind the scenes understand that all the lights are connected and patched into one universal energy source…the green electrical cord. This is how the ‘Great Spirit’ works…the cosmos appears to be a profusion of separate parts but ‘in reality’ all those seemingly separate parts are inter-connected to each other through an invisible field of divine energy…the Great Spirit. So the apparently chaotic and random universe is actually one cohesive and indivisible entity, one infinite and inter-connected ocean of spirit.

Thus the term ‘all my relations’.

The Christmas tree provides a simple metaphor that can be easily understood by both children and adults alike. That’s why a fully functioning and brightly lit Christmas tree is essential throughout the healing circle and at one point in the workshop Dennis instructs an assistant to turn off all the lights and in the darkness he plugs in a 15 ft string of Christmas lights which is held at both ends by 2 volunteers. (This is also a delightful way of getting the youth’s attention). He then stands behind the string of multi-coloured glowing lights and further explains (1) the inner workings of each individual Christmas light (its temporary glass bulb vs. the hidden infinite energy inside) and (2) the profound inter-relationship between the glowing lights and the green cord… as they apply to the youths and the elders sitting around the circle. For example, each glowing bulb and filament on the string is mortal and has a relatively short life span. Perish-ability was built right into their design and each light is destined to eventually burn out or ‘die’ and be absorbed back into the elements from whence it came. But the beauty of this simple metaphor is that the power source (or Great Spirit) running through the entire tree continues on unaffected, unchanged and constant. We human beings may be born one moment and pass away the next but the Great Spirit that generates – and is – our inner life-force never dies.

                               “Up to our eye-balls in spirit, goodness and self-worth”

The under-laying message is that – whether we realize it or not – while we are alive we all have this divine universal energy source completely filling us with ‘life’ allowing us to glow just like the lights on the Christmas tree. And that whilst we are alive we also have the opportunity to make direct contact with and experience our inner life force (see ‘Vision Quest’ below). This invisible and divine field of energy that moves through us and gives us life is our true nature and constitutes the real substance of who we are. It is essential that the aboriginal youths understand that they are not alone or isolated in this crazy world but do in fact carry within them a very powerful, beneficent and healing presence…the Great Spirit. This understanding was at the core of indigenous spirituality as practiced by our distant fore-bearers but has unfortunately been trampled into the ground by colonialism, racism, the Catholic Church and the Residential schools. In our efforts to heal the aboriginal culture (and our aboriginal youth) it is vital that we re-kindle this ancient spiritual flame within our own individual selves.

The ancient ancestors of North American indigenous societies, like many cultures throughout the world, discovered a way to connect with the Great Spirit within themselves. The methodology by which they achieved this connection was known as the ‘Vision Quest’ and involved various practices and techniques including silence, solitude, fire and breath to bring the wandering, linear mind into the present moment (the only time frame in which the Great Spirit exists) in preparation for the journey into self-realization. Through a lineage of powerful shamans and guides North American indigenous societies came to understand that their bodies were temporary vessels that carried something very wondrous, very permanent and very divine within.

“To become less and less the colourful yet temporary bulb… and to become more and more the universal energy that runs through and powers every single light on the tree”

( Excerpt from the long version of ‘Allegory of the Christmas Tree’.                                         Click here to view )

How Our Distant Ancestors Influence Our Lives Today

Using once more the string of glowing and colourful Christmas lights in the darkened room, Dennis will explain, in the simplest of terms, how ‘cellular memory’ works. Anyone who thinks they are alone, isolated and helpless in this world is missing out on another powerful source of strength and inspiration that they carry deep within themselves. Encoded within our DNA, in every living cell in our body are the memories of ancient principles and ethics that our distant ancestors lived by. Let us identify these as social and environmental ethics…Earth ethics. If, over hundreds or thousands of generations, our ancestors lived in a general state of harmony and respect for nature (the trees, the animals, the water, the Earth), respect for community, respect for justice, respect for women and respect for the Great Spirit, then it is these ethical influences that are encoded within our genetic blood-line today. If our ancient ancestors lived for many generations in accordance with a set of principles that dictated no one should take more than they need and should walk with a gentle footprint upon the Earth, then it is these ethical qualities that are also etched into our genetic lineage. The cellular ‘memory’ of these ethics was passed down from one generation to the next (courtesy of genetic inheritance) like family jewels. Aboriginal kids, like all human beings, are born with the memory of these ancient ethics buried deep within their own genes….within each living cell. This cellular memory of ancient principles; (1) of knowing right from wrong, (2) ethical from unethical, (3) living in harmony with nature, etc. can also be identified today as ‘conscience’.

“You are the whispers I hear…you are the voice calling me. Lips that are sweetened in the light…saying, I’m with you constantly”

The 15 ft string of Christmas lights helps to illustrate these simple truths. In the darkened room Dennis will again stand behind the glowing lights and point out that the first light on the string represents us today (all the participants around the circle) and that all the other lights along the string represent the many generations of ancestors who came before us. The green electrical cord (in this example) represents the unbroken lineage of wisdom and ethics that were passed down from one generation to the next through our ancestral bloodline (DNA). In our quietest moments these are the ‘voices’ and stirrings we hear and feel at the centre of our being. These voices and stirrings are the medium through which our ancestors communicate with and counsel us. If aboriginal youths today can begin to grasp and understand the power-house of wisdom and goodness that exists within their genetic makeup then that understanding would certainly help them to realize that they are never alone, never isolated and never helpless.

(Note: At the end of this workshop Dennis unscrews all the Christmas lights from the string and passes one coloured light bulb out to each of the participants around the circle. He then instructs the participants to carry their individual Christmas light around with them for the remainder of the course as a reminder of the truth, the beauty and the power that exists within them. At the end of the seven-day program the students are also encouraged – if they so wish – to take the coloured Christmas light home with them and add it to their personal belongings as a memento of the healing circle. The allegory of the Christmas tree will be referred to numerous times throughout the seven-day healing circle. It is important that aboriginal youths be exposed as often as possible to the allegory’s uplifting message of hope, inter-connection and self-worth).

Day Three: The Elder and the Children

(Note: Day Three will focus on the current and historical importance of the elder community and their traditional influence on youth. The workshop begins with the deconstruction of one of Dennis’ original songs which he will sing).

View and enjoy “The Elder and the Children”

Verse 1

Gather ‘round all my children and hear the words I say
Pray you’ll not forget them as you go on your way
My earthly dance is ending and yours has just begun
Be the bearers of the wisdom now… you are the only ones

Verse 2

Many have come before you and many will come again
But you are the ones who’ll dance now through this sunshine and this rain
Dance in the circle turning by moon and morning star
Dance in the joy of knowing… how beautiful you are


You are child of the earth and sun, your miracles have begun
And you’re shining like jewels in the night
Your spirits fly with wings, your heart dances and sings
For you are children of the light

Verse 3

I’ve seen you young ones dancing in feathers head to toe
Some look like the eagle, some the grouse and some the crow
All a-whirl and spiralling and moving to the drum
You’re an image and reflection of the place that you are from

Verse 4

And if someone should look your way and say you don’t belong
That everything you think and everything you do is wrong
Throw upon your feathers and gather from afar
Dance in the joy of knowing… how beautiful you are


You are child of the earth and sun, your miracles have begun
And you’re shining like jewels in the night
Your spirits fly with wings, your heart dances and sings
For you are children of the light

Ref: Hey hey hey hey, hey hey hey hey (x2)

Verse 5

The last thing I will tell you before this day departs
Your power and your strength are resting right within your hearts
Go in the four directions, with the wind and wander far
Every day remembering…how beautiful you are

Repeat Chorus (x2) You are child of the earth and sun…..

Dennis Lakusta's Grandfather

James Vitale LeBlanc – Dennis’ Grandfather
(photo: Dunbow Indian Residential School)

This day belongs to the elders. After examining the deeper meaning and nuances of the above song with those around the healing circle, the elders will be invited to sit in front of the youths and express how the song relates to their own life experiences. Dennis, being also in his 70s, will join the elders as moderator and there will be an opportunity for the young folks to ask questions and interact with the elders. The elders hold a treasure within them in the form of the language, the oral history, the ancient knowledge, the spiritual worldview and traditional ways of their blood-line. It is preferable that the elder contingent include both males and females because female elders have a unique story to tell as well. Day Three is intended to honour and nurture a deeper respect for the elders, the keepers of the ancient wisdom.


Day Four: Youth Empowerment and Discovering the Warrior Within

“Many people look for their heroes on the silver screen or in comic books. Some even look to the skies thinking a saviour or angel will swoop down and save them from their problematic and unfulfilled lives. The simplest (and cheapest) way to find your hero, your saviour or your angel is to stand in front of a full-length mirror”

Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us has been gifted with a bounty of intrinsic tools, strengths and qualities, all of which are designed to assist us in dealing with life’s many challenges. These tools are intangible and abstract by nature and can therefore be easily missed or overlooked as one navigates their way along the oftentimes confusing and treacherous path that is life. Today’s healing circle will focus on these inner strengths and qualities in an attempt to familiarize troubled aboriginal youth with a number of powerful weapons they possess (and can utilize) in the ongoing battle raging both within themselves and without. So, let’s examine some of these tools (weapons) in terms of empowering aboriginal youth.

* Cultural pride and self-esteem. These two powerful attributes manifest as inner ’feelings’ about one’s place in the cosmos. They are the source of our sense of ‘belonging’, of being an integral part of something more noble and greater than ourselves. In essence, a deep pride in who we are as aboriginal people, our cultural heritage, our connection to the land and to the Great Spirit. Today many aboriginal youths feel lost, hopeless and rudderless because of the absence of these fundamental ‘feelings’ in their lives. And, when you really think about it, how could it be otherwise. For the past one hundred and fifty years Canada’s indigenous peoples have been told repeatedly by the mainstream culture (the Church, the governments, the media, the movie industry, the general public, etc.) that they are inferior, savages, in league with the devil, stupid, lazy, God-less, drunkards and welfare bums. Troubled aboriginal kids today bear the brunt and cumulative effects of a hundred and fifty years of this kind of abuse and mistreatment (which includes the psychological trauma caused by systemic sexual predation at the hands of the Church). No wonder suicide rates amongst todays aboriginal youth are measured in epidemic proportions. Our young people are falling through the cracks at an alarming rate and that is why it is absolutely imperative that aboriginal communities (spear-headed by the elders) work to provide a healing and nurturing environment that promotes a real sense of cultural pride and identity for their children. The general state of our aboriginal youth today is directly indexed to the state of the communities that raised them, which puts the onus on all aboriginal communities to provide a healing environment for their youth…by healing themselves first. It should be noted (with much applause) that many First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities across Canada are proactively developing systems that promote healing and transformative environments.

* The Power of Choice. The aboriginal youth’s power to choose can not be over-stated…its application, in the context of drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, depression, suicide, bullying, gangs, prostitution, criminal behaviour, etc. is obvious. But today’s workshop will focus more on the power to choose as it relates to our main theme which is ‘finding the way back home’. What needs to be made crystal clear to the young folks participating in these healing circles is that the ‘re-booting’ and re-igniting of their cultural flame can only happen it they (our aboriginal youth) choose to make it happen. These options cannot be forced upon them. If troubled and despondent youths understand the benefits and are sincerely interested in having their cultural pride and self-esteem returned to them, then it is they who will need to make the first step in that direction…and that first step must begin with a conscious choice. There is no other way of skirting around this uncomfortable truth…the healing circle and the elders can offer wisdom, encouragement and alternatives but when the ‘rubber hits the road’ it is the native youth themselves who must become the masters of their own destiny. Such is the power of choice.

Ps. After each of these powers are introduced, the ‘talking-stick’ will be passed around giving the students and elders the opportunity to express their personal views on how these powers affect their own lives.

* Understanding the Basics of ‘Restorative Justice’ In recent times the indigenous societies of North America have garnered world-wide acclaim for their understanding and practice of Restorative Justice. A basic understanding of this ancient philosophy can add greatly to the troubled aboriginal youth’s sense of personal empowerment. One of the philosophical tenets that underpin the practice of Restorative Justice holds that all human beings are fundamentally and intrinsically ‘good’. Being a child of the Universe, combined with the fact that we are ‘up to our eyeballs’ in the invisible but beneficent presence of the ‘Great Spirit’, how could we not be fundamentally and intrinsically good? But being human beings and having both a super-mind and free will, we are also prone to making mistakes and enacting bad choices in our daily relationships with the planet and the people around us. Ancient indigenous societies were not immune to criminal behaviour, human rights abuses, violence, assault and theft although the instances of these behaviours were meagre when compared to modern, advanced, ‘western’ industrial standards. If crime didn’t exist in Aboriginal societies there would have been no reason to create the Restorative Justice system.

The Restorative Justice system attempts to separate the criminal or abusive act – expressed in thoughts, words and deeds – from the person who committed the act (who is considered to be fundamentally ‘good’). The focus then becomes the act itself… what was the source and contributing factors that led to the act…what were the social, emotional, economic and psychological conditions under which the act was perpetrated…was the offender aware of the human/environmental impacts of his actions. Essential to the success of the Restorative Justice system was the interfacing of the offender and the victim…this is key. These two individuals were brought together in the central lodge (usually with the victim and the offender’s relatives in attendance) and seated directly across from one another – face-to-face – where they would ‘discuss’ the offender’s act and its impact on the victim. The objective of these ‘face-to-face’ confrontations was not so much to punish the offenders as it was to heal them via the intensity of the confrontation itself. The offender had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and being in such close proximity to the victim, the community (and all the relatives) the offender had no other option than to take responsibility for his/her actions. Pretty hard to fake an apology under these conditions.

(Note: There are a number of reasons the American or ‘western’ justice system has failed, the main reason being the values that underpin western industrial societies as a whole which include; greed, hoarding and profit motive; the pursuit of material wealth, consumerism; dog-eat-dog; taking more than you need, etc. etc. It is this pervasive and destructive value system that has ‘manufactured’ the western criminal mind and the crime wave that now plagues modern industrial societies. In the United States alone there are approximately three-and-a-half million human beings incarcerated in state and federal correctional facilities (that’s about one out of every one hundred US citizens) and the vast majority of those inmates are from the ranks of the poverty-ridden masses who are ‘doing time’ for mostly property crimes, theft, homicide, breaking and entering, assault and drug offences, etc. Most of these crimes revolve around the pursuit of some form of material or monetary wealth. The western approach to this ever-growing problem is to build more and more prisons and penitentiaries where offenders are banished and isolated from society).

In contrast to the American or ‘western’ criminal justice system whose strategy is to banish and isolate offenders from society, the Aboriginal’s Restorative Justice system is designed to re-integrate the offender back into society A.S.A.P. Another detrimental aspect of the western justice system is that the offender is customarily represented, tried, judged and convicted by total strangers unfamiliar as to the offenders history and character. In aboriginal societies, the legal process was conducted by members of the community or village in which the offender resided thus providing a personal and familial understanding of the history and character of the accused.

* Other Tools. Day Four will also examine other inner qualities that aboriginal youth possess, which when used under the right conditions could mean the difference between life and death. Determination, self-trust, courage, patience, vision, hope, will, co-operation and intestinal fortitude are just some of the inner strengths these youngsters are born with. Once young warriors decide to take on the challenge of returning to their cultural roots they will need all the strengths (weapons) they can muster for the ensuing battle.

“Considering the gravity of the present situation and influential imbalances existing between Canada’s traumatized aboriginal community and Euro-Canadian mainstream there are only two real options for aboriginal youth today. Either the youth becomes a warrior or he/she becomes a slave. Slavery is synonymous with ‘assimilation’ which, after a few more generations would result in the extinction of Canada’s ancient, colourful and very noble indigenous mosaic. As elder statesman George Erasmus once warned “the time for basket weaving is over” and Canada’s aboriginal culture must now prepare to do battle for their very existence”.


Day Five: Cultural Integrity: Being Aboriginal in the White Man’s World

                         ‘To be in this world… but not of it’

                                             (Jesus of Nazareth)

Being non-religious himself, but still having a thirst for knowledge and understanding, Dennis has tried to glean as much wisdom and truth as possible from as many different sources in his travels around the planet. The human experience has produced many visionaries, healers and shamans, both in the New World and the Old, who have tried to express in words, parables, fables, totems, mythology or symbolism deeper truths that exist just beyond the limits of sensory and intellectual understanding. Dennis read the above quote by Jesus many years ago but today its meaning can be applied (in a non-religious context) to the healing circle and aboriginal youth’s need to re-ignite a cultural flame within their troubled hearts. The key to healing our aboriginal youth – if one is allowed to slightly alter the above quote – is ‘to be in the white man’s world….but not of it’. This statement certainly requires some clarification. European colonization happened, we can’t change that. The ‘western’ values of acquisition, hoarding, taking more than you need, materialism, consumerism and the ownership and control of nature (land, water, trees, animals, etc.) have spread like the plague and taken root all over the North American continent since the early days of colonialism…these questionable values are not going anywhere soon. But aboriginal communities and especially the youngsters can remain true to their cultural and spiritual underpinnings, and their traditional values while in the midst of the destructive Canadian mainstream culture. This cultural integrity can be achieved by developing and nurturing a strong aboriginal base within each community. Canada’s aboriginal community absolutely must be allowed to be ‘aboriginal’…which means the re-establishment of the many cultural characteristics that were stolen from them via racism, the Indian Act, the reservation system and the Indian Residential schools.

It is essential to impress upon today’s aboriginal youth that the traditional ways of their ancestors were good ways, just ways and Earth-friendly ways, and that the principles and ethics practice by their ancient lineage are now regarded by many scholars and humanists throughout the world as admirable and noble. This will be the central focus of Day Five, the final day of the healing circle. Throughout the seven days of the circle and related activities there will be much laughter, music and art work but the number-one priority is to get up close and personal with troubled aboriginal youth (so close that these youngsters can feel the heat of Dennis’ breath) and to engage in a two-way, ‘heart-to-heart’ conversation about the challenges they face in their lives. This final day of the workshops will come to a conclusion by passing around the ‘talking stick’ one last time, giving each student and each elder an opportunity to express their views on the healing circle and its meaning to them.

Note: The preceding day-by-day synopsis provides only a general overview of the content which will be covered on any one particular day. There are many other elements that will be included into the circle that will support the central theme. Dennis’ approach to mentoring, whether at the elementary or university graduate level, tends to be light on structure and heavy on ‘feel’ therefore no two presentations will ever be the same. In other words, there is no script. This unique approach allows for both youths and elders to have a hand (depending on their questions and engagement with the material) in governing the general direction of each session. It should also be noted that the language used in this proposal is meant for administrators, band councils and elders…it is adult language. The language used in the actual workshops will be simplified to suit the age group of the students.

A Special Note From the Author

It is important that all those involved in the seven-day healing circle (and the long-term follow up program as well) be aware of the realities we are dealing with regarding the high-risk Aboriginal youths themselves. The first reality is that we are dealing with a unique group of youngsters who undoubtedly qualify as the most damaged, most despondent and most vulnerable within the entire Canadian demographic (and perhaps on the global scale as well). This damage applies to every aspect of the human condition….psychological, spiritual, emotional, physical, cultural and social. The above listed suicide rates of five to eleven times the national average indicate the depth and extent of the damage caused by institutional racism, the Indian Act, cultural genocide and the Indian Residential school system.

To be more specific, I am referring to the challenges associated with bringing eight, ten or perhaps twelve of the most damaged human beings on the planet into one room for four hours a day over a six day period (including the community concert on Saturday). Having worked in the education field for many years, I’ve traveled to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities (both in northern and southern regions of Canada) and presented my programs to tens of thousands of young students. Those students represent the full spectrum of the Canadian youth scene… from well-adjusted and well-balanced at one end to the completely lost, broken and dysfunctional at the other. But the particular youths who qualify for the ‘Finding the Way Back Home’ program present a unique scenario that I have never before encountered in terms of the extremely high concentration of psychological, cultural, spiritual and emotional trauma that these kids have been through. Which is why these extra special students will require extra special care and attention from all those involved in the healing circle.

Every native community is unique…the social conditions are unique…the challenges are unique…the elder community is unique. It only follows that the native youths who qualify for the healing circle program will also be unique. The healing circle and those involved in hosting and presenting it will need to be well prepared for any of a long list of potential problems which could arise, given the psychological and emotional state of youths participating in the circle. This is one of the reasons I will require two or three days of prep work with the elders, band councils and prison administrators before the workshops even begin. I will need to be briefed on the psychological and emotional state of each youth participating in the circle. I will need to know what drugs and/or substances (if any) that the youths are currently under the influence of. I will need to know which students have been sexually abused and which students are prone to violence.

Another reality we must be aware of is; it would be naive to assume a program of this nature is going to prevent all high-risk youth from ‘falling through the cracks’ (i.e., taking their own lives). The fact that these kids even qualify for the healing circle program itself is a sobering reminder of the extent to which their young formative minds and their delicate, impressionable psyches have been exposed to the poisonous and destructive influences of the dominant ‘western’ mainstream culture. So, the idealistic notion of ‘saving’ all or even most of the youths is not the objective here. Instead, the prime objective of the healing circle is to inspire as many youths as possible, to ignite the flame of cultural pride and self-worth in as many hearts as possible and then follow up with community-based healing mechanisms (involving a strong contingent of elders) which provide the best possible chance of keeping those fragile flames of cultural pride and identity alive and glowing.

Aboriginal Youth Suicide – The Real Cost of Political Foot-dragging

Native youths attending these workshops need to be made aware – from the very outset – that they are not to blame for the trauma, disconnection and dysfunction they are experiencing in their lives. They were unfortunately born into, and must now deal with the harsh realities of cultural genocide (and in some cases outright genocide) in which a foreign invader (the Europeans) came to the pristine eastern shores of what is now called ‘Canada’ and proceeded to aggressively take over control of the land and resources, a campaign which included marginalizing and assimilating the local indigenous inhabitants ‘out of existence’. Canada’s Aboriginal culture is still very much in a state of shock from this barbaric and indecent assault on their basic rights and freedoms, their sovereignty and their humanity. And this is the unhealthy and inherently poisonous environment into which today’s Aboriginal youth are born. In recent times there has been an attempt – due to a combination of factors including; international pressure, national embarrassment, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (U.N.D.R.I.P.) – to right these historical injustices. We all remember that well-crafted and politically-correct ‘apology’ and our magnanimous government throwing buckets of money at the survivors of the Indian Residential schools but those were mostly about cosmetics and made-for-television photo-ops. The real work of righting historical wrongs goes much, much deeper than that.

The 1982 Constitution Amendment (Section 35-a) states very clearly that Aboriginal rights and entitlement are now and have always been guaranteed and inextinguishable, which of course includes land rights, the rights to self-government and self-determination. If the government of Canada is serious about righting these historical wrongs they must first of all honour and abide by the letter of their own law (Section 35-a is now enshrined in the legal framework of the Canadian Constitution) and do whatever is in their power to provide the wherewithal and means for Aboriginal cultures to once again become strong self-governing and self-determining peoples. The right to self-determination includes the right to re-build and re-establish – if they so choose – their distinct cultural identities which include their native dialects (language), their Earth-reverent spirituality, their customs and traditions, music and dance, their egalitarian social structures, their respect for women, their kin-centric and nature-centric world-views and their connection to the land. The governments and the churches have been laggards when it comes to accepting, honouring and implementing Section 35-a of the Constitution Act. That’s why so many Aboriginal communities – especially in the north – continue to live in ‘third world’ conditions, i.e., extreme poverty, substandard housing and sewage treatment, contaminated drinking water, poor roads and infrastructure, rampant unemployment…which when combined provide a breeding ground for drug abuse, family violence, crime, morbid obesity, prostitution, depression and suicide.

If the Canadian government is really and truly interested in righting historical wrongs and especially addressing the shameful statistics re Aboriginal youth suicide they must ‘wake up’ and take a proactive and revolutionary approach to assist the healing of Canada’s Aboriginal culture. There is simply no other way around this uncomfortable truth. And this will surely take a monumental effort on everyone’s part but until that effort is made and until the attitudes in this country under-go a fundamental change it will be our Aboriginal youth who will continue to bear the real cost of political obstinacy and foot dragging.

If for no other reason, do it for the children.


Day Six: A Community Concert, Give-away and Closing Ceremonies

Day Seven: Meeting With Elders, Band Councils, Prison Administrative Staff for Program Assessment and Introduction to PEP

Regarding Fees and Basic Expenses

The fee structure for this program is simple…there is no fee structure…because there are no fees. With the world so enslaved by the power of money and combined with the traditions and ‘spirit’ of his Plains Cree and Blackfeet ancestors, Dennis decided at the outset of this adventure to ‘give away’ his talents and time to those institutions and native communities who see the benefits of the healing circle.

Institutions and Aboriginal communities who are interested in Dennis’ healing circle program are only requested to cover his basic expenses which include travel, accommodations and meals. If, in the rare case, the community or prison has nothing in their budget to cover the basic expenses, Dennis will (with a little help from his friends) cover these expenses as well. It is important that money not be an obstacle for communities wishing to host their own healing circle programs.

For Future Consideration

When this draft was completed and sent out across the country for feedback one of the comments was; What happens after Dennis leaves the prison or native community? Does he maintain some kind of connection with the elders and students who participated in the healing circle or are they left pretty much on their own. Great feedback. If Parts One and Two of this proposal can be viewed as ‘phase one’ of a long term initiative then ‘phase two’ will certainly help to address the above comment. Assuming the ‘Finding the Way Back Home’ program is deemed beneficial and useful to the aboriginal community, the next logical step is to bring in a professional film crew and tape the entire program, which not only includes workshops and closing ceremonies but the prep and post work as well. The audio and video footage would then be edited down and used to make a feature-length documentary which can be distributed widely (perhaps globally). This documentary (or any part thereof) can be utilized in a number of useful ways to augment the healing circle initiative after Dennis ‘leaves town’. For example the production can be used for follow-up and reference material in the communities that have already hosted the program. It can also be used as inspirational material for prisons and native communities that may at some point in the future be interested in hosting a ‘live’ event of their own. The documentary has the added potential to be a powerful teaching aid in schools, universities, conferences and symposiums, etc., and considering that Dennis is into his seventies and doesn’t know how much ‘gas’ is left in the tank, the production could be used to mentor and train young aboriginal activists who could continue conducting their own variation of the program. Dennis will also provide his email address to students and elders who have participated in the healing circle in case any of them would like to keep in touch.

Ceremonial Eagle Feather

The ceremonial eagle’s feather on the left, was gifted to Dennis by the Chief and Council of the Upper Nicola Band at the Douglas Lake Blockade in Merritt, British Columbia,
in June of 1995.


Part Two: Keeping the Flame of Cultural Rejuvenation Alive


“The facts speak for themselves…broken communities produce broken children. Whereas, healing communities (i.e., those grounded in indigenous dialects, traditional values, egalitarian social structures, Earth-reverent spirituality and respect for nature) produce healthy children”

The following essay is a brief excerpt from one of Dennis’ books titled ‘The Honour Song Trilogy’ and speaks of a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ which provides an appropriate introduction to Pt Two: Keeping the Flame of Cultural Rejuvenation Alive. This section is not part of the healing circle and work-shops for aboriginal youth…it is instead intended for consideration with regards to unique ideas and possible solutions for the long-term healing of Canada’s indigenous communities.

Nine Percent: The Sandy Bay – Stanley Mission Dichotomy

          ‘The light at the end of the Indian Residential School tunnel’

Sandy Bay and Stanley Mission are two Aboriginal communities in Northern Saskatchewan. Sandy Bay is near the Manitoba border, while Stanley Mission is situated in the center of the province, north of La Ronge. On two different school tours to that area over the past five years I’ve had the opportunity to visit both communities and work with the students. Since we are on the subject of education, I would like to pass along the following observation.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the one-hour documentary produced by CBC about Sandy Bay but this small, isolated native community is reputed to have the highest rate of youth suicide in Canada, even eclipsing that of Davis Inlet. Before entering the gymnasium filled with grade 6-9 students I was taken aside by the principal, Arden Smart, and reminded of the nine percent suicide rate – that’s nine out of every one hundred children in his school who would not live to see their twentieth birthday. It was a truly sobering thought. On my second visit to the school I spent a few days in the community and was billeted in a vacant building on the reserve. I spent many hours walking around the settlement and up and down the corridors of the school. I began to get a ‘feel’ of what Sandy Bay was all about. It was depressing and stultifying. If dysfunction and hopelessness had their own particular smells, those pungent odours filled my nostrils no matter where I went. This applied to the adult community as well as the kids. I particularly remember the late evenings walking along the dirt roads amongst the cheap, prefab dwellings and seeing the blue, pulsating glow of televisions emanating from the ‘living’ rooms of most houses. Alcohol use was in evidence and I heard angry parents shouting at the kids from time to time. The adults rarely set foot outside the dwellings.

While walking down the corridors of the school I remember hearing frustrated non-Aboriginal teachers (almost all the teachers in the Sandy Bay school were non-Aboriginal) yelling at and berating students in the class rooms with phrases like ‘What’s wrong with you?’, ‘Sit down and be quiet!’ and ‘Why can’t you learn to do this?’ or ‘Why can’t you learn to do that?”. The angry and frustrated tone of the teachers took me back to some of the institutions I was in as a child. The Sandy Bay students in my sessions were mostly uncontrollable, easily distracted and generally disrespectful. Most had little or no interest in the presentation, or even being in the auditorium to begin with. This was most likely the same behavior pattern exhibited back in their regular class rooms.

The Stanley Mission community and high school were completely the reverse. The students, also Grades 6 to 9, were focused, respectful and engaged in the sessions I conducted. The teachers were all Aboriginal. I was delighted to hear students and teachers speaking Cree in the class rooms and the hallways. Much genuine laughter and animated conversations among the students could be heard throughout the school. There was a general air of positivity, both in the school and in the community, as I was introduced to many adult band members at the local cafe. I truly enjoyed my visit to Stanley Mission.

I hope you’re getting my drift here. Sandy Bay, with most, if not all non-Aboriginal teachers teaching the white man’s education completely devoid of native language, native spirituality and traditional Cree customs, music, art, etc., produces a substance abusing, tuned-out, disinterested and dysfunctional student body with a nine-percent suicide rate. At the other end of the spectrum is Stanley Mission with a suicide rate which boarders on negligible. Why?? Because the Stanley Mission community has all-Aboriginal teaching and administrative staff (the only non-Aboriginal on staff was the principal), a curriculum that incorporates and embraces the local native dialect, native customs and ceremonies openly practiced in the school, local native art and crafts covering the lobby and hallways and the main lobby with a gathering place resembled a huge tepee. This native-friendly system produces students radiating positivety, respect and curiosity. And, one additional feature that was brought to my attention, most of the teaching staff were themselves students from the Stanley Mission community who had graduated from the school, gone on to university, then returned to their own community as teachers, role-models and healers. This internalized healing and support system extended outward into the community itself with doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, counselors and administers, etc. being from the Stanley Mission band.

If ever there was a light at the end of the Indian Residential School tunnel it shines brightly in Stanley Mission. There are elements within the Euro/Canadian education system that can benefit native students but these elements must be balanced with the native’s ancestral, land and culture-based paradigm, with special emphasis on regional dialect, ancient wisdom, spirituality, traditional ways and appeal to native sensibilities. And, what’s most important, native education must be delivered, particularly at the elementary and junior high school levels, by the natives themselves. The Euro/Canadian system of education for Aboriginal children has failed. It was never intended to succeed. The paternalistic ward-ship structure in which the federal government ‘takes care’ of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis must be dismantled and converted to something resembling the Stanley Mission model and it must happen quickly. Far, far too many native children are presently falling through the cracks, disappearing into an ominous fog of drug overdose, prostitution, suicide and violent crime. It is the Euro/Canadian education system – essentially the same system that was taught at the Residential Schools – that is the root cause. This must be changed.

End of excerpt.

A Concerted and Associative Approach to Healing

“When an ordinary piece of steel is rubbed up against a powerful magnet, the piece of steel begins to take on or adopt the properties of the magnet thereby becoming magnetized itself”.

Sandy Bay and Stanley Mission are about 400 km from each other which is a long way to travel by car. No doubt there are broken and healing communities much closer to each other but the general state of the above two communities is ideal for the purposes of this essay…so we will refer to them for now. If these two villages are willing and if they acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses each embodies then there is an opportunity for healing…the piece of steel (Sandy Bay) can ‘rub up’ against the powerful magnet (Stanley Mission) and be influenced by its healing properties. But first there must be a willingness on both sides. In this particular scenario contact needs to be made…perhaps a phone call or email…perhaps a weekend retreat or feast or celebration. From there on any number of possibilities could unfold. The objective is still the same….to assist the healing process of the broken community by bringing it in direct contact with the stronger and more culturally grounded community. There are many broken native communities spread out across this land and there are many healing communities as well and if our original objective of these initiatives is to ensure a healing environment for the high-risk native youth who have enrolled in and been inspired by the ‘Finding the Way Back Home’ healing circle then this is one way to begin the process. Broken communities – whether on a local, regional or a national basis – need to be exposed to communities (and individuals) who are healing.

This is just one aspect of a multi-faceted problem but when it come to our aboriginal youth…doing nothing is not an option. This ‘magnet and steel’ analogy is a simple enough concept to understand but would require a monumental effort to implement. Local, regional and even national data-bases need to be set up (perhaps they already exist) that would provide a general overview of the state of specific communities in any given region of the country so that culturally weak villages can be ‘matched up’ with the stronger ones. Given the vast geography of Canada it would be wise to connect communities that are in the same vicinity (because of dialects, customs and local traditions) and this would not be restricted to just two communities but involve a number of healing and broken villages who all coordinate together on the task of healing the broken community.

Strong Communities ‘Adopting’ High-risk Aboriginal Youth

Another option to consider is ‘adoption’… by this I don’t mean the ‘white man’ adopting the native children and assimilating them as we’ve seen over the past 150 years. I mean that culturally strong communities could temporarily adopt high-risk youth from the weaker communities so as to expose the youth to a strong cultural/spiritual grounding for a pre-arranged period of time. This is a complex model requiring much coordination and the consent of the youth, the parents and the band councils (and perhaps the government as well). Some of these are radical ideas but they at least present the aboriginal community, as a whole, with additional avenues through which to heal themselves.

(Note: It cannot be over-stressed that the healing process needs to be an ‘aboriginal’ initiative from the outset…the government and churches must stay away from this critical and daunting task…. they have done enough damage already. Yes they can address the third world conditions that exist on reserves – conditions caused by the racist attitudes of past governments and the Church – and especially northern communities. Improvements in housing, roads, sewage, infrastructure, employment, education, etc. need to be addressed as well. But when it comes to the resurgence and renaissance of the Aboriginal culture – i.e., language, spirituality, pride, self-worth, traditional values and respect for the planet – it is Canada’s native peoples who must heal themselves…which means healing from the inside out… uncontaminated by the values of the mainstream culture).

Doing nothing is not an option

Considering the depth to which institutional racism and cultural genocide have embedded their poisons within the aboriginal psyche over the past 150 years, the healing will no doubt take many decades and require a concerted effort from all sectors of Canada’s native community. If I can use myself as an example, there are many aboriginal artists and creative types who have excelled at their craft who could become involved in the healing process. Perhaps donating their time and their talents to visit broken communities (and healing communities as well), maybe give workshops on their craft whether it be carving, drum-making, painting, song-writing, playing instruments, story-telling, acting, videography, rapping, stand-up comedy, native fashion and design, mask-making, etc. These initiatives should not be limited to the arts but can also include other aboriginal success stories, i.e., educators, environmentalists, writers, public speakers, techies, athletes, architects, chiefs, activists and prominent elders. These visits could include community concerts showcasing local indigenous music, drumming and dancing. The ‘Finding the Way Back Home’ program ends with a Saturday concert and cultural celebration for the whole community or prison facility. The object here is not necessarily to transform everybody into successful artists but to ‘inspire’ and bring some much needed light and positivity into depressed and dysfunctional native communities and institutions.

(Note: The healing process that is currently underway in some of Canada’s indigenous communities already includes initiatives similar to those presented in this proposal. One such initiative is ‘Katimavik’, a youth empowerment and character development program that provides a ‘hands on’ and ‘back to the land’ approach to healing aboriginal youth. This organization has been active since way back in the 70’s. Please google ‘Katimavik’ and help support the good works of this movement.)

The ‘Finding the Way Back Home’ healing circles are specifically targeted at high-risk aboriginal youth. The arts and crafts programs spoken of above would be aimed more at the whole community. The ‘magnet/piece of steel’ allegory would certainly come into play here. These arts programs would be just one part of multi-directional approach to a culture-wide healing process. But I feel that the primary and most efficacious approach is still the interfacing of broken communities with those that have healed or are well on the road to healing. When I visited Sandy Bay and Stanley Mission in 2005 and again in 2007 the dysfunction of one community juxtaposed with the positivity and proactiveness of the other were palpable and obvious. And that’s more than enough to go on, in order to move forward.


Dennis Lakusta
Nanaimo, BC
August, 2017

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