Helping land based healing

Four men stare into a campfire. Some are middle-aged fathers, others don't look old enough to be out of high school. They are part of the most recent group of nine men to stay for three weeks at the Jackson Lake Healing Centre.


Four men stare into a campfire.

Some are middle-aged fathers, others don’t look old enough to be out of high school.

They are part of the most recent group of nine men to stay for three weeks at the Jackson Lake Healing Centre.

On Monday, they will have to walk down the dirt road to the parking lot beyond the centre’s gates and return to their regular lives.

It’s something one of the men has had to do before.

“First Nation men are the first to fail,” he said, adding he’d prefer not to give his name. “I’ve been messed up for 30 years. I started drinking and smoking weed at 13.”

He doesn’t take his eyes off the embers glowing in the gusts of wind as he recounts his past attempts to get clean and sober.

A member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, he’s always had to look beyond his Haines Junction community for help.

In 1996, he went to BC. The program focused on the effects of residential school and helped him deal with resentment he felt towards his mother, a survivor of the schools who gave him to a foster home as a boy, he said.

He remained sober for four years after that.

But he still smoked marijuana, he said, noting he’d have to hide it from his wife and kids.

“It’s time for change,” he said about his decision to come to Whitehorse’s land-based healing centre. “Jail is not the answer. It’s just a revolving door. In there, you don’t want to show your weakness. You don’t deal with anything. We do a lot of talking with each other here.

“I’m tired of being angry. I just hope it’s not too late for my kids’ sake.”

The Jackson Lake Healing Centre resembles a summer camp.

Beside the campfire is an axe-throwing station. Nearby, inside a large tent, men learn to make tools – drums, fish nets and traditional knives. In the woods is a sweat lodge and a spirit pond, fashioned from the nearby creek.

A dip in its icy waters changes your mood, said the centre’s resident psychologist, who admits having jumped in and out that morning.

The men sleep in modest cabins with two single beds and a wood stove.

“That’s balsam,” said one man, noting a hanging sprig above one of the beds.

The plan was to insulate the small structures so their tent-tops could be removed and they could be made into proper cabins, said Jeanie Dendys, of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.

But there hasn’t been the money, she said.

Several times, the First Nation has asked the territory for funding. Recently, it requested a $2.8 million annual budget.

That would provide year-round programming and aftercare for two women, two men, one youth and one family at a time, she said.

But that request hasn’t been answered.

With political candidates in tow, Dendys notes ways in which the lack of money affects the facility.

It runs off generators, she told NDP candidates Stephen-Dunbar Edge and Peter Lesniak, Premier Darrell Pasloski, Green Party Leader Kristina Calhoun and Liberal candidates Cherish Clarke and Dave Sloan.

But there is a Yukon Electrical dam in the adjacent creek, she said, pointing to the bushes on the left.

It would be great to figure out an arrangement with the company, she added.

“I have calls literally every day about people wanting to come to Jackson Lake from BC, the Northwest Territories, from all over,” said Dendys.

The healing centre is one of very few programs open to anyone willing to participate.

“We are able to allow people to come in if they’re involved in the criminal justice system or child welfare,” she said. “And Kwanlin Dun has always maintained that this is open to people of all cultures.”

Former Environment minister John Edzerza arranged contractual funding from the territory in the past, but most of its money came from the national Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Ottawa stopped funding the foundation in March 2010.

When the funding was cut, so too were 135 projects across the country. They were all developed locally by First Nations communities.

The cuts were made as the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission began extensive work across the country to encourage residential school survivors to tell their stories.

The land-based healing model, like Jackson Lake’s, has been researched, studied and evaluated by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and recognized internationally.

“It’s not something we just came up with,” said Dendys. “This is an approach that works for not only First Nation people, but all people.

“We’ve run programs for over 20 years out here. It’s always been one-time funding and it’s been very much ad hoc. But the results have been tremendous.”

“When you go out into the wilderness, you come alive,” said Phil Gatensby who works with men at Jackson Lake. “Humanity has moved away from the land. Alcohol and drugs are symptoms of a problem. Out here, we get to the problem. Often times people who come out here have forgotten it exists. Coming out here, is coming home.”

For the first time since he began talking about what he calls his “shameful past,” the man at the fire looks up.

He looks through the smoke to where the political candidates are talking with facilitators outside the main cabin.

“I think governments should fund this,” he said of the centre. “Things like this should be a part of the court system for those who want it – to help get away from that revolving door.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

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