REIMAGING WELLNESS THROUGH A HAíɫZAQV LENS
An initial proposal for a land-based healing and learning facility based on the Koeye Sanctuary model
The impacts of colonization on First Nations are well-documented: waves of smallpox and influenza, residential schools, undermining of hereditary leadership, outlawing of cultural practices, depletion of resources through industrial harvesting, and of course the Indian Act which made First Nations wards of the government. These factors decimated First Nations populations, in the case of Heiltsuk forcing our survivors to band together at the central community of Bella Bella in a struggle to rebuild our language, culture, laws, and resilience.
Over the last few generations, we have made important strides in reclaiming our power and revitalizing our cultural practices. We have focused on self-governance, taking back institutions like our Bella Bella Community School and Kaxla Child and Family Services, and establishing new institutions like Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.
We’ve fought for government-to-government tables to negotiate wins on housing and fisheries. We’ve been part of commissions, inquiries, and landmark court cases that continue to shape the fabric of First Nations relations in Canada at large. And at the core of our work, we’ve tried to rebuild a sense of community strength and wellness to empower our community members as leaders, stewards, and caretakers in their own territory.
The path to wellness is not linear. As we identify the deep hurts we need to heal, old struggles return to the surface of people’s psyches. We see the ways in which trauma becomes intergenerational, affecting family dynamics long after the initial stressors are eliminated. With the magnitude and systemic nature of these wounds, and with our remoteness that creates challenges in accessing services, we have realized over the last decades that a commitment to wellness will require us to be bold. It will require us to work differently.
LAND-BASED HEALING IN THE HEILTSUK CONTEXT
One of our greatest assets in this work is our territory. Our hereditary leaders have always instructed us to look to our lands and waters to find healing and wellness. In that sacred relationship, in its reciprocity, in the strength we get from taking care of a homeland that, in turn, takes care of us – we find the roots of our power as individuals and as a community.
One powerful example of this is the Koeye River Youth Camp and Koeye Sanctuary, programs envisioned by our hereditary chiefs as a way for the land to intervene in the lives of our people and make them strong. 20 years into our programs in Koeye, we see demonstrable change in our participants through elements like cultural grounding, connection to place, support for education, fostering community, stewardship responsibility, and focus on positivity and safety.
What we know, 20 years in, is that we succeed by meeting our community where they’re at and filling the needs that are their greatest priorities in a ground-up approach to wellness and community-building. We’ve made strides through a rich mixture of youth programs, family programs, healing retreats, cultural programming, health and wellness workshops, and continuing education.
In spite of many barriers – a ban on community births, food insecurity, a lack of access to adequate specialist support for medical and mental wellness, economic insecurity, lack of adequate housing, unaffordable transportation creating artificial isolation, and much more – we have also found an approach that, if scaled up, could be a huge contributor to overcoming those barriers. That approach is taking our wellness into our own hands, and setting our own standards for success – healing ourselves through the power of our territory and the resilience of our community. When we instigate change instead of asking for change, we find that we can often surprise the wider world into following suit.
OUR WELLNESS, INTO THE FUTURE
We see an incredible opportunity to take the lessons we’ve learned in Koeye, and purpose-build a new institution that can be a catalyst for growth and change in our community. Since Koeye itself is only accessible seasonally, its use is limited to late spring and summer, and comes with high transportation costs. We envision a facility based on the Koeye model, closer to Bella Bella and accessible year-round, that a number of Heiltsuk entities can breathe life into.
It will still be wilderness-based, and still create opportunities for land-based healing and learning, blanketed with the Heiltsuk values and laws that have been passed down to us by our ancestors. But it will be a logistically and economically accessible space that can be used for restorative justice, mental wellness, retreats, workshops, field trips and education, culture and language programming, ceremonial preparation, and much more.
We envision collaborative governance and use of this space that could include our Heiltsuk Health Centre (and the Youth Centre and Elders Centre it oversees); our local hospital and school; our tribal council and stewardship office; our social development and restorative justice programs; and motivated community members who feel a calling to design and deliver their own programs.
Most importantly, we envision an increased sense of possibility in our community, one that comes from the knowledge that we have a safe and accessible space to realize our potential, at any time of the year, on our own terms. We’re ready to sing light and speak truth and imagine the beauty of healing in the right place; we just need to build it. We can see it on the horizon, and it’s a beacon of hope.