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Reconciliation and Indigenous Mental Health: Counselling and Beyond

By Rosemary Stager, Executive Director of Vancouver Aboriginal Health Society

With the second national Truth and Reconciliation Day coming up quickly, I’ve found myself considering the role T&R can play in addressing Indigenous health, particularly mental health. The emphasis of T&R has been on education and promoting understanding, both critical components in addressing mental health.

This years' Truth and Reconciliation Day marks an important milestone in your film industry for both the film unions and the AMPTP, the entertainment industry's official collective bargaining representative that negotiates 58 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements on behalf of hundreds of motion picture and television producers across North America. In 2022, Truth and Reconciliation Day was added as an official statutory holiday in the collective agreements between the unions and the AMPTP. This means that close to 60,000 film industry professionals on, and off set will take this day to reflect on what this day means. This in turn builds greater awareness about Indigenous mental health and gives film industry workers the time to really consider the relationship between settlers and indigenous peoples.

As a society, we are in the midst of a full-blown mental health crisis. Being Indigenous makes this crisis worse. Indigenous people have rates of depression twice that of non-Indigenous people and suicide rates up to 11 times as high (for Inuit).

Many of us, knowingly or not, are suffering from the impacts of intergenerational trauma that has its roots in the Indian Residential School system. We carry the grim legacies of colonialism, from institutionalized racism to government-sanctioned poverty. And we suffer the effects of maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance abuse and lateral violence. It’s a heavy load. And when it gets too heavy, our mental health suffers.

Even if we think we’re doing OK, discoveries such as the 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School reopen old wounds. When we turn on the news and see yet another murdered or missing Indigenous woman the pain reverberates. And the grinding experience of racism makes us doubt our worth. The results can be devastating.

Truth and Reconciliation offers an opportunity to create greater awareness about Indigenous mental health, for each other, and our allies.

30 Days of Truth and Reconciliation

At VAHS, we launched our 30 Days of Truth and Reconciliation campaign on September 1. Every day, readers of our Facebook or Instagram pages are provided with suggestions of how both Indigenous people and our allies can participate in T&R, from familiarizing themselves with the Indian Act to learning the social determinants of health.

30 Days of Truth and Reconciliation illuminates the issues Indigenous people continue to face as a result of colonization—issues that have resulted in poor mental health for so many of us. The campaign also suggests positive actions we, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, can all take to improve the quality of life for Indigenous people in this country.

5 Ways to Observe Truth and Reconciliation Day on September 30

  1. Wear an Orange Shirt Truth and Reconciliation Day was originally known as Orange Shirt Day, inspired by author Phyllis Jack Webstad’s story. On her first day of residential school in Williams Lake, Phyllis was stripped of an orange shirt that her grandmother had bought her. Often, orange shirts bear the message “Every Child Matters.”To learn more:

  2. Read Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action Learn about the 94 Calls to Action.

  3. Discover a new Indigenous Author Libraries across BC will be giving away books by Indigenous authors throughout the month while supplies last. Find a library branch close to you: Find Your Library.

  4. Participate in a Truth Reconciliation Day Event There are a variety of events across Vancouver to commemorate the second annual Truth and Reconciliation Day including: UBC Intergenerational March Everyone is welcome to attend this march commemorating Orange Shirt Day campus. Consider a visit to the Museum of Anthropology after the march. Xweýene:msta:m ?əkwəsqwel, seýeḿ (call to witness / listen to respected one) Co-created by Tsatsu Stalqayu, Mortal Coil and Butterflies in Spirit, Xweýene:msta:m ?əkwəsqwel, seýeḿ is a performance to honour Orange Shirt Day on Thursday, September 30, 2021, presented by the Vancouver Art Gallery. Xweýene:msta:m ?əkwəsqwel, seýeḿ asks the viewer to bear witness to the ongoing tragedy of the lost children of Canada’s residential schools and the country’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Root Dwellers IRSSS Fundraiser Support the Indian Residential School Survivors Society by attending an evening with Indigenous music artists Dakota Bear (Hip-Hop), JB the First Lady (Hip-Hop/Spoken Word) and Hayley Wallis (Soul-Pop/Singer-Songwriter.)

  5. Give You can help support Indigenous mental health by giving to an organization that supports this cause. Donations to VAHS can be made online at

Culturally Focused Support Available

There are several organizations based in BC that offer Indigenous, culturally focused support. Talking to some who gets it—who shares aspects and understanding of your lived experience—can make an incredible difference.

Land-Based Healing and Traditional Knowledge Eases Pain

Counselling can get us moving on the right path, but there are other paths to healing that Western medicine has largely ignored, specifically land-based healing. For the past decade, I have worked in Indigenous health care and have seen firsthand the positive impacts of land­-based healing and the application of traditional knowledge.

Indigenous people have always found our healing on the land. Whether it is the peace that comes from contemplation in nature, the spiritual cleansing that comes from engaging in ceremony or the sense of belonging that comes from learning traditional skills brings, the effects are profound.

Prior to taking on the role of Executive Director with VAHS (, I spent eight years as Health Director at the Southern Stl’atl’imx Health Society (SSHS), which provides health and wellness supports for four small Indigenous communities: N’Quatqua, Samahquam, Skatin, and Xa’xtsa. It quickly became apparent that in order to address all four sectors of health on the medicine wheel we had to reinvigorate our members’ spiritual health. We designed projects, such as the award-wining Cabin Guys project, puberty camps and sweat lodge events, that brought people together out onto the land to learn new skills and traditional ways of being.

For example, the Cabin Guys project brought together men from all four communities to drag windfall logs from the forest, prepare and notch the logs, and construct a series of hunting cabins that are now placed on traditional territory. Upwards of 50 men found purpose in their work, built supportive friendships and took a greater interest in their wellbeing. A women’s “spa day” held at Ts̓ek Hot Springs incorporated water ceremonies and learning traditional crafts such as weaving. The youth who attended a puberty camp learned the ways First Nations people in Stl’atl’imx territory have traditionally been prepared to embrace spiritual life and make the transition to adulthood. We also published The Nt̓ákmen Calendar, a 164-page field guide to the botanical resources of the region to assist people with harvesting traditional food and medicine plants. The people who participated in these and other land-based healing events came away feeling empowered and connected to their communities.

Book an Elder with VAHS

At VAHS, traditional knowledge is shared through our Elders and Cultural Program. The program offers traditional ceremonies, such as sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, teaches traditional skills such as making starblankets and smudge, and the opportunity to “book an Elder.” The Book an Elder program is particularly exciting, as many people living in our urban community do not have access to Elders who are rich in cultural knowledge, experience and wisdom. Sessions with an Elder are an hour long, with the contents of the session being determined by what you need. To book an Elder, please contact VAHS Cultural Coordinator Jackie Hans at

A Personal Story

I came to spiritual life in my late 20s and it has been a consistent source of strength that has supported my mental health. In early August, I lost my father, Chief Allen Stager. Although he was elderly and suffering the effects of dementia, his death was unexpected. We had plans for seeing the Elvis movie—Dad was a professional saxophonist and a huge Elvis fan—and the Abbotsford Air Show. Instead of enjoying good times with my Dad that weekend, I found myself at home in Mount Currie family mourning his loss. I was devastated, Dad had been my hero and I couldn’t imagine a world without him.

As the grief pressed down on me, I realized I had to find my centre; I had to find a way to breathe easier.

Although I didn’t feel up to being around a lot of people, I found myself headed up to fish camp, where my husband Brett was fishing for salmon. I’m not sure who was more surprised by my appearance, Brett or myself. For two days at Bridge River, I cut and gutted fish. My arms ached. My feet and back hurt. But somehow I felt better. My father was gone, but my community—from my husband to my ancestors—remained present. I felt a profound sense of belonging as I cleaned the fish alongside my greater Stl’atl’imx family as my people had done since time immemorial.

Exposure to and-based healing and traditional knowledge have taught me that our ancestors teachings are as relevant today as they were 10,000 years ago. I encourage Indigenous people suffering the impacts of poor mental health to reach out to their Elders, spend time on the land, and learn about their cultures. Positive futures can be forged in our traditions.

VAHS has delivered trauma- and violence-informed health and wellness services on the Downtown Eastside since 1991. For over 30 years, the organization has been addressing the primary care, dental and mental health needs of the city’s Indigenous community. VAHS will be opening a new healing centre, with dedicated outdoor land-based healing space at 52 – 92 East Hasting in fall 2023.

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