'It's important for our people,' Fort Smith residents call for more cultural ceremonies

The demand for Indigenous cultural ceremonies is growing in Fort Smith, N.W.T., after the Northwest Territory Métis Nation (NWTMN) built a sweat lodge this summer.    

Julie Lys, on-the-land coordinator with the NWTMN who was a nurse for 30 years, said they have held pipe ceremonies and medicine walks, along with other services, at the Fort Smith wellness centre.

They also organized a women's fasting camp this summer.

"I was really worried about being in the bush by myself," Lys said."It was something that I've never experienced before, but it was really enlightening."

Three sweats were also held over the summer, each reaching capacity, despite not being advertised.

"We're feeling like we need to get a bigger one,"  Lys said of the sweat lodge. 

She said they will likely build a larger one next summer. It won't come with a hefty price tag, as the NWTMN built the current sweat lodge "from scratch" using things gathered from the area, like willows, spruce willows and rocks — called "grandfathers" — used for the fire.

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Many people in the community are interested in the cultural programming, Lys said, and they are getting involved.

'It means a lot'

That includes Fort Smith resident Carla Lauinger who said she participated in her first sweat through the Métis council on Saturday.

"It means a lot. We need to try to practice our heritage and remember who we are," she said.

"I was already on a journey of learning more about my heritage and our people… so it helped me open up even more."

Lauinger said, since September, she has been trying to reconnect with her culture, and that these ceremonies have been helpful but she would like to see more of them.  

"In my opinion, there's not enough of them going on in Fort Smith," she said. "It's important for our people."

Right now, the sweat lodge and healing circles are being led by elder Aline LaFlamme. She lives in Vancouver, but visits Fort Smith as often as she can.

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"I offer the songs in each round," she said. "And the opportunity for each person in the lodge to let go of whatever they don't need."

LaFlamme also led the fasting camp and taught Fort Smith residents how to build the sweat lodge.

She said they pray over each grandfather or rock before heating it in the fire.

"When you come out, it's a little emotional renewal. I wanted to bring that here to this healing place," she said.

LaFlamme said her goal is to teach others to conduct ceremonies so they will be able to continue in the community without her.

"I want to take everything that's inside of me now. I'm 70 years old, and it's time to empty it out and get it to the younger people, because I'll be leaving," she said. "The young people have to know how to do all of these things."