Centre for Addiction and Mental Health launches First Nations, Inuit and Métis wellness centre

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The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) launched the Shkaabe Makwa Centre for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Wellness in Toronto on Thursday.

Shkaabe Makwa will be the first hospital-based centre in Canada focusing on the mental health of Indigenous people through research, training and healing models that bring together traditional knowledge and contemporary medicine. Shkaabe Makwa translates to "Spirit Bear Helper" in Anishinaabemowin.

Diane Longboat is Kanyen'kehá:ka from Six Nations of the Grand River and is the elder and senior project manager guiding directions implementation at CAMH.

"We offer another lens to look at mental health and addiction from a positive viewpoint and from the viewpoint of building on the resiliency of all of our people who come through the system," said Longboat.

Rhiannon Johnson/CBC
Rhiannon Johnson/CBC

"Shkaabe Makwa is based on culture, language and it's based on the world view of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people."

CAMH is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and is recognized internationally for its services and research in the field.

The centre will offer mental health and addiction services where patients can choose to either use a cultural/traditional approach, a contemporary clinical approach, or a combination of the two.

"There's a space and a voice within CAMH for traditional knowledge to flourish, to be part of the research that's going on, to be part of the clinical services that's going on," said Longboat.

Indigenous leadership and traditional approaches

A new leadership circle of Indigenous experts in mental health and wellness will help guide the work of Shkaabe Makwa.

Dr. James Makokis, a nehiyô (Plains Cree), two-spirit physician from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta will serve as the first medical director for Shkaabe Makwa.

Renee Linklater, senior director of Shkaabe Makwa, said that in order to change some of the health outcomes of Indigenous people, a system approach needs to be taken to shift some of the ways that Indigenous people have been trying to cope with intergenerational trauma.

"We had traditional Indigenous health systems and they were very effective; they helped us survive for thousands and thousands of years," she said.

"The opportunities that we have with Shkaabe Makwa is to really dig deeply and pull up our traditional Indigenous healing practices and healing systems and health systems and be able to have those as very core parts of services."

When the idea for Shkaabe Makwa came to Linklater, she approached the CAMH CEO.

She said she thought there needed to be an appropriate infrastructure with an Indigenous leadership team that should be like the other centres at CAMH, like the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child and Youth Family Mental Health and the Slaight Family Centre for Youth in Transition.

Two years later, Shkaabe Makwa is now realized.

"I really believe that the expertise to address our issues around our wellness resides within our communities," said Linklater.

"I want to work alongside my colleagues and with our new medical director, Dr. Makokis, so we can begin to think through how is it that we can embed culture and ceremony as critical supports within the way that we're supporting our people to wellness."