Land-based detox healing program reconnects people to their culture, identity

·6 min read

Traditional healer and therapist Jules Tapas had many traumatic experiences in his life — being sexually abused at a young age, being shot by his brother and seeing his father shoot himself — but he doesn’t let those experiences define him.

He had to learn how to separate the trauma from himself.

“I have a lot of sad stories that would’ve kept me drinking,” he said. “But it’s not who I am. It’s something I’ve experienced in life.”

There are three land-based detox programs, based on the same model, that run in Kashechewan, Constance Lake and Cochrane. Jules and his team help run these programs.

They were recently hired by Mushkegowuk Health Department to run the program in Cochrane, which had its first intake in November.

A program like this is what people needed for the longest time to reconnect to their culture and identity, he said.

It’s an intense, seven-day program on the land.

During that week, participants typically start with a prayer and smudging. The programming includes sweat lodge ceremonies, teaching traditional stories, foot soaks using traditional herbs and presentations by residential school survivors.

After four days of detoxing, clients go to a sweat lodge to detox more and connect with their spiritual side and where they came from.

“We weren’t born bad, we were born innocent,” Tapas said, noting ceremonies help contain the energy of the addictions.

When participants are wrapped in a blanket, it’s like nurturing and they reconnect to the five senses that were traumatized, Tapas said. He explained that many people get triggered when they see, hear, touch or smell something that reminds them of their traumatic experience.

The land is the biggest helper that brings back childhood memories and authentic feelings, he said.

“Anybody can connect with the land. Sometimes we just have to remind them where they come from, what the land did for them, that connection, and that breaks those addictions,” he said. “So, we need to connect them back to spirituality.”

Working as a team and having strong communication is very important, Tapas said. His team includes his wife Charlene, nurse Celine Sutherland, Thomas Scott, John Paul Tapas, Karen Wesley and Charles Tapas.

The nurse monitors the clients through their withdrawals after they’re given the herbs and medicines.

The team stays with clients on-site 24/7, eating and sleeping there, and monitoring in case there’s a crisis.

It’s crucial to deal with your own trauma and healing when you work with people going through an identity crisis because clients can trigger your own unresolved issues, Tapas added.

As the program is in high demand, the buildings can get packed with participants, so there’s a need for more space to do counselling and bigger buildings.

For example, “the ladies will be working there, and somebody comes in, wants counselling and you need a building,” Tapas said.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought its challenges, too. It reminds people of the residential school system when they weren’t allowed to visit and hug their family members, he said.

The number of drug overdose deaths has risen during the pandemic as well.

In 2020, there were 2,426 opioid-related deaths reported in Ontario. It's a 60 per cent rise from 1,517 deaths reported the year prior.

“COVID is a very dysfunctional parent roaming around the world,” Tapas said. “And people are getting impatient. And those are the people that are standing about there, getting mad, angry. So, imagine in our communities, there are people that didn’t know how to contain that emotion, so they started drinking and addictions.”

People who go through the program say they love it, Tapas said. The program’s goal is to reconnect them to their heritage and who they are as people.

Sometimes, they return to the program a few times before they “get it,” Tapas said.

“And the main thing, when they walk out of there, they make a big connection to their identity, who they are as people,” he said.

The most important aspect of the program is that clients work with their childhood trauma and memories to understand why their parents or grandparents had a lack of nurturing and love.

Clients need to realize they’re not their trauma, depression, addictions or post-traumatic syndrome they have. Once they separate their identity from their experiences, they can start processing their feelings, Tapas said.

The key is focusing on core issues stemming from childhood instead of taking the Western approach to symptoms, said Gary Martin, the traditional healer co-ordinator at Misiway Community Health Centre.

“I can see why the pharmaceutical companies are so ingrained in pushing the pills. Yeah, there’s some good medication but to alter your mind, to stop feeling, that’s just a band-aid solution,” Martin said.

Martin runs a separate five-day traditional healing program for women and men and a two-day program for youth.

Through traditional ceremonies, journalling and a burning exercise, his method addresses childhood issues, gives clients better coping skills and shows how to deal with them in a healthier environment.

Participants work in groups. Martin likes that because it takes one person to start sharing, and others follow. One month of group work is equal to about three years of one-on-one counselling, Martin said.

Although participants may feel intimidated by others in the group, especially if their abusers are present, Martin reminds them they’re there to heal and make amends.

Martin’s program is based on his experience and journey, which started after his father committed suicide. He was also raised in an alcoholic, abusive environment.

“Once you connect that adult with that little child, that child is healed, you can take them home now,” Martin said.

For Martin, the most frustrating part about running land-based programs is the rules, regulations and policies they have to face. For example, they need a permit to make a fire.

“This way of life has been here since day one,” he said. “And this is our land. Where’s truth and reconciliation here? Is it not what truth and reconciliation is but acknowledge what you’ve done and give us the stuff you've taken away? That’s my understanding of it.”

Tapas remembers when the program to address the addictions issue first started in Constance Lake seven years ago

Tapas, who was hired as a contract therapist, met an Eagle's Earth Treatment Centre administrator in Constance Lake Diane Wesley (Andrews) who had the vision to start a land-based detox treatment. They came together and collaborated to start the program which ran from 2015 to early 2020.

Wesley is now hoping to launch an expanded 28-day treatment program.

In Kashechewan, the detox treatment camp, located about 20 kilometres upriver, has been running since January 2021. Chief Gaius Wesley said they will submit a funding proposal to the federal government to cover operational costs and run the program beyond March 2022.

Once the team is done training the staff there, they plan to move on to another area, Tapas said.

Other communities like Thunder Bay, Mattagami First Nation and Fort Albany First Nation are looking into receiving training on how to run and start similar programs, according to Tapas.

In the fall, the team also collaborated with Mushkegowuk Health Department and held two intakes in Moose Factory.

“I think communities are starting to see it’s a very successful program,” Tapas said.

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting