The last weekend before Christmas is traditionally one of the busiest times of the year, when the frenzy of planning family gatherings and shopping for gifts can reach fever pitch.
But for a group in Victoria, B.C., this coming Dec. 20 and 21 will involve a different type of activity. Ten children of Indian residential school survivors who are struggling with homelessness or poverty will participate in a traditional healing methods workshop. Among other activities, the workshop will teach smudging and drumming, and participants will also attend six monthly follow-up sessions.
Entitled “Healing Hearts-From Homelessness to Helpfulness,” the workshop is offered intentionally during the Christmas season, when suicide, violence and drug overdoses are reported to be most prevalent.
Healing Hearts received a $15,000 grant from the Anglican Church of Canada’s Fund for Healing and Reconciliation, which supports approximately 30 projects each year “that address community healing from the legacy of the residential school system,” said Esther Wesley, the fund’s co-ordinator. Wesley lauded “the humanity of [Healing Hearts]. Reaching out to somebody on the street, showing that somebody cares” is an important part of the project, she said.
The project was conceived when Jessica Sault, a Nuu-chah-nulth and the co-ordinator of Healing Hearts, noticed that more than one-third of Victoria’s homeless population is indigenous. “What I wanted to do was offer them something that’s traditional and that belongs to them in their time of need,” she said.
Sault is aware of the inter-generational effects of residential schools. Her own mother was sexually and emotionally abused at the Port Alberni residential school, and as a result, “she could not give us the love that she was supposed to give us because it was so riddled with anger and fear and shame,” Sault said. “We walk around thinking that we’re not good enough…There’s lots of hindrance [to] success.” Approximately 400 indigenous people live on the streets of Victoria.
Children of residential school survivors are often disconnected from indigenous culture, she said. “You don’t feel like you belong anywhere. So when you reach for your traditional healing tools, it’ll connect you to something greater.” When participants share these tools with others, they can feel like they’re contributing to society, she added. “That’s how our teachings are-you pass them from one to another to another.”
Sault herself grew up learning traditional songs, dances and stories from elders on her reserve. “Through her pain, [my mom] knew that she should bring the elders to our home,” she said, adding that many indigenous people aren’t familiar with traditional culture, and that some of her neighbours on the reserve laughed at her family for dancing.
During the workshop, participants will receive a healing bag containing a smudge bowl, smudge, a drum, an eagle feather, a sweatshirt and a first aid kit. Smudging, the practice of burning sage and other herbs, “cleanses you on the inside,” Sault said. Praying with and holding an eagle feather “gives you courage and connects you to the Creator.” The drumbeat is like the heartbeat a baby hears in its mother’s womb, and when you’re drumming, “you go back to that safe place and…[it] soothes your soul.” Sweatshirts and first aid kits provide more physical healing, and the Healing Hearts logo on the clothes and bags serve to remind participants of what they learned in the workshop.
In addition to the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, Healing Hearts has partnered with Our Place Society and The Dandelion Society, two organizations that support the homeless and other vulnerable populations in Victoria. They will provide space for the workshop and follow-up sessions, toiletries to distribute and assistance with evaluating the project.
Sault hopes that Healing Hearts will run more workshops in the future. “I don’t know why this hasn’t been thought of before. These were exactly the tools that were taken away from us. Why not bring these to the homeless and low-income people who don’t have the opportunity to learn this?”