Healing with the land

Miyupimaatisiiun in Eeyou Istchee

Cree Women's narratives of wellness and autonomy


What is the connection between autonomy and wellbeing?

The Chisasibi Eeyou became Quebecers unknowingly through a land transfer at the beginning of the 20th Century. Missionaries burned the drums and undermined Eeyou spirituality. Post managers doled out supplies according to lists set by Indian Agents in the south. Today, there are over 600 former residential school students living in Chisasibi.

As a result of the damming of La Grande, in 1980, the Fort George iiyiyiwich were unceremoniously moved across the bay to the present day Chisasibi, a place not of their choosing. This is not their original community. It exists in the shadow of (and downstream from) a 14,354MW hydroelectric complex, which flooded 11,500 km2 of traditional hunting grounds. Agreements were signed but governments did not keep their promises.

The impact of a cumulative range of stressors from residential school abuses, mercury poisoning and land loss from hydroelectric development, and overt paternalism from both the governments and settlers working within Cree institutions have left a heavy mark on individual and community wellbeing.

Even though colonization has stolen their childhood and land, and undermined a way of life that sustained a people for centuries, everyday acts of resistance and reaffirmation have, and will continue to guide generations on the path to decolonization.


Efforts in Chisasibi are made to develop both the human capacity and the programming to ensure an effective continuum of care based on culturally relevant and safe approaches. The collective effort in Chisasibi implies that everyone is doing their part in decolonizing the mind, body and spirit of the community the best way they know how. It is about each individual finding what they hold sacred and honoring it in everyday actions.

Even though decolonization is only rarely expressed as such, for those that have been involved with this project, decolonization means caring and loving for one another, wakening the spirit to the healing power of the mind, and invigorating the body with the effort of surviving on the land. It includes openness to the world and the recognition that decolonization is a collective and creative undertaking of making something new from the everyday encounters, and more importantly, of creating inclusive spaces for these encounters to continually take place.

In recognizing the universality of the Natural Law, in which compassion and love guide all relationships, building solidarity across generations and nations is imperative for realizing a truly Idigenist future.

We need to stop looking down on these people who are struggling and start looking at them with compassion.

Denise Perusse

The narrators

Women healing1

Denise Perusse grew up in Montreal and moved to Chisasibi, her mother’s community, twenty years ago. She is passionate about mental health and joined the Miyupimaatisiiun Committee in addition to taking the position of Cree Health Representative at the James Bay Eeyou School. Denise is a strong advocate for personal and collective healing, of living a balanced and healthy life, as well as integrating culture-based services within local and regional institutions. Her approach rests on building harmonious relationships through self-awareness, intergenerational knowledge transfer, and embodying positive role models. As a mother, Denise strives to create a safe and supporting community environment that will guide her children and those of others in making positive life choices. She believes that hard work, determination, commitment, imagination and compassion are necessary ingredients to building confidence and positive cultural identity. For Denise, decolonization and autonomy are achieved one step at a time, though conscious and sustained effort in everyday life.

Women healing2Irene Bearskin House was born and grew up on the land for the first seven years of her life after which she was forced to attend residential school in Fort George. She is a mother of four, grandmother and great-grandmother. Irene is the first generation of Cree to be trained as social worker and has spent the majority of her professional life working with youth in Chisasibi, first at the group home and later at the Youth Healing Services. Since her youth, she has been actively engaged in bringing back Cree teachings, medicines, and other culture-based wellness models into the health and social service provision. As a mother and grandmother, Irene sees her role as a keeper and teacher of culture at the heart of the family circle. She teaches a healing model that starts with a positive cultural identity nourished by love and trustful relationships and which is informed by personal experiences.

Women healing3Mary Louise Snowboy was born in Moose Factory and lived most of her life in Fort George and Chisasibi. She studied nursing in Montreal and completed a BA at University of Ottawa; she is for now the only Cree mental health nurse in the Nation. In her nursing career, that spans over twenty years, Mary Louise has worked as a clinician, liaison nurse, and cultural resource with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services. Although she has clinical training, Mary Louise was taught iiyiyiu care-giving practices by her grandparents in the bush. Her brother, Harry Snowboy is an accomplished healer and medicine man.  Mary Louise promotes a holistic and multicultural model of care that has its roots in Cree land-based practices while also being open to integrate other culture-based approaches, be they traditional or clinical, Indigenous or non-Indigenous. Her own healing path is based on faith and spirituality that promotes self-awareness and respect for all Creation. Mary Louise strives to develop a culturally safe metal health model that is first and foremost patient-centered.

Healing with the land

Miyupimaatisiiun in Eeyou Istchee

Cree Women's narratives of wellness and autonomy


Taking a stand: land and autonomy

In the Cree Nation, a myriad of local activities by and for the youth are taking place throughout the year, from winter snowshoe journeys, to elders and youth conferences, music festivals, powwows and Sundances. Unfortunately, these innovative and fluid practices are seldom found in academic literature, which tends to focus on formal structures that govern education, entry into the labour market, health and social service provision or civic engagement. Less so are explorations of the relationships that youth maintain and strengthen with the land and cultural practices, albeit in various indirect and unconventional ways.


We need to heal as a nation. For the women and for the youth. To show our respect for the wisdom of our elders.

Abby Masty, age 11,
Nishiiyuu Walker


Cree youth were among the most vocal opponents of the Eastmain1A/Rupert River hydroelectric project included in the Paix des Braves, yet their participation is not limited to debates about resource development. They express frustration relative to their marginalized role in decision-making. Discussions digressed from algebra problems and Ministry examinations, to the role of education in daily life and its impact on the future role of youth in community life and development. The main issue for these young Cree was the failure of the community to listen to their needs in a serious and non-judgemental way, to value the contributions that they already make to community life, and in general to celebrate youth successes as often as denouncing the failures. Their reflections on governance and autonomy were grounded in sustained calls for collective healing. These reflections formed the basis of the exploration of Miyupimaatisiiun in Eeyou Istchee.

cree youth brigade

Why was healing so pervasive in young people’s self-governance discourses? How does the concept of healing help them reflect and shape discourses of identity, cultural change, and empowerment?


Healing with the land

Miyupimaatisiiun in Eeyou Istchee

Cree Women's narratives of wellness and autonomy


Culture belongs to everybody, and it is in the hearts and minds of people. It is how you practice your daily life.

Mary Louise Snowboy

Culture and language are among the most important health determinants because they influence accessibility to the health care system and health information; increase compliance with treatment; strengthen the delivery of preventative programs and services; and can improve lifestyle choices. Culture-based services, programs and activities function to combat social pathology by renewing and reformulating Indigeneity that is in line with local ethos and changing circumstances.

Suicide rates by Cultural Continuity factor (1993-2000)


Individual health and weel-being, at least within First Nations communities, is tied to cultural and collective health. But any grandmother might have told us that. Lalonde, 2009, p. 37.

In the family circle the woman is also the center. She is the center of that family, and when the woman practices healing, she gives an idea to the family, to the children. For us Crees the woman holds the culture of the people.

Irene House

To unpack contemporary racialization in health discourses and develop a responsive, effective and relevant healthcare for Indigenous peoples the concept of cultural safety (Kawa Whakaruruhau) was developed by Maori nurse Irihapeti Merenia Ramsden in the 1980s. Initially “developed to extend the notion of culture to include intersections of gender, class, race, age and other social relations”, “cultural safety became concerned with social justice and quickly came to be about nurses, power, prejudice and attitude rather than the ethnicity or cultures of Maori or other patients”.

Culture-based activities and services build positive identity and strengthen relationality by creating a sense of belonging and responsibility for the collective. Empowerment and agency are understood as a “confident place from which is possible to take action” that rests upon “negotiating trust in others”. In many ways, empowerment is contingent on compassion or understanding individual life-histories as they intersect with broader social processes. If the legacy of residential schools has had a negative intergenerational impact on Cree families, culture-based healing functions in a similar way by mending these relations.


At the individual level, linking with an Indigenous past restores pride and positive identity, which in turn strengthens self-confidence and improves familial relationships. At the collective level, culture-based programs and services are expected to be delivered alongside clinical interventions in way that reflects place-based social institutions. Incorporating Cree values and practices into service provision means moving beyond the Western medical model in order to base programming on Cree healing and care-giving practices.

Cultural safety and the health system


Healing with the land

Miyupimaatisiiun in Eeyou Istchee

Cree Women's narratives of wellness and autonomy

I think that to walk 10 days to provide for your family is an act of love, and is an act of the strength of the Aboriginal people.

Mary Louise Snowboy

Healing is invariably described as a transformative and continuous process. It is transformative in the sense that the objective is not necessarily to ‘cure’ the individual in the biomedical sense, but to empower them to make the right choices in life.

It constitutes a process of learning, developing life-skills and the ability to apply them “in a conscious manner in all that life brings normally and abnormally”.

Sometimes described as ‘work’, and because its goal is not curative, healing is understood as a continuous process. On one hand, personal transformation and commitment take individualized time and conscious effort. Change doesn’t happen overnight and as a learning process, new knowledge is internalized in a gradual, cumulative and incremental way. Symbolically, healing is described as a journey (the “Red Road,” the “Sweetgrass Trail,” the “Way of the Pipe”) that is fraught with challenges, as individuals need to remain vigilant throughout their lives.

On the other hand, as much as it is centered on personal responsibility, healing is also a community and collective process. What individuals are healing from (addictions, violence, depression, loss, etc.) is understood as a manifestation of social suffering caused by colonization and contemporary systemic oppression.

The ‘work’ that healing implies a collective perspective calls for concerted community action to acknowledge the history of abuse and to create supportive and safe conditions for individual healing by challenging the systemic oppression present in institutions (both local and governmental) and reflected in contemporary policy. Healing is therefore a collective political and self-empowering intervention.

A model of social innovation

social innovation model

Nitahuu Aschii Ihtuun
Chisasibi land-based healing program


In Chisasibi, elder Eddie Pash developed in 2012 a land-based healing program that is delivered on his hunting territory. It is the first formal and structured land-based program in Eeyou Istchee. The program promotes personal, family and community wellness from a perspective rooted in iiyiyiu pimaatisiiwin (Cree way of life). Its mission is to strengthen the ability of participants to lead a healthy, fulfilling and resilient life. Ultimately, the program aims to improve the mental health of individuals so that they can effectively participate in the life of their family and community and make positive contributions to the collective development of their Nation.

I really want to see more and more people overcome their difficulties to finally [let go]. It's such a simple term, but is such a complex and abstract notion, of letting go. It's really hard to teach that to somebody, it is a big process to go though. But once you learn how to let go, and you feel lighter, you want to do it again and again. And you get better and better, and you start letting go of more and more. And I would love to see more people being able to do that, to be happy.

Denise Perusse

Healing with the land

Miyupimaatisiiun in Eeyou Istchee

Cree Women's narratives of wellness and autonomy

Undoing suffering has become a priority for many community members, yet, how each chooses to engage in this communal process of decolonization is dependent on their own life story and ‘gifts’- knowledge, skills, and competencies. The resurgence taking place in Chisasibi calls for a flourishing creative potential that is guided by cultural revitalization and aims to achieve social justice for all.

Building inclusive and equitable decolonial spaces

In Chisasibi transforming the Indigenous-State relationship by politicizing care-giving practices and reorienting health policy for critical social justice takes many forms, from creating a Facebook discussion page to insisting for pay equity for traditional counsellors. Social justice includes decriminalizing addictions and ‘unmedicalizing’ oppression by reconnecting with the land, engaging with the youth, building trust and sharing responsibility. Above all it means taking responsibility to build places and spaces where compassionate and safe interpersonal relationships can be nurtured.

Connection to the land and culture has to be integrated into the services. To ignore it and not to validate what a person is going through, is doing that person injustice. When it comes to healing, each individual has his own path. Everybody should have that individual right to find their own path to healing.

Mary Louise Snowboy

Healing in Chisasibi is part and parcel of local decolonizing processes. It requires both an individual as well as a communal shift in understanding how imposed and culturally irrelevant systems impact everyday life but also, and especially, building from the ground up the means for political action needed to confront powerful political institutions. The movement from individual health and healing becomes a communal process of decolonization when locally-based and culturally relevant actions are mobilized to better frame and operationalize the existing institutions and policies at home. Confronting colonial domination is not reserved for leadership in the traditional sense (chief and councils) nor exclusively in the normative domain of self-governance, it actually operates in everyday acts of resistance and resurgence that at their core address the need of individuals to survive on a daily basis.


Decolonization is neither a disembodied and abstract concept nor an indulgence of an Indigenous elite, it is a daily engagement with a culturally based creative intelligence that aims to go beyond the mere survival to create loving, nurturing and compassionate relationships that realign individuals and communities with miyupimaatisiiun.

Chisasibi mental health team