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April 19, 2018 | Alumni

Healing the Human Spirit: Alumna Kahontakwas Diane Longboat

By Kerry Clare

Kahontakwas Diane Longboat tours the Ceremony Grounds at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Kahontakwas Diane Longboat tours the Ceremony Grounds at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a healing space with sweat lodge, sacred fire and medicine garden to help clients recover from mental health challenges and addictions. Photo by Horst Herget.

Figuring out how to permit open fires on hospital grounds in the City of Toronto is no small task, but it’s the kind of bureaucratic challenge Kahontakwas Diane Longboat (BA 1974 VIC, BEd 1976, MEd 1978) has specialized in throughout her career, most recently as an elder, traditional healer and senior project  manager in Aboriginal Engagement and Outreach at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

In June 2016, CAMH opened medicine gardens, a sacred fire and sweat lodge on the grounds of its Queen Street campus, the first time such culturally relevant care has been made available to First Nations, Métis and Inuit clients and patients at a hospital in Ontario as part of the standard of care and an integral part of treatment plans. The project was the result of years of planning and the culmination of the dreams of elders such as Vern Harper who came before Longboat at CAMH; these are the kinds of connections that Longboat relishes.

“I have had the chance to become friends with people within CAMH to whom, under regular working circumstances, I would never have access—the CAMH fire marshal, the managers within our facilities department, plant operations and maintenance, parking, security,” she explains. While there were alternatives to open fires, for example having a fire in a kiln, Longboat and her colleagues wanted the site to be as authentic as possible, and so part of their protocol now involves coordinating with the Toronto Fire Department when fires are lit and when they are extinguished.

In its first year, more than 1,000 Indigenous clients, patients, staff members and guests have accessed services on-site, visiting the sacred fire, working with elders and traditional healers, and preparing for and undergoing the more intensive experience of the sweat lodge.

culture, language, heritage, ceremonies, connection to community and to the land, are all resiliency factors

“Many of our patients and clients are embracing their Indigenous heritage for the first time,” Longboat explains.

“Having grown up—many of them in a foster care system or in the city—they had little or no access to their heritage. We know that culture, language, heritage, ceremonies, connection to community and to the land, are all resiliency factors, and so if you have any one of those pieces removed from your consciousness you may become lost in the world. It’s really critical to ground our clients in their culture and heritage when they come here.” Traditional Aboriginal policies support the cultural and spiritual healing work that is being done.

It’s been gratifying, Longboat says, to work with officials at CAMH who support and respect the Indigenous concept of healing. “I think it’s the time of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission],” she explains. “I think it’s the period of science and medicine understanding that spirituality has a significant role to play in well-being, and I think it’s also a time of conscious corporate leadership. Our CEO, Catherine Zahn, and our board of directors, have created an environment here in which they’re searching for excellence, and searching with an  attitude of openness and respect. We’re also looking at innovation as the next stage of our own evolution, both in this field and in this hospital.”

Poverty has major implications in outcomes for mental health

“Evolution” is a word that recurs in conversation with Longboat, who is passionate about innovative change that supports the well-being of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people and, in so doing, supports the well-being of all people. She notes the 2016 census which found that 84 per cent of Indigenous people in Toronto are living in poverty.

“Poverty has major implications in outcomes for mental health, for health, for education, and for economic opportunities. We have to be mindful of the conditions and the context in which our people live today, but also conscious of the historical trauma, the intergenerational trauma, and the effect on DNA, because trauma destroys parts of your DNA and you pass compromised DNA on to your children and your grandchildren. The damage moves on through the generations.”

First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have a responsibility for their healing, Longboat says, but so does the rest of Canada. She points out that long-time residents of Canada came here escaping war, genocide, and leaving religious persecution, as do many newcomers arriving in this country. Healing the human spirit is not just an Indigenous concern—it has consequences for everyone.

Healing the human spirit is not just an Indigenous concern—it has consequences for everyone

Healing the human spirit is a big project, along with helping systems and institutions to evolve, but when asked how she breaks down such a project into manageable pieces, Longboat answers quickly: “We break it down into smaller pieces by the work we do at Soul of the Mother, which is our healing lodge on the shores of the river at Six Nations, Grand River territory.” (Longboat is from the Turtle Clan and Mohawk Nation, and grew up on the Six Nations Reserve.)

Longboat founded Soul of the Mother in 1994, following a vision. “The vision was to create a fire of peace in my home community and to that fire of peace would come the nations of my people for their healing and revitalization, and the Creator would send the strongest warriors of spirit to help at that fire and to find their own healing, but also to find their own calling to support the greater vision of what the Creator has in store for humanity.”

When Longboat leaves work at CAMH she goes home to Six Nations where ceremonies and sweat lodges take place on the weekends. “It’s been really gratifying to see new generations of young people coming forward who have all the gifts of the ancestors, ready and willing to manifest those gifts along with their professional education. They have the full complement now of what they need to be successful in the world—identity, belonging, meaning in life, language, ceremonial knowledge and strong traditional cultural beliefs.”

Members of other First Nations attend ceremonies at Soul of the Mother, and so do staff from health and educational programs. “We’ve also had international visitors, Indigenous nations from Africa, and relatives from other faith traditions—Buddhists, and Christians from Italy, Druids—and so it’s been an amazing opportunity to see how we are more alike than we are different, how our philosophies support one another, and how our collective dreams for the healing of Mother Earth and the spiritual evolution of humanity are achievable.”

I always knew how to find our way home

Longboat say that she has always been in love with Creation. Born in 1951, she grew up at Six Nations on a farm with 300 acres. “My mother would take us into the fields and into the bush and she did something that was so profoundly beautiful—she introduced my siblings and me to Creation—to the plants that were edible, to the plants that were inedible. She taught us not to be afraid of animals but to be respectful of animals. She taught to embrace the seasons and to love the seasons. When my brothers and I got older, she released us, unsupervised, into those 300 acres. Being the oldest, I was always responsible for my two younger brothers and I never got lost. We would be out all day, and I always knew how to find our way home.”

Longboat started school when she was eight, building on the love of learning her parents had nurtured at home. “I had all Indigenous teachers throughout my elementary years and it was amazing, because you see them as role models and they reflect the best of what you can be.” She names her Grade 4 and 5 teacher, writer and journalist George Beaver, as, “the most gifted teacher I have ever encountered. He inspired me to go into teaching, and to really develop my teaching capacity.”

After attending high school in Toronto, Longboat entered university in 1971. “Coming to Victoria College was really exciting for me as it was the first time I was on my own. I have always been proud to say that I was a Vic student at U of T. And part of that pride was the fact that in the late 1960s and early ‘70s there were only 160 First Nations students in colleges or universities in all of Canada.” (She notes that today there are 40,000.) After studying French and English as an undergraduate at Vic, she went on to receive a Bachelor of Education degree, and then a master’s degree from OISE in 1978.

language, ceremony, elders and traditional teachings grounded us in our professional capacities to be the best we could be

After working for the Assembly of First Nations, Longboat returned to U of T in 1986 to coordinate the Aboriginal Health Professions Program, which grew out of a committee of non-Indigenous doctors and dentists and other health professionals studying the reasons why so few Indigenous students were enrolled at the University of Toronto in the health sciences. At the same time an initiative by Health and Welfare Canada offered funding to recruit Indigenous students into health programs, including medicine, nursing, speech-language pathology, dentistry, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

To demonstrate the impact of the Aboriginal Health Professions Program, Longboat shares stories of participants from her home at Six Nations, including a pharmacist and a speech-language pathologist, both of whom are health leaders in the community today. Other Indigenous students of the time became surgeons and family doctors.

Longboat continues, “I ran into a graduate student in social work at an Indigenous education conference about a year ago. She said to me, ‘Diane I want to thank you for all the work you did to bring culture, language, ceremony, elders and traditional teachings to us as students at U of T, because it gave us a sense of identity, pride and strength that we might not otherwise have had, and it grounded us in our professional capacities to be the best we could be and are today.’”

Longboat’s experiences with the Aboriginal Health Professions Program inspired the founding of U of T’s First Nations House, the Office of Aboriginal Student Services and Programs, which celebrated 25 years of service in 2017. “We saw that our students needed academic counselling, access to tutors, and scholarships and bursaries. They needed an elder-in-residence who would help them with their dreams and visions, their worries and anxieties, and boost their cultural knowledge while, at the same time, supporting their academic learning. We became much more than a recruitment service for health professionals, we became a service network to all Indigenous students studying at the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

I have a dream for U of T

First Nations House, however, was just the beginning. “You can’t have student services without academic programming,” says Longboat, “so my next challenge was to meet with the  Faculty of Arts & Science to talk about the curriculum they were offering so that when our students saw the academic offerings of the university they would be drawn in, in a way that would feel welcoming and respectful of their cultures; a place where they knew they would be supported in a home away from home and could learn more about their respective cultures. So that was the next part of our work, creating a curriculum across the university, and I’m really happy to say that the programof Aboriginal Studies grew out of those  early initiatives in the undergraduate Faculty of Arts & Science.”

Longboat regards First Nations House, along with Soul of the Mother, as her legacy—although her continuing work, in addition to her position at CAMH, ensures that her legacy is evergrowing. In 2017, she was appointed as Indigenous education advisor to Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Mitzie Hunter. She is also co-chair of the Indigenous Working Group for the 7th Parliament of the World’s Religions, convening in Toronto in November 2018, with five days ofprogramming planned for thousands  of participants from 80 countries all over the world.

Even with this legacy, however, and Longboat’s years of dedication, she feels strongly that work remains to be done. “I have a dream for U of T,” Longboat explains, “that as our Indigenous students enter the finest institution in the country, their culture, their language, their ceremonies and their identity will be strengthened and supported to enable them to achieve academic excellence. My dream is to see them graduate from university as the new leaders of their generation.”


Reposted with permission from Vic Report, Winter 2018.