The Star article published June 10, 2021
By Lori Thompson, The Manitoulin Expositor
Five people 31 years and older began a life-changing journey on May 26 when Gwekwaadziwin Miikan (Gwek) kicked off a year long pilot project. There are five people in each cohort in addition to the 10 in the original Seven Grandfathers program for 19 to 30 year olds. A total of 15 individuals in three cohorts for adults 30 plus years are expected to complete the pilot program.
Gwek has 10 spots available for each of its original 19 to 30 year old cohorts. “Sometimes there are 110 people on our application list,” said Sam Gilchrist, executive director. “We work to find the best services for all applicants and from there, we look at people who are a good fit for Gwek’s land-based program.”
The pilot project is very needs driven and evolved through ongoing conversations, said Mr. Gilchrist. “We’re very active on social media, especially Facebook, and we’ve received numerous requests for service from people 30 plus years old. We also have a very good relationship with our funders and the various treatment centres and healing lodges. We all come together and meet with the ministry. If there’s an issue, we work together to try to solve it.”
The need for mental health and addiction services has increased dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The ministry was approaching their fiscal year end and there were extra dollars available,” Mr. Gilchrist said. “They asked if we could do something to fill some of those gaps.”
They weren’t sure if it would work. The Gwek team had always thought it was important to have smaller cohorts to maintain group dynamics. They asked whether they could make their cohort larger. “On May 26, we welcomed five 30 plus individuals into the existing program,” he said. It seems to be working. “You have 15 people and three or more staff and it feels like a bustling community coming together to experience living with the land and living with wellness.”
There are some distinct aspects that are specific to their age group, but otherwise, it’s the same as the original. This year’s participants will build another 30-foot canoe through a partnership with Rob Mellan. “We do a lot of canoe tripping and that leads to fishing and gathering plant medicines on the islands,” Mr. Gilchrist said. The fall cohort usually completes a 200 plus km canoe trip the length of the Spanish River to Killarney and back to Manitoulin. This year, they have to see what’s happening with the pandemic before finalizing plans.
“We’ve always participated in the UCCMM (United Chiefs of Mnidoo Mnising) community moose hunt,” he continued. “Our program participants help with different aspects. They help with set up and clean up and then embark on the canoe trip. It’s an amazing opportunity to serve their community and give back to them.”
In addition to the hunt, some participants have begun learning to assist on the trap lines. They help with move out and work the trapline with the head trappers. All participants learn many unique life kills, including working with traditional leather crafts or using beaver fur to make mittens. “This all helps to strengthen their connection with the land and to each other,” Mr. Gilchrist explained. “There are a lot of lessons.”
With the winter cohorts, there is storytelling, snowshoeing and cutting through the ice for fishing. There was an initial hesitancy in applications for the winter months, but now it’s almost equal for the seasons, he said. “They all have something to teach.”
The program has continued to evolve as new things work well and other things not as well. “That’s some of the beauty of the program, that it’s open and flexible. Our staff bring their own skills and passions and share those with the cohorts and other staff members so they’re always evolving, building skills and developing (into well-rounded people). Things change seasonally.”
The onset of COVID meant Gwek had to look at alternate ways of doing things. They decided to do a closed cohort; initially, the coverts overlapped. They weren’t sure how it was going to work but the data shows it did. “Prior to COVID we had a 60 to 70 percent success rate but with the closed cohort model the success rate has gone up to 80 percent,” Mr. Gilchrist said. “Our aftercare program has seen a 100 percent success rate (even pre-COVID) in obtaining vocational, educational and also volunteer opportunities, mostly vocational and educational. We’re really pleased and we’ve proven our models.”
Outside of the staff and participant community building, the program owes its success to collaborations with other organizations and communities. Mr. Gilchrist acknowledged Gwek’s partnerships with each of the six UCCMM communities they serve as well as Kenjgewin Teg, Manitoulin Health Centre, Noojmowin Teg Health Centre, Mnaamodzawin Health Services, Assiginack Family Health Team, Cambrian College, Centennial College and the pandemic paramedic program through the manitoulin-Sudbury District Services Board. It does indeed take a village.
The Seven Grandfathers program is a unique residential land-based treatment program created to meet the needs of Indigenous youth and young adults ages 19 to 30 years. Participants are supported on their recovery journey from stabilization through treatment, aftercare and transitioning back into their communities. The program balances traditional culture with therapeutic best practices.