Dene Wellness Warriors get candid about truth and reconciliation

ean and Roy Erasmus celebrating the first day of Orange Shirt Day back in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Jean Erasmus)

Sept. 30 marked the first National day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada and many residents across the NWT took a moment to reflect on the country’s tragic legacy.

The displacement and exploitation of Indigenous peoples have been ongoing for generations and the effects are still present today.

CKLB reporter Mariah Caruso spoke with Jean and Roy Erasmus, councillors with Dene Wellness Warriors in Yellowknife, who offer supports for residential school survivors.

The pair speak on their own experiences and how they’ve used them to help themselves and others along the way.

It also marks the five-year anniversary of their counselling practice.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Jean, tell me a little bit about your story and where it has brought you?

I am Dene and Cree, originally from Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta and a third-generation residential school survivor.

I am not an alcoholic or drug user. I don’t even smoke cigarettes. But the effects the residential school had impacted me and my family and my children – it’s something that I had to deal with, through my healing.

I think I was about 22 when I first learned about the dysfunctions of being in an alcoholic home and being a child of an alcoholic.

I was able to do a lot of healing within myself over the last 30-odd years.

I’m really grateful that I had that opportunity to take care of myself, which really helped when I went for training to become a counsellor.

In your experience, what trends or patterns have you heard from clients?

Jean: A lot of things that I’ve noticed with my clients have to do with relationships and the dysfunctions, how they’ve been parented and how they parent as well and the relationships that they have, with their partners, often alcohol or drugs is a factor.

Roy: One of the trends that I’ve noticed is that people are starting to open up more. People went and told their stories, and there’s more services available, counsellors and stuff like that.

It’s very important that governments continue assisting people to be able to go to counselling and other programs, and actually to do more than what they’re doing now.

Jean: I agree. I think some of the trends that are happening are they’re recognizing how important on-the-land programming is and how it is helpful in healing the people in the communities.

That’s so important and people are seeing results.

Why is it so important that people do vocalize and share (their experiences) as a healing practice?

Roy: We are a people who just came off of the land and in some instances, people are still living primarily on the land.

It’s in our genes. The governments are trying to help put programs on the land, but the funding is just inadequate. It’s not enough.

Jean: When we go on the land, it’s a connection to culture, people are sharing stories. They’re all involved. Cutting up the meat, or even hunting for the caribou or moose is such a healing experience when they have that connection to culture. A lot of my clients are talking about how they love going on the land, whether it’s in the summer or in the winter, it doesn’t matter what season, they’re going and experiencing connection with family as well.

How would you advise survivors and residents share in this day?

Roy: We need to look at this day as an opportunity for people to learn about us, for non-Indigenous people to learn about us. –  Our stories, our plights about residential schools, because actually, residential schools affected everybody.

Listen to our stories, without judgment, participate, learn.

Jean: Part of it, too, is listening for understanding about our history, and where we’re at today. It’s an opportunity as well, for people to be really compassionate when you see an Indigenous person walking down the street, who is inebriated and has been using alcohol or drugs. It’s an opportunity to gain understanding.

It’s through that connection that you learn to understand what happened to that person, and what happened to people who are on the streets as well. But to unlearn that those stereotypes are not every Indigenous persons (and) to stop judgment, to look at us from a compassionate lens (and) to be able to celebrate and experience our culture, it may change your view of us. And that could be really impactful.

Help us celebrate who we are, because we are rich in culture, we’re rich, and in so many things and ways that people don’t really know.

What are your thoughts on the city’s ongoing contentious debates on where to place the temporary day shelter?

Jean: I think people are really looking at someone to blame (and) shame. Those are the things that are driving people and the anger that they have towards a population that is really vulnerable.

To just push them away and say, “No, they don’t belong here.” I guess it’s driven by fear, driven by anger. What can you do if they are here? What are the ways that we can work together?

Roy: No matter where that centre is established, there’s going to be people that don’t want it there and there’s going to be support for it to be there. We’ve already seen that every time.

The more places that there are for people to get out of the elements and to stay warm, have a cup of coffee, then the less they’re going to be on the streets. So let’s find a solution.

It’s a perfect place. I can’t think of a better place in town really, than right there.

What are some of the tools that you’d like to leave (audiences) with?

Jean: It’s really important that people know that Orange Shirt Day is a prime example of what to do, there are so many things online that are available for people to educate themselves on.

Find out how we are pretty awesome people. Strong and were resilient, and we’re caring, and we have so much to offer as well and we invite people to be part of that change.

Roy: Bridging the gap includes non-Indigenous people educating other non-Indigenous people about what they’ve learned.

We Indigenous peoples should talk to non-Indigenous people.

I know, some people are angry, just tell them, about your story, about somebody else’s story and tell them the bad things, the good things, things that we’ve accomplished.

Both sides have a role to play in bridging the gap and we should both embrace that.

If readers wish to learn more about the Dene Wellness Warriors services click here.

About the Author

Mariah Caruso
Mariah Caruso is a digital journalist, originally from Toronto, Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a Hons. Bachelor of Arts and completed her Journalism post-grad at Sheridan College. She has an insatiable appetite for life, storytelling, connecting to the people, and getting to the heart of the issue. Mariah is excited to begin her journey and career in Yellowknife, NWT, and get involved with the community. If you have a story idea, feel free to send her an email at