When Wayne Rabbitskin was working for social services, he would get calls from men who needed someone to talk with, but who would never set foot in the offices or attend any type of treatment program.
“These were men with spouses, with partners, and one of the things I learned is… they didn’t know how to talk to their women about certain issues from their pasts,” Rabbitskin explained. “They needed someone to talk to, but they didn’t want to talk to a woman, or their partners.”
Now, years later, Rabbitskin is conducting workshops across the Cree communities to give men the opportunity to talk – and to listen – to each other in a safe space, addressing a crucial need he sees in the lack of resources available for men.
The two-day workshops – which have already occurred in Waswanipi, Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini and Nemaska – are organized with the support of the Cree Health Board, Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services, and Robin’s Nest.
Rabbitskin says the workshops, titled “Chiiwaaschaau Program – Building Healthy Communities”, are meant to help deal with trauma, including intergenerational trauma, emotions, and how to express emotions in a healthy way.
“Native people are storytellers. So, I use storytelling so these men can tell their stories and be heard and validated. Sometimes it’s a story that starts when they’re young and continues to the day they’re in the workshop,” he says.
Because of that, the workshops are flexible with time – some discussions may only take 15 minutes, while others may require an hour. However, there are still facilitated elements.
“One workshop I do is on the impacts of colonialism, talking about intergenerational trauma, developments of what happened to us as Cree in regards to hydro projects, those kinds of impacts. They know where some of those things come from because when you look at colonialism, those were done with the intent to take the Indian out of them with religion.”
Rabbitskin says he sees this in the communities where people try to use religion against one another, to denigrate traditional spirituality and healing methods, or when it comes to lateral violence, gossip and internalized oppression.
Rabbitskin also likes to use his own experiences to help people understand. “I talk about my dad as a residential school survivor. It was almost a military upbringing with my dad,” he said.
“Even though he was physically there, he was not emotionally there for me and my siblings. I was chasing my dad for a long time, wanting him to tell me he loved me and was proud of me, but I never heard those things. I became bitter and resentful towards him. That’s intergenerational trauma.”
Rabbitskin says that many of the participants can relate to that story, and had similar relationships with their fathers, and they’re then ready to engage in conversations.
Recognizing that some of those memories may be repressed or unconscious, he tells participants that they may feel a reaction from the stories that tells them there’s something that needs to be addressed.
“When I point this out, they say, ‘Oh wow, I never experienced this. I never heard of this or done this – I was afraid to relive the trauma. I never believed there’s another way to deal with it and let go of emotions that are causing me to have blockages in my life.’”
Rabbitskin said he understands that many men may be cautious about attending the workshops. “There’s a stigma happening around men who are supposed to be really tough and not cry and share emotions. A lot of it comes from this intergenerational trauma.”
Residential school survivors like his father would be punished for crying, Rabbitskin said, so they repressed those emotions. “It’s important for me to talk about those things, and how they’re impacting their current relationships,” he said.
“It’s okay for men to cry and show emotions, to talk about these things, to talk to other men. Like the women, who talk to one another and help each other, men should do the same.”
Upcoming workshops are planned in Waskaganish, Eastmain, Whapmagoostui and Wemindji.