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Uskâu ihtûwin youth cultural dwelling launches in Waswanipi  

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 3, 2024

On May 24, Waswanipi’s youth helped launch Uskâu ihtûwin, the first culturally adapted version of Quebec’s Aire Ouverte program to be established on Indigenous land. The project’s customized support services for youth aims to strengthen mental health and community resilience. 

Local, regional and provincial leaders celebrated the opening of a new youth dwelling located near the community’s cultural village by the river. The Cree Health Board consulted extensively with Waswanipi’s youth to develop all aspects of the initiative.  

“The Waswanipi youth council really took charge,” said project manager Joey Saganash. “We assessed services they’d like to see for mental health but also working upstream in prevention, awareness and healthy lifestyle promotion.”

Since 2018, Aire Ouverte centres have offered a “one stop shop” of accessible health and wellness services to young people without judgment and according to their unique needs. When the CHB shared information about the project with Cree communities in 2022, Waswanipi’s application was selected because it had enthusiastic partners and available space. 

Elder Edith Gull was instrumental in mobilizing the community while the youth centre provided an office and lounge area for healthcare programming and social activities, which opened last August. Youth chose the name Uskâu ihtûwin (New Ways), designed a logo and suggested resources and professional services that made sense to them. 

“They wanted a life coach, somebody who could help them reach their goals and talk about certain challenges in life,” explained Saganash. “We have a fridge with healthy snacks, three health workers on site with the other youth centre workers. It’s more active listening, friendly referral policies, having a safe space to relax in.”

The space was designed and built by youth with games, sofas, desks and computers. Its open-door approach meets youth where they are and guides them towards health services to which they are entitled but often don’t use. Since the pilot project began last year, Saganash said at least 40 youth visit each day with 10 to 15 participating in daily activities. 

“The reality at clinics is you’ll likely see your cousin or aunt and questions are asked,” Saganash told the Nation. “Young people have a certain disconnection with authority. We’ve facilitated a comfortable entry way, giving that space to communicate when ready – they’re not seen as having a problem.”

The project nurtures a sense of cultural identity through community involvement, providing alternative pathways to engage in mental health dialogue. Frequent training ensures the young team has the necessary tools to provide support for diverse youth aged 8 to 35. A therapist comes for one week each month and nurses may eventually provide further clinical preventative services. 

When the CHB’s unique approach drew attention at an Aire Ouverte gathering in Shawinigan, Saganash suggested that Quebec’s Social Services Minister, Lionel Carmant, visit Waswanipi for the cultural dwelling’s launch. At the event, Carmant said he was proud that youth could benefit from the “tailor-made model that combines clinical expertise with traditional Cree values.”

Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière commended this community partnership that helps youth “find the acceptance, support, attention and guidance they need to tackle the specific challenges they face.” Waswanipi Chief Irene Neeposh emphasized to youth that the space exists because the community cares about them, suggesting they might need it when times get tough.

The festive occasion included music from the Waaseshkuun Singers and a moving walking-out ceremony for a young girl on the banks of the river. About 150 youth attended the immense feast following activities like bannock baking, target shooting with bows and arrows, and a hammer-and-nail competition.

For the many youth who live in overcrowded housing and lack access to the bush where they can practice traditional activities, the cultural dwelling may be a vital refuge. The circular-shaped cabin’s walls are decorated with patterns of bear paw prints. Large sofas, a kitchenette and sewing machines create a sense of comfort.  

“It’s a space just for youth to reconnect with their way of life,” said Saganash. “If you talk to any Cree person, culture is prevention. The main mandate is promoting a healthy lifestyle, keeping the youth active but also promoting cultural activities that give them opportunities to find their identity and role.”

A major difference between Uskâu ihtûwin and the province’s 25 Aire Ouvertes is that, instead of social workers and sexologists, young people are guided by “life coaches” like Eddie Happyjack Jr. Happyjack said the most popular activity is canoe racing, saying youth even put aside their phones for cultural practices like cutting fish or caribou. 

This type of land-based healing will be an important part of the Uskâu ihtûwin model as the concept is introduced to other Cree communities. While each project will be implemented according to local needs, Saganash said must-haves include easy access and “drawing out the strengths in young people instead of looking at the problems.”

Carmant said the government would fund further initiatives in each community once proposals have been submitted over the next few years. Each successive venture will build on the experience gained from the earlier ones. 

“Aire Ouverte is part of the bigger plan,” shared CHB executive director Daniel St-Amour. “This is the first layer but there will be many more layers for different age groups. We want to go more towards Cree ways to care for mental issues and others.”

As the Cree Nation is buying the Mirage outfitter camp on the Trans-Taiga Road, Mirage said it could be used to host a substance abuse rehabilitation program as early as September.  

Emergency services and other regional healthcare currently consume about 80% of health and social resources in Eeyou Istchee, but St-Amour believes this balance should shift towards localized care in programs like Uskâu ihtûwin in partnership with local entities and the justice department.

“The community is the key to health,” stated St-Amour. “Only together will we improve the health of the population. Waswanipi is a very good example of this partnership. It works a lot better than when the health board takes the lead. We’re there to support.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.