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‘Root causes’

Medicine faculty member leading Aboriginal healing on the land

special feature: Aboriginal Peoples

Part of a special feature focused on celebrating and recognizing the contribution and impact of Aboriginal Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador and highlighting contemporary topics and opportunities related to Aboriginal Peoples worldwide. This feature coincides with Aboriginal Peoples Week running March 21-24.


By Elizabeth Furey

A new program aimed at promoting mental health among boys and young men in rural northern communities doesn’t take place in a hospital or therapist’s office or even inside a building, for that matter. It takes place in the great outdoors.

Pathways to Mental Wellness for Indigenous Boys and Men: Community-Led and Land-Based Programs in the Canadian North is co-led by Dr. Michael Jong, family medicine physician with the Faculty of Medicine and Labrador-Grenfell Health.

Dr. Michael Jong enjoying some snow and sun in Labrador.
Dr. Michael Jong enjoying some snow and sun in Labrador.
Photo: Submitted

Beginning last September, the project is slated to run three years with program sites in six different areas throughout Labrador, Nunavut, Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Changed relationship

Northern regions’ history of resourcefulness and living off the land spans hundreds of years and dozens of generations of Indigenous Peoples. Decades of hardships have changed the relationship humans have with the land stemming from various factors such as colonization, residential schooling, inter-generational trauma and acculturation leading to addiction, family violence and suicidal ideation.

Factors such as these have led to growing mental health issues and an alarming rise in suicide rates in the North, making suicide the most common cause of death in some of Canada’s most remote communities.

“Every community is different and it’s important to work with each community to adapt the program to best suit their needs.” — Dr. Michael Jong

Dr. Jong and the rest of the team, which includes researchers from the Labrador Institute and the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre in Iqaluit, Nunavut, believe that a land-based program helps to bring back traditional skills, values and culture.

“There’s even some degree of traditional counselling provided if needed, and sometimes traditional healing is included as well,” Dr. Jong said.

A scene of life in Nain, Labrador.
A scene of life in Nain, Labrador.
Photo: Dave Sorensen

While the project team has conducted research and has a background in mental health and awareness, it’s recognized that input from those directly impacted by the issue is needed, as well.

“Collaboration is very important in programs like this,” said Dr. Jong. “Every community is different and it’s important to work with each community to adapt the program to best suit their needs.”

Re-connections

The aim of the program is to target influences that encourage mental wellness and combat against suicide risks. By combining mental-health services that are tailored to suit a community’s culture, with traditional skills such as tool-making and land navigation, there is hope that a connection between the affected Indigenous men and boys and their land and communities will be reformed.

While still in its infancy, northern residents participating at all six project sites have been out on the land this winter, something that Dr. Jong believes is already beneficial.

“From our research, land-based programming showed the most promise of developing mental health resiliency and preventing suicides in northern communities,” said Dr. Jong. “We believe this will correct the root causes amongst the segment of the population at the greatest risk of early deaths from suicides.”


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