Trauma is commonplace among the patients at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital. For Indigenous patients, this often comes as a result of racism, discrimination, and the tragic history of residential schools.
In late May 2021, we learned of the devastating discovery of 215 children whose remains were found at the former Indian Residential School on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc territory in Kamloops, B.C.
M.A is a patient at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital and is from the Gitxsan and Tseshaht First Nations. She was deeply impacted by the news of these children whose lives were lost—yet another reminder of the lasting impact of residential schools on families everywhere.
“My heart was sad,” says M.A. “My Mom went to residential school. That could have been her. I’m so thankful that she survived; I wouldn’t be here if my Mom wasn’t so strong. I’m so blessed to have her in my life, but I’m so sad for all those parents that were waiting for their kids to come home.”
It was important for M.A. to grieve and to honour these children in a way that was true to her culture, traditions and beliefs—for her own healing as well as for her Indigenous patient peers. Working with Laura Burkholder, a social worker at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, M.A. arranged two healing ceremonies with singing, drumming and smudging—one for the main hospital, and another for the maximum security unit.
"It felt so strong for us to be together, healing as a community like that.”
“We do smudging to cleanse a person and the space. It means we are able to join in a collective feeling together,” says M.A. “We were all grieving and wanted to comfort one another together. We wanted to promote healing. I sang a warrior song and cleansed people with sage and feather. I got to welcome everybody and said thank you for coming, and I’m sorry for what happened to those 215 children that were in residential school.”
M.A. and her peers felt a sense of togetherness after the ceremony, and for M.A. herself, being part of something so meaningful has helped with her sense of healing and autonomy.
A smudging ceremony performed at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital
“I felt more at ease myself and also happy to be helping other people in the community. It felt so strong for us to be together, healing as a community like that.”
This memorial is just one way in which M.A. has been leading cultural activities and ceremonies among patients at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.
“M.A. came to me and expressed interest in practicing three different cultural activities here at the hospital,” says Laura Burkholder. “She wanted to do smudging, make bannock and sew button blankets with her co-patients. It’s important that we, as health care providers, encourage and facilitate cultural activities that help patients connect with their sense of self and their community. M.A has been doing these activities consistently and frequently for the patient population, and everyone really enjoys and gets benefit out of it.”
For Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, M.A. will be making traditional fry bread, blessing the food being serviced at the hospital, and leading a smudging and drumming ceremony.
“I hope this story inspires other people not to feel alone, to speak up when you’re feeling low in life, to step into the spotlight and say what you need to,” says M.A. “You’ll feel better to speak your truth.”
Learn more about patient-led art therapy at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.