Rhonda Lee McIsaac
At the village of Hl’yaalan ‘Lngee and in the shadow of Taaw Tl’ajuu, nearly 30 men from various nations came together to learn, heal, and support one another this summer. It was the third year of the Men’s Health Gathering, facilitated by Chee Mamuk and is part of the program ‘Encouraging Strong Paths’. Chee Mamuk is a provincial Indigenous health organization that provides culturally appropriate health education and training. The organization promotes healthy sexuality and prevents the spread of HIV, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted infections in Indigenous communities.
This summer was the first time the Men’s Health Gathering was held on Haida Gwaii. “The location is great. It allows us to do our work inside and outside,” explains Sgaalanglaay Gaamdamaay Vern Williams, a facilitator at the gathering. The programming allows for traditional and social activities to be infused with information, enabling participants and facilitators to confront uncomfortable or clinical issues. This year the gathering was led by Michael McCarthy, Christopher Horner, Sam Davis, Sgaalanglaay Gaamdamaay, and Frank Young, all of whom have counselling and facilitation skills.
The first gathering saw 16 men take part and it has now grown to 28 men who range from teenagers to elders. Together they are learning about living a healthy and balanced life. While some men are new to the program, others are reinforcing the lessons learnt from previous gatherings.
After the men settle into a routine and discover that they all share commonalities and workable differences, they are encouraged to talk about their stories and experiences. They let go of ego, expectations, and fear to overcome initial discomfort from years of conditioning. Young admits that this program isn’t for everyone.
“Why would you want to sign up for this if it was easy?” Young then rattles off how men size each other up. They go through the motions of saying what they think is expected. Eventually they learn that honesty and openness is noticed and rewarded, garnering a sense of comradery and ultimately what anyone wants – respect.
Facilitator Michael McCarthy hands out a deck of cards to begin a discussion about HIV and AIDS. The cards expose participants to facts about these critical issues. They soon become a gateway to a deeper discussion on sexual health and wellness.
“These things men don’t normally think about or talk about,” says McCarthy, citing topics like testicular cancer, colon cancer, HIV/AIDS, and how ally with the LGBTQ community. The facilitated discussions aim to remove the stigma associated with these topics by making them a part of life’s everyday routine.
“Our men are learning it’s okay to be emotional. It’s okay to show their emotions. It’s okay to talk about them. It’s okay to be a man,” says Elder and facilitator, Frank Young.
Around the fire, small groups are busy talking and laughing while others are working with salmon. They set them on stakes to cook over the fire beside the large cedar longhouse. Sgaalanglaay Gaamdamaay explains that each night representatives from a different Nation prepare a meal for the others.
Soon enough the group of men are all seated around the fire that crackles and glows. The voice of Frank Young carries through the forest and over the waves lapping the distant shores. He seeks to build up men and their ability to be healthy and strong, through group activities, sharing, and building positive relationships. He also openly shares his own initial misgivings about youth participants, and explains that he was won over by their ability to question themselves and their own perceptions. His breakthrough occurred when he confronted his own biases about youth.
One youth holds a large hand drum he received from a group that has been teaching him about protocol and songs. When asked why he took part in the workshop he replies, “It’s something to do. It’s something out of the ordinary!” He looks over at the other young men and says that he wants to learn more about singing and dancing.
“Learning about medicines would be fun,” he adds. He shares how some in his family are healers. He would like to follow in that path. This programming he says “guides me on the right path” and his eyes fill with tears. He stops, and after a few breaths concludes, “it’s been really helpful.”
“We’re always watching” says Young whose eyes dart through the crowd. Program coordinator Michael McCarthy stands close by. Young smiles to passing participants busy with feast preparations. More logs are added to the fire upon the arrival of Hereditary Leaders and Elders from Gaw. Some participants’ family members accompany them. Tuul Gundlas Cyaal Xaada Rainbow Creek Dancers begin to fill the salty air with songs and dancing. The men greet their guests and seat them, ready for a community feast. They have done more than just work on themselves; they have invited their community in to support the work they have started.
“They are doing such good work. They deserve to be recognized for it. It’s not every day that men get praise for what they do right or for the learning that happens,” Young says. He then moves to help seat women around the fire. An opening prayer then settles everyone before commencing the evening’s entertainment.