‘Nurturing warriors’: Northern group begins healing project for men

Men of the North is launching online meetings in Prince Albert, La Ronge, Cumberland House and Beauval through a partnership with University of Regina professor Elizabeth Cooper

Men of the North founder Christopher Merasty advocating for suicide prevention in Regina last summer. Merasty seeks to tackle the root causes of suicide in northern communities. Photo by Michael Bramadat-Willcock

The Men of the North men’s support group founded by Christopher Merasty in La Ronge celebrated its first anniversary launching a new project to reach more men in more communities.

Beginning with a series of online group meetings in Prince Albert, La Ronge, Cumberland House and Beauval the project focuses on improving mental health and cultural awareness for northern and Indigenous men.

Men of the North is partnering with University of Regina professor Elizabeth Cooper to help men in northern Saskatchewan build a brighter future for themselves.

Cooper hopes to bridge the gap between support systems for men and women in the region — having previously worked with Indigenous women in Manitoba and B.C.

“I was working with some moms and girls, and they said, ‘it is great, you’re working with us but there’s so many programs for us out there and there isn’t anything for these girl’s dads?’” Cooper said.

“There’s stuff for kids, there’s stuff for women, but where are the men? So, that’s where I started, it was from women saying to me, ‘you need to work with the men.’”

Cooper received $673,200 in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) on top of $119,911 in provincial funding for a hands-on project called, Nurturing Warriors: Understanding Mental Wellness and Health Risk Behaviours among Young Indigenous Men. She said there’s a big hole in the research as it pertains to Indigenous men that has real impacts on getting projects funded.

Cooper hopes that nurturing warriors will shine a light on northern and Indigenous men in academic fields that she said so far leave them out almost entirely or portray them in a negative way.

“We’ve ignored Indigenous men. There’s been some stuff around gangs, there’s been some stuff around AIDS, and there’s been some stuff around jails. But nothing that’s just like, ‘what’s going on with guys?’

“We need to stop just thinking of Indigenous people or people in the north in general as somebody that we should be scared of. We frame them as people we should be scared of. That’s not okay to do,” Cooper said.

“It’s exciting to be bringing some templates that Men of the North have been doing into some of these other communities and then doing it as research so that we can really document it. So that we can have the story, because having the story, that’s what will help other people see how important this is.”

Cooper met Merasty at last summer’s suicide prevention demonstration across from the Saskatchewan legislature in Regina that was led by Métis musician Tristen Durocher. Merasty and Cooper share a vision to help deal with the root causes of high rates of suicides in northern Indigenous communities.

“I think the most important thing to know about Men of the North and this work that we’re going to be doing with men is the fact that everybody’s welcome. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you’re thinking or what else is going on. You’re welcome, you’re needed and you’re important,” Cooper said.

Merasty celebrated the first anniversary of Men of the North on Jan. 16. He’s hopeful the nurturing warriors project will help the organization expand its reach around the north and bring men from different communities together to support one another.

“I remember the first meeting I put up was Jan. 26, 2020. We had 16 men in attendance and by Mar. 9, our last meeting before COVID took over, we had 59 gentlemen attending,” Merasty said.

“Whether I help one person or whether I help 100 people to me it’s definitely something that is needed, something that is long overdue — you know, men’s healing from their past traumatic experiences, intergenerational abuse and all that stuff.”

The idea for Men of the North came to Merasty when he met a man on the street who didn’t have a place to stay the night. He said the encounter got him thinking about how difficult it can be for men in northern Saskatchewan when they are down on their luck.

“That’s what inspired me from there. Just seeing that young man struggling with something that so many of us struggle with from time to time. There’s not much out there that really helps us and tries to get us back on our feet,” Merasty said.

“For men in our community of La Ronge there’s either you stay at your family’s, at a friend’s place or you go stay on the streets or you can go to jail.”

That next night Merasty had a vivid dream of a buffalo skull that an Elder told him represented the need for men to empower themselves through mutual support.

He wants to help men face the trials of everyday life that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a very challenging year. Lots of challenges presented themselves. There was a lot of negativity, stereotypes and discrimination. You name it, and we’ve definitely seen it, felt it and heard it,” Merasty said.

“I want it to be more of a holistic approach and that’s why I started the organization,” Merasty said.

The nurturing warriors group meetings are led by young men between the ages of 18 and 34 including men of all ages who are invited. Cooper said the first meeting went well and participants are excited to get the ball rolling.

“We’re going to be looking at what we can do in the future to really help highlight how important culture is. We’re going to look and see how we can make sure people feel proud of what they’re doing, that their voices are heard, that they feel included and that everybody knows that they’re important. Because not everybody knows they’re important in communities,” Cooper said.

“Men of the North is so good about that whole idea that you’re important, you’re valuable and you make a difference. Your past doesn’t define your future and it doesn’t define your children’s future or a community’s future. We can work together to stop suicides and to really make people feel proud of themselves.”