Stanley Mission Cultural Healing Camp celebrates 30 years

Valerie G. Barnes Connell Jordan/Northern Advocate. Participants gathered together for the closing ceremonies, feast and give-a-way to end the 2023 Stanley Mission Traditional Cultural Healing Camp.

The Stanley Mission Traditional Cultural Healing Camp celebrated 30 years this past summer with one of the largest crowds of participants from various parts of the world, including Hungary.

“They’re bringing their people home,” one elder said, noting its importance.

Each day began with a Pipe Ceremony as others prepared traditional foods for the meals to be served throughout the four-day ceremony.

Elders were available to share their wisdom and knowledge with participants and there were Sweat Lodge ceremonies and alternative healing practitioners were also available.

The camp ended with the story of how the camp came about told by the three men who started the camp in the early 90s.

Sol Charles was the Lac La Ronge Indian Band Health Director in Stanley Mission and he wanted to create something to help address the suicide crisis that was happening in the community in the late 1980s early 90 and put out a call for people to be involved.

At the time Larry Laliberte was working in Beauval when he heard about the project.

He drove from Beauval to talk to Sol about the job and was told to “apply.” He was hired within a few days.

“It’s a big project. We had a lot of problems in our community … it’s primarily Stanley Mission,” Laliberte remembered.

Robert Ballantyne was also hired to work with the youth.

The three discussed the project, deciding they needed to follow a path with “traditional healing, (and a) traditional way of life” and the first step was to find land.

“We needed land, otherwise you can’t go anywhere,” he said. So he, Ballantyne and Bruce McKenzie began the search for suitable land.

“We walked through the bush and there was a big hole right here,” he said, pointing in front of himself. Elders came from many places to share their knowledge and wisdom offering them support with the plans. After discussion with Charles; they got a lease on the land and began to clear it and cover in the hole.

“That is where we are today; this healing spot. The power that is here,” he said.

With the support of each other they went on to make a ceremonial drum, find the place and hold the first Sweat Lodge Ceremony.

“It’s still happening today; the traditional healing,” Laliberte said. “It’s not simply a spirituality; it is a way of life. That is our life. It’s like a tree. If the tree doesn’t have its roots, it’s going to fall, but we have our roots, we can keep going. It’s simply how it works.”

Valerie G. Barnes Connell Jordan/Northern Advocate. Robert Ballantyne, Sol Charles and Larry Laliberte, the three who started the healing program and camp.

Following the direction of the Elders they continued to build the program over the years, holding the first camp in 1994. Between then and 1997 they continued to build the program.

While the program was ended in 1997, They have continued the camp on their own. Laliberte thanked everyone who have continued to stay involved throughout the 30 years.

“It’s not our success; it’s the people that are here … all this time and it’s still going, so we are very grateful. This is still here; it’s still celebrated,” he said.

“People are starting to understand that we are traditional people; people of the land, because if we don’t go back to our land … eventually again they’ll take over.”

Ballantyne was new into his healing journey when he was hired as the Youth and Community Support Worker for the project.

He struggled with recovery and slipping back, but getting hired for the project, “I had no choice,” he said.

At the time Stanley Mission “had the highest rates of youth suicide here in Stanley Mission. We were in the news,” he said adding there were “what they call a cluster suicide, copycat suicide were happening here,” and the government was putting out resources.

Over the years, they went to conferences, workshops and all had the same theme, traditional healing, medicines, bringing back the ceremonies.

“That’s what’s going to help.”

But Elders prepared them for the challenge and struggles ahead, primarily because of the effects of the Residential School and the churches.

“Your people are going to fight you,” they were told.

But they continued to work on different strategies including education and programming. They developed an interagency and created a suicide intervention. They developed healing circles and co-ed healing circles and “a lot of healing was happening as a result of what we were doing. We were literally taking over … we now had a judge that really helped us, Judge Fafard. He took us under his wing, and he protected us,” Ballantyne said.

Then they were terminated by the then, Chief and Council.

“We couldn’t understand why,” Ballantyne said. “I believe we were doing the right thing cause a lot of people were healing.”

They tried to continue on their own for sometimes afterwards and Ballantyne thanked Karen Charles  and Linda A. Charles in Cree.

“It was the women that kept this culture camp happening. That is why we are here right now, you know, for 30 years.”

Over 30 years, there was only one where they didn’t host a camp and that was due to COVID. The next year, along with the regular four-day camp, had a shortened camp to partially make up for that year.

“Thank you for joining us, supporting us with all the people that come to join us. You know you’ve come for you grew up here at this cultural camp,” Ballantyne said.

“From 1994 to 97 there was not one suicide. That’s the time when the traditional healing was happening. No suicides, so it was working,” Laliberte said.

At the closing ceremonies, Memorials were presented to the families of three participants and supports of the camp, who left for the Spirit World. They were Wilson Charles, John I. Charles and Kimberly Ratt.

Four people were honoured and wrapped in Star Blankets, for their consistent work and support in keeping the Camp going over the past 30 years; they are: Gordon Ratt, Karen Charles, Fred Charles and Linda A. Charles.

The evening ended with a Feast and Give-a-way, before people headed home, some closer and some facing long journeys to Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.