logo-full arrow-left arrow-right magnify story members projects twitter facebook youtube download

“Reconciliation is not about Indigenous people changing, it’s about non-Indigenous people recognizing that Indigenous people have the right to practice our culture as it was given by Creator, and to practice our ways of healing, medicine, and ways of being.” – Norma Rabbitskin


Target Population: Individuals and families in Sturgeon Lake and surrounding communities

Community of Practice:  Sturgeon Lake First Nation

Sturgeon Lake First Nation  is located 50 km northwest of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The First Nation is predominately Plains Cree in culture and language. It has a total population of just over 3,100 members, with an on-Reserve population of 2,145 members occupying 308 private dwellings.  

Background: In 1995, the Sturgeon Lake First Nation took control of its community health services. The Health Transfer Agreement provided a pathway for Sturgeon Lake to develop its own community health model that would integrate Western health services with traditional Nehiyawak (Cree) whole-of-person health and wellness practices. The Elders recognized, however, that revitalizing traditional Nehiyawak teachings, philosophy and healing practices, was a process that would unfold over time and in many phases and stages. An early accomplishment was fund raising and building the Lloyd Johnson Memorial Healing Lodge. This was a seminal initiative for the Health Center in laying the foundational principles for a contemporary and relevant health model in the community. The Healing Lodge now operates parallel to, and in conjunction with, the Health Centre to deliver integrated wholistic health programming.

The vision statement of the Sturgeon Lake Health Center is “Building a healthy community through our customs, values and traditions under the guidance of our Elders.” In pursuit of this vision, the Sturgeon Lake Health Center offers over 40 programs including a traditional health program that provides culturally appropriate and medically viable alternative health care in concert with Health Canada mandated programming.

Description: Sturgeon Lake First Nation views harmful substance use as a symptom of historical trauma and takes a team approach to those seeking services. In addition to mainstream harm reduction services such as needle exchange or support to access methadone maintenance programs in nearby Prince Albert, individuals and families also have access to the following components of Sturgeon Lake First Nations’ comprehensive traditional health program:

  • Elder/Knowledge Keeper Guidance: to guide, teach, and role model the Nehiyawak way of life
  • Lloyd Johnson Community Healing Lodge: a gathering place that supports the full spectrum of cultural healing practice and thought, stemming from the days of circular encampment. The whole building, including its main hall and treatment rooms, are in constant use with various ceremonial lodges held on a regular basis and other ceremonies to assist individuals and their families to awaken and reconnect with Spirit
  • Traditional Health Clinics: healers and medicine people from a variety of nations and traditions, including alternative therapies such as reiki and intuitive healing

Traditional Medicine Program: provides traditional healing and prevention for medical issues using plants as medicine. Incorporates collective knowledge systems required to support the full delivery of traditional healing, complete with an apprenticeship program, medicine room, and processing space

  • Cultural Camps: core community land-based programming to support gender appropriate stages of life teachings for all ages to help community members understand and fulfill their inherent roles and responsibilities as Nehiyawak people
  • Language of Knowledge Teachings (Nehiyawak Creation Narratives): actively working within the seasonality to construct and embed the tenets of Nehiyawak history and to lay the foundation of Nehiyawak worldview within the ethos of the community
  • Grandmothers Circle: brings together the communities’ matriarchs with thematic cultural programming. Together, this collective wisdom activates full family health
  • Traditional Birthing and Midwifery Practices: supports healthy relationships between parents and children by working with the grandmother knowledge to reinstate ancestral care practices from birth to end of life teachings and practices
  • Community Based Research: supports and activates the community’s right of self-determination, jurisdiction over, and authority to make decisions about research in the community


Local Wise Practices

In delivering the traditional health program, the following wise practices have been identified:

Services must be Indigenous informed: Trauma-informed is not enough. Everyone who provides services to Indigenous community members must be knowledgeable of Indigenous history, worldviews, and cultural teachings.

Centering the voice and experience of peers: Engaging people with lived experience in speaking about and providing services is key. Peers have impact as teachers and mentors because they speak from experience.

Importance of community-based care: It takes a year or more to sustainably treat many health issues, including substance use, so home or community-based care, where children can stay with their families and family relationships can be repaired, is key. This recognizes the interconnectedness of individuals with their families, communities and land.

Non-interference: The Elders teach that people cannot be forced to do or take anything they are not ready for. The value of non-interference, therefore, of meeting people where they are at, letting them choose their own path and their own time to seek assistance, is key.

Spirituality: Reconnecting, realigning and opening to Spirit are essential elements of the work. The role of the healers and the medicines is significant, but most of the healing work must happen between the individual and the Creator. The role of healers, medicines and ceremonies is to stabilize the individual so they can reawaken and reconnect with Spirit.

Māmawōhkamātowin (Working together): Traditional and Western approaches working together to enhance health and wellness together


The three biggest challenges to developing a traditional healing program for Sturgeon Lake have been:

Funding: The government has been slow to recognize the value and effectiveness of the traditional healing program and to fund it adequately and sustainably. Current funding models only allow for a limited number of appointments with a counselor, therapist, or other health professional, and only with those who are on an approved list. This does not recognize that the community determines who is an Elder or a healer. Nor does it recognize that healing from intergenerational trauma takes years and sometimes entire families are affected.

Incongruence with dominant system: Indigenous values and Indigenous approaches to health and wellness are disparaged by hospitals, clinics, treatment centres and social services in cities and towns surrounding Sturgeon Lake. These continue to operate on a biomedical model that is disempowering to clients at best and often harmful.

Embracing community knowledge: Community knowledge of traditional teachings has been buried by generations of colonialism and institutional trauma. Supporting and encouraging individuals, families and the community to do the work to awaken, remember, and revive these teachings is on-going. Building cultural humility with health professionals and para-professionals is also ongoing. 

Evidence of Success

  • More people are accessing the traditional healing program than ever before, including individuals and families from other communities
  • Other communities are seeking the assistance of Sturgeon Lake to set up their own programs
  • There is an active cultural community in Sturgeon Lake with more people participating in ceremonies

For more information

Norma Rabbitskin, Senior Health Nurse / Knowledge Keeper, Ph: 306-764-9352 OR nrabbitskin@slhc.ca;

Willie Ermine, Traditional Health Coordinator / Knowledge Keeper / Ceremonialist, Ph: 306-764-8800

Kathy Walsh, Addiction Support Worker, Ph: 306-764-9352

Lorna Gilbert, Mental Health Therapist, Ph: 306-764-9352