SOAHAC joins Ontario in Wellbeing Week

In a cozy, carpeted room, I watched a wasp buzz over the heads of the few people still sitting during the stretch break. Chastity Jenner, the speaker on traditional medicine and the Ojibwa language, wrapped up her presentation with a prayer of thanks a few moments ago. The tight space, crowded with cushioned chairs and Aboriginal paraphernalia prepared for presentation, met the sunny outdoors through only a single opened window. A tiny fan circulated the warm air as guests chatted, some serving themselves the provided fruit and bottled water.

Tucked away on the second floor of a stately, old building, I bet you wouldn't guess that this gathering was history in the making. The Southwestern Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC) was participating in Ontario's annual Community Health and Wellbeing Week for the first time.

For one week across Ontario each year, over 100 community-governed healthcare organizations, now including SOAHAC, detail the necessity of health and wellbeing through informative events. This year, the healthcare centres stressed the need for a more comprehensive healthcare environment — one that helps not just the individual, but the individual's family, and then the entire community. The focus this time around shifted from illnesses to general wellbeing, which involves the measures that precede and (hopefully) prevent illnesses entirely.

“Far too many people experience avoidable illnesses because Ontario is poorly equipped to address the most important determinants of health,” a Wellbeing Week flyer reads, “such as access to good nutrition, housing, social supports, employment, income and education. These have a much bigger impact on health and wellbeing than what medical care alone can provide.”

In accordance with this shift, SOAHAC delivered: dietitians spoke on traditional foods and healthy eating tips, there were tobacco tying workshops, and there was even an astounding weight loss journey presented by Jerome Kennedy. On top of all this, HIV screenings were available throughout the entire event.

Liz Akiwenzie, traditional healer and first speaker, emphasized the importance of holistic healing. She informed me of the traditional medicine wheel, whose coloured quadrants each depict a separate face of the individual: yellow for the spiritual aspect, red for the emotional, black for the physical, and white for the mental. By maintaining the wellbeing of not one but all of these aspects in harmony, the individual can be truly healed.

But don't let the colours of the wheel deceive you, for when it comes to holistic healing, Akiwenzie assured me that “There is no colour.” And it frustrates her that, despite its universal applications, the medicine wheel is swiftly disregarded by the Ontario health system: “It's something that the general public does not understand about Aboriginal wellness. And lots of Aboriginals don't understand, either.” Bringing to mind glimpses of residential schools and the native culture that was viciously suffocated then, Akiwenzie remarked the system is once again stifling what deserves to be regarded as equal. The biggest challenge for SOAHAC — and probably why the organization has only this year joined Wellbeing Week — is that time and time again they must prove to the Ontario health system that their methods work.

“It's a unique service dedicated to unique needs,” said Jennifer McLaren, event coordinator and registered dietitian. McLaren had been responsible for selecting the speakers, the location and time of the historical occasion. She believes that SOAHAC is an integral part to Wellbeing Week, as it especially uses holistic approaches in order to “see the person first.” The event not only informs with medicinal teachings, but cultural lessons unique to SOAHAC. The Ojibwa language interwoven into the several presentations “promotes a stolen culture” while being a medicine in itself. The language, McLaren explained, is just as important to the healing process as the actual traditional medicines: “It's the language, the medicine, the culture — it's all connected for a really holistic process.”

Unfortunately, the event ran over its expected time, and the medicine pouch workshop scheduled for the end of the day had to be rescheduled. But the participants were more than enthusiastic, and all happily volunteered to appear at the newly appointed time. In spite of the awkward placement that interferes with common work and school schedules, from noon to 4 p.m., McLaren observed that the demand for SOAHAC is growing. Other organizations have bigger spaces, and she plans to have the event relocated for next year.

If you'd like to learn more about Wellbeing Week, go to for more information.