Creating space for wellness in a remote Indigenous community

Posted May 13, 2021 in Health & Wellness
Qqs Project Society
Funded since 2015

What do you need to be well? That was the question posed in a Heitlsuk health and wellness study in the 1980s. The question was simple, as were the answers. Community members told the researchers they needed to spend time on the land. To stay connected to their traditional culture and foods. To be together. 

Decades later, those responses feel as relevant as ever, and have guided Qqs Project Society’s vision for its community’s new Kunsoot Wellness Centre, a $2-million-plus health and wellness project funded in large part by Power to Give.  

Our vision for the Kunsoot Wellness Centre is an inclusive, accessible, and safe space for land-based healing and learning. It is purpose-built to promote Heiltsuk wellness. In the face of trauma and crisis, it is a beacon of resilience. Its aim is to draw out the individual and collective strength of our people in an environment of comfort and support – steeped in culture and surrounded by nature. 

“Like any indigenous community struggling with the horrific weights of colonization … we struggle with wellness,” says Jess Housty, Executive Director of Qqs (pronounced ‘Eyes’).

“This Wellness Centre comes out of an era where chiefs were fighting for their lives, trying to protect the land from deforestation and overfishing,” says Jess. “It is critical that we take the time to make sure our children and grandchildren have some passion and connection that we had to land. If kids feel connected to our land, they’ll want to be here because they care about it. When they graduate from university, they’ll see opportunity here.”

Fostering that sense of connection has long been the mandate of Qqs’ Koeye Camp, an “innovative Heiltsuk youth science and cultural camp program that takes place every summer in the Koeye River Valley, that aims to “[open] the eyes of our children to their responsibility as stewards of our land, culture, and resources.”

Unfortunately, Koeye Camp’s remote location renders it inaccessible for much of the year. The new Wellness Centre programming will serve more Heiltsuk people, for more of the year: it will be available to adults, and is located an easy 15 minutes from their village. 

The “magnificent” land on which the Centre is built, called Kunsoot, is already rich with memories for Heiltsuk people, says Jess. Many members of their community remember paddling there with their parents and grandparents to camp, smoke fish and pick berries. 

Simply spending time on the land was and is healing for Heiltsuk people. And going forward, the land’s healing power will be boosted by critical infrastructure and programming that the community itself dreamed up. In addition to consulting the original wellness study, Qqs conducted extensive consultation with community members. They invited a diverse cross section of Heitlsuk people to the table—matriarchs; representatives from the health centre, from schools; restorative justice advocatesto ensure that whatever services and solutions they moved forward with were what the community wanted and needed. 

As a result of their input, the Wellness Centre will “involve child welfare programs, health and wellness programs, restorative justice programs, social programs, addictions programs,” says Carrie Easterbrook, who sits on the organization’s Board of Directors . “It’s going to allow for opportunity for our families to continue to come over here and picnic, but it’s also going to provide opportunity for families that may be faced with trauma or domestic violence and need a safe space to be.”

For instance, there will be homes for families who need to go somewhere for a while to stay and regroup. There will be cabins, each with wood stoves, for single people who want to stay clean and sober while waiting for treatment. There will be 32 beds for kids to use over weekends. All of these features are the direct result of community requests. 

As the Centre nears completion, Jess says she loves seeing its profound impact on her community. 

“I love watching people walk into these beautiful powerful spaces, and know it was done for them,” she says. “It isn’t for tourists or outsiders. These spaces were lovingly created just for them, to make our community feel as valued and loved as they are.”