Reconnecting with Tradition

Programs at Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society offer people a way to connect with community resources and their heritage

When Meagan Callihoo chose to send her four-year-old daughter Sierra to Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society‘s pre-kindergarten program, White Cloud Head Start, she wanted to make sure Sierra had the social skills to excel when she started school. The program’s emphasis on connecting Aboriginal children with their heritage was also a factor.

Sierra has thrived in the program, and frequently comes home excited to share a new Cree word with her mother. When it came time to register her daughter for kindergarten, Callihoo gave her the option of enrolling in a standard class or an Aboriginal-focused program at a local Catholic school. Sierra said she wanted to keep learning Cree, ensuring that she will grow up with a firm foundation in her Aboriginal heritage.

White Cloud is just one of the many programs and services offered by Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, a non-profit organization serving Edmonton’s Aboriginal population. Executive Director Cheryl Whiskeyjack says Bent Arrow’s mission is to ensure Aboriginal people in Edmonton can succeed in “two worlds” by connecting them with Aboriginal traditions as well as other community resources.

“There are gifts and strengths rooted in traditional knowledge that will help people be successful living in the world that we live in right now,” she says, but also emphasizes the importance of reaching out to the wider community. At White Cloud, that means teaching kids about their traditional language and culture while also providing them with early education and health care. Kids receive health, speech and dental screening in order to identify and treat any potential issues, such as a learning disability or poor eyesight, that could impact their success later on.

The program is unique in part because it doesn’t have an income threshold, accepting any child with an Aboriginal background. “Just by being born Aboriginal, your child is at risk of not succeeding in the school system,” says Whiskeyjack.

Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) supported the White Cloud Head Start program by providing part of the funds for the purchase of a new bus last year to replace an older vehicle Bent Arrow acquired in 2004. The bus, which transports the students to and from the half-day program, is essential for many parents. “That bus was constantly breaking down, and we never knew if it was going to be an easy fix or a hard fix,” says Whiskeyjack. As Calihoo doesn’t drive, the newer, safer bus played a big part in her decision to enroll Sierra in the program.

The “two worlds” mandate is central to every one of Bent Arrow’s programs, including New in Town, an initiative to help Aboriginal newcomers get settled in Edmonton. It started in 2011 while Bent Arrow was taking part in Edmonton Transit System’s Donate-a-Ride program. They would provide bus tickets to those who needed them and realized many people were accessing the tickets because they were new to the city.

The New in Town program helps connect new arrivals with more than just bus tickets; its services include pre-planning assistance for those looking to move to Edmonton and community events to allow newcomers to build connections with the city’s Aboriginal population. New Beginnings is also part of the services; it’s a program designed to help those leaving provincial corrections facilities integrate into the city while avoiding risk factors that could lead them to re-offend.

Alberta Justice provided the first three years of funding for New in Town, but ECF stepped in to bridge the gap when that funding expired in 2014. The program is now supported by a variety ofpartners, including the City of Edmonton and the Child and Family Services Authority.