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Kunsoot Wellness Centre, Photo Credit: Jess Housty.

Kunsoot Wellness Centre progress continues, despite COVID-19 changes

Project adapts to COVID-19, as construction phase transitions to operational phase.

Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) people have thrived at Kunsoot since time immemorial. Kunsoot is an ancient village site, with reminders of the deep history of Haíɫzaqv people on this land. Kunsoot is also the site of a land-based wellness centre being built by, and for, Haíɫzaqv people.

Construction began on the Kunsoot Wellness Centre in April 2019. Although the construction phase has been impacted by COVID-19, it is now nearly complete.

The team has worked hard to complete cabins for caretaker, families, singles, and youth. There are gathering spaces, a dining area, and cook house. Staff housing is still in progress, and a fire pit gathering space is receiving final touches.

“One of my favourite spaces in progress is the fire pit,” says Desiree Lawson. She is the Engagement Strategist for Kunsoot Wellness Society.

“It is dedicated to our matriarchs by shaping it in the form of a woman’s cedar hat. Our people understand that without our matriarchs, we wouldn’t be here, and we are honouring them and their strength and courage that has gotten our people through past pandemics, hardships, cultural genocide.”

Lawson has been leading the communications and community engagement throughout the project’s process.

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Final stages of construction include furnishings built on site, for cost savings and attention to detail. Seen here, Sonia Plewa and Gloria Windsor. Photo Credit: Erin Wilson.

COVID-19 impacts

The pandemic has impacted the construction of the wellness centre, explains Lawson. Instead of everyone working together, the crew was split into two separate teams.

They worked for four days on and then had three days off, Lawson says. Hand wash stations were set up, bleach wipes were available for tools and separate boats were required to transport the crews.

“Some staff with families really felt the loss in wages due to these changes,” says Lawson, “the split up of staff for safety measures also resulted in less work hours per week.”

When the summer brought B.C. to Stage 3 of re-opening, the crews went back to their regular schedule.

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Aaron Ditchfield and Cecil Brown, crew worked with Alaska mill on site to produce local materials for benches, tables. Photo Credit: Desiree Lawson.

Lawson says that community need and planning is at the heart of Kunsoot.

“Once we begin spending more time there, our people will decide if they need more family cabins, more youth cabins, more outdoor spaces for activities.”

Though construction was not yet complete, the site has begun operations, with small land-based programs.

These programs run, based on direction from Heiltsuk EOC (Emergency Operations Centre), following COVID-19 best practices. A recent positive case in the community required all programs to be temporarily put on hold.

Land-based, why?

Despite their temporary closure, land-based programs are an essential part of the wellness work being done, explains Lawson.

“This is where our ancestors worked,” she says. “Reclaiming, we’re going back to our roots. We’re going back to where our ancestors were before us.”

The original proposal for the wellness centre makes clear that the “greatest asset” in this work is the territory.

“Our hereditary leaders have always instructed us to look to our lands and waters to find healing and wellness. In that sacred relationship, in its reciprocity, in the strength we get from taking care of a homeland that, in turn, takes care of us – we find the roots of our power as individuals and as a community,” the proposal states.

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Finishing touches include artist call-outs. Seen here: Sierra Hall, with mural by Tom Kero. An ancestral village in Qíɫcutkv, with smokehouses and bighouses. Photo Credit: Benita Dixon.

Kunsoot Wellness Centre is a tangible example of a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Call to Action on gaps in health outcomes for Indigenous Peoples. TRC recommendation 19 in particular mentions the need to “value traditional Aboriginal healing practices.”

The Kunsoot project website shares an invitation for community members to take the Kunsoot Pledge, which begins with the declaration “Wellness matters. It is the healing foundation to individual and collective balance.”

Many Indigenous wellness perspectives are not limited to the physical understanding. There is often a more holistic view of wellness, which means these physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health are balanced to create a sense of wellbeing. The First Nations Health Authority created a visual tool to express this view of wellness.

First Nations Perspective of Wellness, Photo Credit: FNHA website.

“I think reconnecting with culture is key,” says Erin Wilson who is the project coordinator.

“I think a lot of people are lacking that, and I know a lot of people have voiced that they want to get back to culture,” she says.

Community involvement start to finish

Intergenerational outreach work was a key element of the planning process for the new wellness centre.

Lawson and her team went to school children and youth, reading traditional stories, asking them about wellness. The traditional stories involved landmarks and features specific to the Kunsoot site.

Lawson says she asked the children what health and wellness meant to them. She also asked for their input on what a space that supports wellness would look like.

“I asked them what kind of cabins they would want, at a wellness centre. Their response was they don’t want to have any running water. They don’t want to have any power. They don’t want to have the internet,” she explains. “They just want the cabin with bunks and a wood stove and an outhouse in the back.”

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Youth requested cabins that were rustic and basic, to reconnect to their homelands. Photo Credit: Desiree Lawson.

“These kids know what they need,” Lawson continues. “They need to have that connection to the land and the water and territory, with each other. That’s something that they realized without us telling them.”

The team also spoke with community Matriarchs.

Elders told them they would like electricity, and nice, accessible cabins, “no more than two steps to get into them. They wanted to be on the land…but also have comfort,” Lawson says.

Other cabins at Kunsoot will be for single use, designed to meet specific needs of individuals. The youth describe the solo cabins as “lone wolf” or k̓vsḷs. Some community members suggested the need for space to separate themselves.

The team took all of this feedback and it has gone into everything that has been built, explains Lawson. The final site will feature guest and staff cabins, a cook house/dining hall, and outdoor gathering space.

Each place has a purpose Lawson says. She points to the example of the kvsls (wolf) solo cabin, which could be used to support someone’s treatment for addictions issues.

“Maybe some would stay there at night, and return to the community for their work day. Or maybe some would want to stay out on the land for six weeks before reintegrating into the community….so just really having this space to support people.”

Vision for the future

Haíɫzaqv community members have gathered a collaborative vision of wellness. It includes restorative land-based approaches that keep culture at core.

“Our vision for the Kunsoot Wellness Centre is an inclusive, accessible, and safe space for land-based healing and learning,” the project website states. “It is purpose-built to promote Haíɫzaqv 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.”

For Wilson, the project is “long overdue.”

“I just feel like collectively we deserve to heal and I think this wellness centre will be the amazing change that we’ve desperately needed,” she says.

The centre’s original proposal outlines need as a community facing “many barriers – a ban on community births, food insecurity, a lack of access to adequate specialist support for medical and mental wellness, economic insecurity, lack of adequate housing, unaffordable transportation creating artificial isolation.”

The Kunsoot Wellness Centre is designed to be an accessible, welcoming place where wellness can happen, and be supported, explains Lawson.

“I’m the third generation of Heiltsuk people who don’t speak the language… it’s just something that I’m trying to change and work on for myself and my family and my future,” Lawson says.

She’s grateful that current and future generations will have this land-based healing centre to turn to.

“To have Kunsoot… where, when someone decides they want to work on their healing journey…even if they just spend a day..an hour, or a month… working on wellness, it’s something that we have that option to do. And it’s not something that we always had an option to do as Indigenous people,” Lawson says.

For Wilson, she hopes the Kunsoot Wellness Centre will have an impact that extends beyond her community.

“I just want to see us unite as a community and just grow and heal,” she says.

“And I’m hoping that other Indigenous communities see this and envision it for themselves… I’m hoping that we are a good influence.”