For Kim Diabo, “It’s never too late to start the healing journey.” Diabo, from Kahnawake, was one of the organizers of the fifth annual Aboriginal Wellness Gathering held in downtown Montreal May 11-13. But sometimes the healing can be painful in itself: “Tears are medicine,” explained Diabo, who is also a Clinical Supervisor at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal.

The NWSM organized this year’s series of workshops and discussions, which was sponsored by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Opening with a prayer by Watshenn:ni Sawyer and keynote speaker Tom Porter, the events started on a positive note. Titled, “Moving Towards the Seventh Generation,” this year’s conference focuses on healing ourselves now, in order to prevent passing on our problems to future generations.

Nakuset, a Cree from Lac La Range and Executive Director of the NWSM, explained how personal trauma can be passed from one generation to the next. “If you’re raised by an alcoholic, for example, then you’ll have certain trauma to deal with, and that can be passed on to the next generation,” she said.

Mina Ekomiak spoke about her struggle to deal with her own problems with alcohol. She sees her drinking as the main reason why she’s now HIV-positive. An Inuk originally from Chisasibi, Ekomiak has been living in Montreal for the past 18 years. When she found out she had contracted HIV three years ago, she became suicidal.

Now Ekomiak wants people to know that this is not just a disease affecting white people, but is deadly to the Native community, as well. “I’ve lost a lot of my friends to this disease,” she said. “Parents need to talk to their kids about safe sex.”

One of her greatest obstacles in dealing with the disease has been other people’s ignorance about it. “I don’t want to see others go through the same thing,” she said. Ekomiak has faced a lot discrimination and isolation due to people’s fears and misunderstanding about being HIV-positive.

One discussion panel brought together three residential school survivors: Jackie Kistabish, a Cree/Algonquin from Pikogan, near Abitibi; Kakaionstha Deer, a Mohawk from Kahnawake; and Henriette McKenzie, an Innu from the Uashat mak Mani Utenam community near Sept-Iles. All three women spoke courageously about their nightmarish experiences at residential schools.

“It’s not easy to talk about, but the secret kills us,” said Kistabish. “Talking about it is healing, a liberation from physical and spiritual torment.”

The three speakers also emphasized the need to return to their traditional culture in order to heal and to understand themselves and their roots.

One conference-goer agreed. “I’m here to heal and to learn whatever I can about being traditional, for myself and my daughter, Jordyn,” said Tina Stacey, a Mohawk from Kahnawake.

Although she was raised a Christian, Stacey never felt she belonged. Her sense of belonging came when she attended her first Native festival. “I heard that first drumbeat, and I knew I was in the right place,” she recalled.

Her daughter’s father abandoned them when Jordyn was just 12 days old. Since then, Stacey has found solace in the Mohawk Longhouse and Healing Lodge. For others who are hurting, Stacey advises, “Don’t let anybody discourage you from getting help if you want it and need it. Don’t care about what anybody else says.”

A community event, the conference is held annually and is open to all, providing free daycare service for parents. The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal offers workshops, counselling and shelter for women in need. If you need help, you can contact Kim Diabo at (514) 933-4688.