The only way to get the healing process underway in the Cree communities is by openly talking about issues like family violence and child sexual abuse, says Chief Billy Diamond.

“We have been living in a period of denial,” said Chief Diamond in an interview. “The healing has to begin.”

“We must be prepared to uncover some of the dark secrets. Keeping secrets has to stop. The only way to do that is to bring it out and share in a healing circle,” he said.

Helping Crees achieve that healing has become a big priority for the Waskaganish First Nation. For three years, with little assistance from the government, the Waskaganish Band Council has funded a “community wellness program” which has a broad mandate to help Crees cope with alcoholism, drug abuse, family violence and other social problems.

As part of the wellness program, Waskaganish residents are sent along with their entire family on a 35-day healing program at a native-run treatment centre. Employers are asked by the Band to keep paying the salaries of those who are attending the program.

Last year, six Waskaganish Band employees took the course, and 12 people were sent from Nemaska, which has a similar wellness program. In addition, another 24 people attended a 35-day program closer to home—on Maclean’s Island at the mouth of the Nottaway River.

Kenneth Weistche, who coordinates the program as the Waskaganish Band’s Community Services Manager, spent 35 days at the High Level Treatment Centre in northern Alberta three years ago, along with his wife and three kids. “We didn’t know we had a problem,” he said. “We didn’t know there were so many issues we were burying for so long. ”

Like many Crees, Kenneth attended residential school for over a decade and this experience left him with a lot of pain. “The anger and resentment I felt I carried for a long time,” he said. “I didn’t know how to raise kids. They never taught you any parenting skills. I had no role model I could see raising children.”

Kenneth said residential school isn’t to blame for all of Crees’ social problems, but it certainly did enormous harm.

“The abuse that happened in those schools is still being kept inside today,” he said. “In residential school, we didn’t have the love and care we needed. We lost all that. We were taught to keep silent, not to feel, not to hear anything. So family life was destroyed.”

Kenneth called on the government to help fund the wellness initiative, which had a pricetag of $200,000 last year. The federal government provided only $117,000 of that and Quebec provided nothing, so Waskaganish had to shell out $83,000 of its own money. “The government should support it more financially because residential schools were financed by the government,” said Kenneth. “They have to take responsibility.”

Chief Diamond said the healing process isn’t easy, but the time for it is now. “It’s a long process. We are not healed yet, but at least we have started a program to get that healing. A lot of tears are involved, a lot of pain, a lot of memories. But at least we started.