Healing Through the Land: How a heart-centered approach is transforming power and redefining relationships

March 19, 2019 - 12 minutes read

By Sarah Margolius

In 2017, the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network invited Inuit environmental, cultural and human rights advocate and author Sheila Watt-Cloutier to address its annual conference on the subject of climate change and human rights in the Arctic. The timing was perfect for the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, a CEGN member which just a year earlier had committed to redefining relationships with Indigenous people. A chance discussion between Executive Director Valerie Lemieux and the Nobel Prize-nominee sparked the creation of a ground-breaking collective process aimed at supporting Indigenous leaders and communities who are engaged in healing, transformation, and climate action in their communities.

Healing Through the Land is this ground-breaking initiative “The feedback that we’ve had to date has been incredible,” says Lemieux. “The intention is to seed a stand-alone, Indigenous-led fund. We no longer consider this a pilot, as this initiative has been under development for the past year and a half. Rather, this is a long-term development initiative operating in a Pan-Canadian context. Grantmakers have the opportunity to be a part of this process which is actually quite beautiful and different.” .With the CDF’s commitment of $1 million, the target of the fund securing $5-million over five years seems doable to Lemieux and Watt-Cloutier.

Melaw Nakehk’o of the Dene Nahjo explains the cultural importance of moose hide tanning, and how honoured she is to be using her Grandmother’s moose hide tanning tools.

Disrupting power to get to a place of learning, understanding and appreciation is, in Watt-Cloutier’s view, a crucial first step in building effective climate solutions.  

“We know that environmental projects are not always long-lasting in our communities,” says Watt-Cloutier. “If grantmakers are to trust that Indigenous people can lead and prioritize what works, then re-education is important. Trust is essential if we are to become stronger, more effective change agents and climate defenders in our communities.”

What do funders make of this new prototype? For many, they are re-learning some of the basics, such as what constitutes ‘environment’ in their programs.

“In northern terms, ‘environment’ is very broad,” says Watt-Cloutier. “We say ‘sila’, which implies outdoors, wisdom, consciousness. Since our way of life is the very thing that is being challenged by climate change, we need to first protect our land and culture. Healing is only going to happen from the traditional way we raise our children to become resilient. But our solutions will disappear if we lose the very ice we depend on for our power.”

Statue in Yellowknife representing the Cultural crossroads. It was created by three Indigenous artists. It is made up of an Indigenous drum and three animals dancing together. The fish, the Métis spirit animal, symbolizes the water; the bear, the Inuvialuit spirit animal, symbolizes the land; and the eagle, the spirit animal of the Dene, symbolizes the air. The drum represents the universal language of music.

The Catherine Donnelly Foundation was interested in exploring how it and other foundations could address Indigenous peoples’ holistic community needs within a climate change/climate justice framework. As a result, for the past couple of years, the Foundation has been actively seeking out partnerships with actors, allies and funders currently engaged with and within Indigenous communities and has hosted three gatherings. Guided by the collective wisdom of participants at the gatherings, a shared understanding that addressing capacity needed to be rooted in healing emerged. It was also understood that the initiative could not just be rooted in environmental concerns, but would need to be flexible and appreciate Indigenous worldviews of interconnectedness.

This led to the emergence and naming of the Healing Through the Land initiative.  While still in the process of being fully defined there is a broad understanding of what it might encompass in a holistic and innovative way including: integrating and enhancing elements of community leadership, cultural revitalization, addressing issues of Indigenous homelessness, increasing energy efficiency in housing, creating renewable energy sources, localizing food (sovereignty), supporting economic development/sustainability and water protection across Indigenous communities. The skill sets developed in these on-the-land initiatives would move participants beyond “surviving” to “thriving” through building Indigenous knowledge and leadership.

“As a foundation, our roots in social justice taught us that you must be prepared to ‘push power’ and address power dynamics,” says Lemieux. “My own journey has taught me the importance of engaging and mobilizing voices who are not yet heard. In this initiative, we hear from Indigenous participants, mostly female, whose heart-centered approach really resonates.”

The inter-generational female energy in the program emanates from young women, mothers, and grandmothers, providing almost a sacred space to develop the program.

“The meetings were very powerful for me, because of the group of younger and older Indigenous leaders and the fact that the settings for these meetings were not typical,” says Watt-Cloutier. “You could almost feel the presence of The Sisters of Service (the founders of The Catherine Donnelly Foundation) in the room. You could be very creative and innovative. Someone said, “We are re-engineering everything here!” That made sense for me. It felt right.”

Re-engineering structures is essential to confront the monumental challenges facing Indigenous communities.

“Poverty, hunger, housing, suicide…We are just starting to understand what has happened with historical traumas,” says Watt-Cloutier. “Now, climate change threatens our land, culture, and remarkable way of life. A new wave of assault is upon us. No one knows how to ‘do’ reconciliation. But that is what we need to do and is my hope for this initiative.”

Just as Watt-Cloutier’s powerful message resonated with members, so has Healing through the Land. “It’s exciting to see this initiative evolve,” says Pegi Dover, of CEGN. “Funders have the opportunity to live their commitments to reconciliation through this process. We are happy to help make those connections.”

And live their commitments they have: the Inspirit Foundation, McConnell Foundation, Tides Canada, PetSmart Charities of Canada, Max Bell Foundation and The Gordon Foundation have all participated at the convening meetings, with The Gordon Foundation pledging the first contribution.

“The program will allow for the actual healing of children and parents who have gone through trauma and to break the repetitive patterns that exist,” says Watt-Cloutier. “It’s about healing trauma, the heart and spirit. Indigenous people are the governing energy in the development of the programming. That makes a difference. Other funders should take the leap and come on board.”

Healing Through the Land participants, Yellowknife, NWT, September 2018

Building land-based programming takes time and requires deep relationship building, which can be a challenge for some funders.

“If you are truly engaging in a participatory process, then you have to relinquish your power and slow down,” says Lemieux.  “In our meetings, there is a great exchange of wisdom and knowledge. Someone said, ‘Colonialism didn’t happen overnight. It took 400 years or more.’ To think you are going to have everything figured out right away is hubris.”

The gatherings hosted by the Catherine Donnelly Foundation have been grounded in an Indigenous rights-based perspective; an openness to learn from challenges; and a willingness to slow down and let things emerge from the “circle” of participants. The process has been guided by the seven grandfather teachings (Truth, Humility, Honesty, Respect, Courage, Wisdom and Love) and incorporates the “4Rs” (utilized by the Indigenous Funders for Indigenous Peoples) of Respect, Reciprocity, Responsibility and Relationships. By walking the path, Watt-Cloutier says, you will become a better leader (and a better funder).

“The circle brings people together, rather than a divided board room,” says Watt-Cloutier. “That in itself has created a sense of connection to one another. We are all in this together.” 

When viewed through a lens where everything and everyone is connected, the broader philanthropic community becomes even more indispensable to positive outcomes.

“As funders, we provide grants, and our grantees receive our funds,” Lemieux says. “What if we were open to receiving, and grantees open to giving? Then we are really on the path to building deep relationships and de-colonizing grant making. That’s what we are doing here. For those that wish to join us on this journey, I say: welcome. There’s always room for one more. Set another place at the table.”  

Or find a seat in the circle.


The next convening meeting is coming up soon. If you wish to learn more about joining the initiative, contact Valerie Lemieux at 416-461-2996 x 200 or by email vlemieux@catherinedonnellyfoundation.org.

 About the author: Sarah Margolius is a consultant with The Manning Group and President of Sustainable Media Production Canada, a not-for-profit focused on environmental stewardship in the film, television, and digital media industry. 

 Purchase Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s book, available on Amazon: The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet.