Canada’s first Indigenized art therapy program is supporting cultural healing in Indigenous communities

Valerey Lavergne was in her forties when she first came across a program using art as a tool for healing. A friend recommended it to her, and although she had been on her own healing journey since her twenties, Lavergne hadn’t found anything quite as therapeutic as creating art.

The program Lavergne enrolled in, based in Toronto, was an expressive arts therapy initiative. She enrolled in the program in 2006, graduated in 2009, and has loved it enough to work as an expressive arts therapist ever since.

Lavergne, who is of mixed Cree and Irish-Canadian ancestry, saw art therapy as a way to combine cultural and therapeutic healing methods. This fall, after more than a decade of studying and practicing art therapy, she’ll will be teaching healing through art as part of Canada’s first Indigenized expressive arts therapy certificate program at the Winnipeg Holistic Expressive Arts Therapy (WHEAT) Institute.

Art therapy involves using art to help a person express themselves and process trauma as part of treatment. The art they create is often used as a springboard for revisiting memories and telling stories to reveal the impact of their past experiences.

There are different kinds of art therapy based on various art forms; some art therapy involves the creation of visual art through drawing and painting, while others use digital art, photography, and textile-making. In the case of expressive arts therapy, however, Lavergne says therapists also draw from a variety of art forms like music, theatre, poetry, and dance as a way of engaging in a multisensory creative process.

According to Lavergne, art therapy is different from traditional counselling. She says the person seeking therapy isn’t expected to simply talk about their concerns, like they might expect from more traditional methods. Instead, art therapy allows the person to let go of their trauma by creating physical representations of it.

“Sometimes the pain or the trauma is stuck in the body,” Lavergne told The Pigeon in an interview. “It can also sit at a cellular level, so you need to be able to release that.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an example of traditional counselling that takes a practical approach to changing patterns of behavior or thinking in individuals and requires they attend regular sessions with their therapists. In these sessions, therapists guide conversations about client’s problems to help them develop strategies to tackle them.

This is different from other types of psychotherapies, such as talk psychotherapy, because sessions have a structure, rather than a session where the patient talks freely.

According to the Evidence Exchange Network (EENet), a knowledge exchange network that helps share information to build a better mental health and addictions system in Ontario, an estimated one in five people in Canada—or over 6.7 million—are affected by mental health or substance use problems. By 2041, this number could increase to a projected 8.9 million.

EENet says that CBT is most effective for the treatment of anxiety and moderate depression, and may also be helpful as part of the treatment plan for other mental health conditions including bulimia nervosa, borderline personality disorder, and substance use issues such as nicotine or cannabis dependence.

Nicola Sherwin-Roller, the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association’s regional director for Saskatchewan, told The Pigeon that art therapy is different from other forms of therapy because it allows the person seeking therapy to lead the conversation.

“I think art therapy and creative arts therapy is wonderful because it provides this place where the therapist is not the expert,” Sherwin-Roller said.“It’s very much the person who comes in and does the art [who] is the instructor and the owner. They guide the process, and their symbols and their ideas of what their work means is paramount.”

“It creates the space where people get to assert themselves.”

Expressive Arts Certificate students display their art.

Operating in Winnipeg, Man. and Saskatoon, Sask., WHEAT is the only therapeutic arts training centre in central Canada that provides diplomas and certificate programs in expressive arts and art therapy.

This month, the institute has welcomed its first cohort of students as part of the first Indigenized expressive arts therapy program in the country, which introduces participants to Anishinaabe culture, tradition, and art as a form of healing.

While expressive arts therapy engages clients in creating art to address their trauma, the Indigenized expressive arts therapy program specifically uses art and performance as a way of addressing trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples and their communities.

Fyre Jean Graveline, a Métis social worker, therapist, and knowledge keeper, is the program lead for the expressive arts therapy certificate.

She says conversations surrounding the development of the program first occurred three years ago at the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association’s 12th Biennial International Conference. Co-hosted by WHEAT, the conference’s theme was the Indigenous Roots of Expressive Arts, and it sparked a conversation about developing an art therapy mandate that is more culturally responsive.

“There were a few of us that had graduated from the standard mainstream programs that are in Canada, and we were practicing but [we felt] there needed to be so much more,” Graveline said.

“[Art therapy programs need] to be more inclusive and to incorporate cultural traditions, and to really focus on the kinds of intergenerational and collective traumas that our people are facing.”

Following the conference, Graveline and WHEAT established the Grandmother’s Advisory Council consisting of Indigenous artists, art therapists, and community members who informed and inspired the creation of the curriculum, then helped the institute create both its Indigenized art therapy diploma and the Indigenized expressive art therapy certificate program.

Graveline says the certificate program is different from the diploma because it is shorter, less intense, and the participants don’t leave as clinical expressive art therapists. Instead, the program is intended to help community members and activists, teachers, artists, and licensed art therapists gain the knowledge they need to engage in cultural art therapy. 

One of the goals of the program is to train people to provide services within their own community and with their own people, Darci Adam, the director and supervisor at WHEAT, added.

“The tradition is that people are flown [into Indigenous communities who] are not of the community or of the culture, and that’s not helpful in the way it could be with a community member offering healing services for the people of their own community,” Adam said.

“One of the things that our Indigenous teachers have said has motivated them, has been the lack of Indigenous perspective in the programs that they came through—to the point of even feeling like some of their programs were racist,” she added.

“They didn’t feel really heard or seen or respected in a field where, obviously, we want to be hearing and seeing and respecting people.”

To develop the Indigenized expressive arts therapy certificate program, Graveline and the WHEAT institute had to look into decolonizing arts therapy first.

For Graveline, decolonizing art therapy has meant using a two-pronged approach that brings Indigenous knowledge into the clinical therapy space and combines it with conventional art therapy practice.

“As Indigenous people or people of colour, when we come into western educational institutions, we’re always [asking], ‘How does this [knowledge] apply [to us]?’ and often coming up with creative ideas of how we can change it,” she says.

The conversations surrounding the decolonization of art therapy are not new, according to Girija Kaimal, an associate professor in creative art therapy and head of the Health, Arts, Learning, and Evaluation (HALE) lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She says this is because clinical therapy is itself a western invention.

“It’s a profession invented by western clinicians, western scholars, western artists,” she said.

In June 2020, Kaimal and her student Asli Arslanbek published a study on Indigenous and traditional visual artistic practices and the role they play in clinical practice and research in art therapy. One of their findings was that in Indigenous communities and cultures, art was part of the daily practice of “making,” and one did not have to be an artist to create art.

“Why do we not better understand times when art and everyday life was integrated? When it wasn’t separate—when everyone was an artist?” Kaimal asks.

Karen Pheasant-Neganigwane, an Indigenous powwow dancer from Wiikwemkoong First Nations on Manitoulin Island, ON, a faculty member at Mount Royal University and member of the WHEAT Grandmother’s Advisory Council, says that art has always been inseparable from Indigenous life, including her own.

“Since time immemorial, creative artistic expression has been an integral part of Anishinaabe culture and tradition. Whether in communication, fundamental societal protocols, or in kinship roles and responsibilities,” she wrote in an email to The Pigeon. “Case in point: I have been creating, designing and dancing since childhood. Yet, it was not until 2003, when I said, ‘I am an artist.’”

“My dance practice was a lifestyle choice, not an ‘arts’ practice,” Pheasant-Neganigwane added. “Western society has a tendency to separate our life details into compartments. Whereas, Indigenous societies historically lived arts expression as a fluid, restorative and therapeutic concept of life practices.”

Dr. Fyre Jean Graveline and Métis art therapy student Chris Larsen create an installation on the land.
Dr. Fyre Jean Graveline teaches an Expressive Arts Studio class.

Along with decolonizing art therapy, Graveline and Adam also worked on Indigenizing the certificate program. At WHEAT, the two processes go hand in hand in all the work the institute does—one cannot be achieved without the other.

For Graveline and Adam, this has meant developing a curriculum that honours ceremony, community, language, and learning from the land.

When it comes to ceremony and community, the institute has recruited elders and community members to participate in the courses as grandmothers, helpers, partners, and support teachers in the learning process by introducing participants to Indigenous traditions such as drumming, dance, language, and storytelling.

Graveline said this process is not only meant to help participants reconnect with their culture, but also to help them build relationships with each other.

“The Indigenous culture is really all about building networks and relationships and sharing and interweaving and collectively working together,” she says.

According to both Graveline and Adam, incorporating land-based learning in the curriculum has been one of the more challenging parts of developing the certificate program due to of COVID-19. At the same time, it has given participants the chance to learn from many Indigenous communities across the country.

“The value of COVID-19 is that we’re getting a lively group of people from across the country [involved], both in terms of Indigenous instructors and Indigenous students,” Graveline said.

This importance of interpersonal relationships in Indigenous communities is another key finding in Kaimal’s research.

“Indigenous practices are inherently interpersonally connected,” she said. “It’s about doing things with someone else, not necessarily sitting by yourself in your studio.”

Lavergne, who will be teaching the introductory expressive arts therapy course and a course on trauma, says that ceremony is one of the most important ways for Indigenous people to reconnect with their culture.

Lavergne was one of many Indigenous children who left their families, whether forcefully or by choice, during the Sixties Scoop, which saw upwards of 20,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children enter the child welfare system in Canada. Her mother felt she would live a better life in another home, which is why Lavergne was adopted by a French-Canadian family from Quebec.

Lavergne says she has felt the impact of the cultural genocide caused by racist practices and policies such as the Sixties Scoop very deeply, and it took her much of her twenties and thirties to reconnect with her heritage. It was when she began attending powwows and participating in sweat lodges that Lavergne says she felt closest to her culture.

“I found when I started going into ceremony and especially the sweat lodge—sometimes I’d come crawling out of there feeling like I had been in 50 therapy sessions,” she says.

In one of the classes from the Indigenized art therapy diploma this summer, students presented a fashion show inspired by their communities. Some students from the west coast represented the ocean in their fashion, while a student from Thunder Bay, Ont. represented the freshwater whitefish in their clothing.

Adam says this encouraged students to think of their land in a critical way, and allowed students to learn from each other while also learning together.

“It was very exciting to see people out on their own land,” Adam said. “We got a deeper sense of people’s homeland and what they’re living through.”

Lavergne says learning expressive arts and engaging in Indigenous culture through expressive arts therapy has helped her find spiritual connection and “return to who [Indigenous people] really are.”

“We are creators,” she says. “I learned a long time ago from an elder that when we create—the word create, creation, creator—we’re in line with the divine.”

Pheasant-Neganigwane agrees, as for her, expressive art helps Indigenous people tap into their “divine source of inspiration” and heal from the trauma they have experienced because of colonialism.

“The divine relationship that forms the fundamental relationship and framework of expressive arts is integral to the bridge building that is a necessity in today’s contemporary society,” she said. “My hope is that the connectivity, bridge building, and magical creative endeavors are recognized, created, and continue to be built upon.”

While the Indigenized expressive arts therapy certificate program is only in its first year, Graveline hopes the program will spur more Indigenous and Indigenized therapy across the country.

She says she also hopes that it will not only reconnect Indigenous people with their culture and tradition, but will also help them push for greater change.

“A primary concern of Indigenous people at this time on the earth [is] the climate crisis, so how do we take our art, and work for social change?” she said. “How can we feel better in relation to our communities, in relation to healing the rifts that are in society, on a much larger scale?”

“How can we build a global movement for […] bringing healing to the world?”

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