Watching the flames dance into the nighttime sky with beating hand drums to fill the silence, Cheynna Gardner says she finds healing.
She’s spent every night around the sacred fire for the last several weeks.
Sometimes, Gardner is surrounded by friends and family and laughter fills the air. Other times, she’s the only one feeding the fire.
But Gardner says she’s never alone.
The portraits of two young, smiling Anishinaabeg — Kyle Gardner, her cousin, and Stephanie Keeash — sit on red lawn chairs.
She lit the fire for them, and for other survivors of sexual violence in her home community of Migisi Sahgaigan, a First Nation with roughly 370 members living on reserve on the rocky shores of Eagle Lake about 25 kilometres west of Dryden, Ont.
“We are losing people because of hidden abuse, unaddressed hidden abuse, and it’s our responsibility as a community to address that,” she said.
Gardner said the flames won’t be extinguished until the community comes together to acknowledge the crisis of sexual violence and begin the process of healing from intergenerational traumas.
“I know that it’s going to take a long time and it’s going to be painful. But it needs to be done — I don’t want to worry about my kids.”
After many weeks, there’s hope that a path to healing is on the horizon.
Children ‘are our responsibility’
It was not just the deaths of Gardner and Keeash that prompted Cheynna to light the sacred fire.
“There was something special about the both of them. They brought so much light and love.”
Gardner and Keeash died months apart in 2020, and Cheynna said sexual abuse played a major role in their deaths.
“I’ve watched what sexual violence can do to somebody; how it destroys their spirit and ultimately leads to death.”
Gardner worries other young people in her home community could be headed down the same path if action isn’t taken immediately.
“I have such a deep-rooted fear that some of them might not live to see 30 or 40 years old.”
Before taking a leave of absence from her job as the youth and recreation worker for Migisi Sahgaigan in December, Gardner said, she was receiving crisis calls from young people in the community every second night struggling with addiction and suicidal ideation.
“I knew I needed to do something bigger to bring awareness,” she said. “Then we started the fire.”
Gardner said sitting around the fire with others has helped with her healing journey and gives her the strength to continue bringing light to the issue.
Community urged to forge path to healing
An elder from Migisi Sahgaigan links the sexual and lateral violence on the First Nation to the adoption of the patriarchal power system of European society forced on the Anishinaabe through residential schools, the welfare system and laws that restricted every aspect of life.
“The sexual abuse is probably the result of our people being oppressed and being colonized, and then addictions play a factor as well,” said Marlene Landon.
But she agrees with Cheynna: It’s time to address the problem.
“I think people get nervous. I think they get scared. I think they get angry because someone is talking about something that’s a taboo, you know, you’re not supposed to open your mouth. You’ve been trained to look the other way.
“It can’t be swept under the rug anymore,” she added. “We’ve got to heal from this trauma,” said Landon.
It’s fear that suppresses any discussion about sexual violence.– Carol Hopkins, executive director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation
Carol Hopkins of the Lenape Nation at Moraviantown, Ont., has spent years working on that question: How can First Nations across the country begin to heal from sexual violence?
The executive director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, a non-profit working with First Nations to address substance use and addictions, said it’s important to understand the issue from a perspective of colonization.
“To report the issue would mean that children go to child welfare and adults go to jail. It’s fear that suppresses any discussion about sexual abuse.”
She added, “When we get into the conversation of penalizing, and punishing and criminalizing people for the intergenerational trauma, then we are participating based on a narrow lens of our own individual experience, and of course, the intense amount of pain, anger, frustration and blame and shame that comes along with that.”
But First Nations have never been provided the resources — whether it be funding, education or human resources — they need to address and heal from the traumas of colonization and related sexual violence, said Hopkins.
“And when we try to address it, based on the resources that we did have — our culture — that too was shut down, so it left us locked in our trauma.”
Hopkins said people in Migisi Sahgaigan may be resistant to opening the conversation about sexual violence.
“It’s the fear that the discussion will create negative attention, and oppression and further stereotype, and cause discrimination and racism,” she said.
“I think it has potential to do the opposite.”
A wave of support rises
Cheynna said the journey to force a spotlight on the issue of sexual violence in Migisi Sahgaigan has been a long one.
Her social media have been flooded with love and support from Indigenous people across North America.
But at her lowest, she said, she’s faced backlash from community members. The conversation felt like it wasn’t gaining any traction, and she was exhausted.
It was at that exact moment that things started to change.
One month after she first lit the sacred fire, Cheynna was invited to a meeting initiated by the Migisi Sahgaigan chief and council.
In an interview with CBC about the sacred fire, Coun. Lloyd Napish said: “It’s been a very dormant and longstanding issue, and I don’t know if it’s ever been given its proper due.”
But the advocacy work by Cheynna and her group created a community-wide conversation that could not be ignored, said Napish.
The meeting lasted more than six hours, and had representatives from Treaty 3 Police Services, Dryden Mental Health Services, Kenora Chiefs Advisory (KCA), as well as staff and elders from Migisi Sahgaigan.
Napish said the meeting was a vital first step in creating a path toward community healing in a good way.
“It’s going to be hard work, but I think leadership and all levels of our staff and the community is ready to tackle this thing for the betterment of Eagle Lake.”
The councillor added they are developing a plan with the support of health agencies in the region that will include counselling for survivors and perpetrators, healing circles, workshops and better education about healthy relationships.
‘Good things happening’
Cheynna said the meeting was a huge step in the right direction.
“There’s good things happening,” she added. “But you can’t just have one meeting and then put it on the back burner. I don’t feel like a lot of our young people have that much time.”
Gardner said the sacred fire will continue to burn.
“It’s important to keep it going; that’s putting pressure on the community and the leadership to keep the momentum going.”