Rooted restoration: Helping survivors of domestic violence heal through cultural rediscovery

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Profile by Stacy Cardigan Smith (Creative Communications, 2006)

Imagine: you’ve escaped domestic violence and are trying to heal, but starting the process is tough since you don’t know who you are.

It’s a situation counsellor Allison Spak sees every day, and one she’s helping to rectify as a cultural therapy coordinator.

“[I’m] helping women move along in their journey to live healthier lives,” says Spak, who graduated from Red River College’s Applied Counselling program in April, and now works at Wahbung Abinoonjiiag Inc., a domestic violence centre for children and families. The North End facility provides opportunities for holistic healing using culturally appropriate teachings.

“It’s working with Aboriginal women that have lost their culture, [who don’t know] who they are,” Spak explains. “Dealing with the effects of colonization, if you don’t know who you are culturally, these women are kind of lost. So it’s getting them back to their roots, to knowing who they are, to help them on their healing journey. These women want to know who they are.”

In order to help women rediscover their roots, Wahbung uses the traditional knowledge of Aboriginal ancestors, including the Medicine Wheel and the Seven Sacred Teachings.

“There’s the cultural side that the women learn from – giving back to their culture and learning who they are. And then there’s the therapy side, where we give them the tools [to deal with] what’s happened in their lives.”

Spak, who is of Aboriginal descent, contributes the therapy support and works side-by-side with an elder who oversees the cultural teachings. Working closely with an elder has changed the way Spak sees the world.

“[Life] took on a completely different meaning,” she says. “It’s all about connecting your mind to your heart and every day learning that, expressing that. [Having] humility and respect.”

Despite the tragic and upsetting situations that bring women to Wahbung, Spak finds joy in her work.

“There are moments when it’s hard, but there’s a lot of resilience in these women that makes it great – seeing them move forward a little bit every day.”

Spak, 35, long knew she wanted to work as a counsellor, but getting there was a journey unto itself.

“There are things I’ve gone through in my life and I knew I wanted to [be a counsellor], but I wasn’t quite ready yet… but I knew over time and [after] growing up a little bit, I was ready.”

Before joining the team at Wahbung, Spak volunteered at the North End Women’s Centre, where she quickly became program co-facilitator. This time also served as her volunteer requirement to enter the Applied Counselling program through RRC’s School of Continuing Education.

Spak describes the program as “life changing.”

“The biggest thing I took from the course was that there is more than just the one story that we see on the surface of everyone, there is a bigger picture underneath. When we can begin to remove judgments, we can also begin to gain an understanding of something bigger that is going on.”

“We don’t just wake up one day and decide to make poor decisions or live an unhealthy life. Once we can become aware of what is happening, we can begin to take small steps towards living a healthier life.”

Her favourite class at RRC was Aboriginal Counselling, partly because of the instructor and the way the class was structured.

“[The instructor] came in and there wasn’t a textbook. It was pretty much just teachings, getting the knowledge of the history and getting an understanding of what’s happened and getting rid of those judgments that are placed on us. [It’s] the true story of what’s actually happening.”

The program gave her the ability to re-evaluate what is really important.

“We make things so complicated in life, and [the course] just kinda brought it down: we should be thinking in a more simple way. It was weird because we had to retrain ourselves.”

When asked whether everyone should take a counselling course, she replies with an emphatic, “Yes!”

“I can say honestly every class was great. I had light bulb moments all throughout the course.”

For more information about Wahbung Abinoonjiiag, click here.

For more information about RRC’s Applied Counselling program, click here.