The day after the Nov. 5 grand opening of a 26-foot tipi in Rita Fenton’s backyard in Fort William First Nation, a family of eight showed up to her door looking to have a sacred fire for family members who had recently passed.
“There’s wood there, there’s chairs inside,” she told them. “Just have the fire and stay as long as you want.”
The tipi is the latest addition to Ms. Fenton’s house located south of Thunder Bay, which the elder calls The Healing Place – and which is a literal dream come true. She described it in her dream journal 10 years ago.
“It says, ‘I’m living in this big house, a lot of people are coming to it and it’s called The Healing Place,’” she said from her home, which sits below the majestic Anemki Wajiw – the Anishinaabe name for Mount McKay.
When she bought the house in 2019, Ms. Fenton said it was run down with holes punched in the walls. She spent months cleaning it up.
“I turned it into a healing place,” she said, describing how she replaced one of the bedroom’s windows with a sliding door that opens to a deck overlooking Anemki Wajiw’s peak.
“It’s very sacred and it’s powerful, and it’s strong because it’s rock – the grandfather and our ancestors,” she said. “There’s many teachings and many stories about Anemki Wajiw, and to have it in my backyard, it’s just like, I’m blessed. Creator brought me here.” In that room, for the last three years she has run her private counselling practice, after she relocated from downtown Thunder Bay.
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Ms. Fenton ordered The Healing Place’s new tipi from the United States and its $10,000 price tag was paid for through donations. Her nephew Doug Little painted it with images of an eagle, a turtle, a man and a woman wearing a rainbow ribbon skirt.
Ms. Fenton hopes The Healing Place will be permanent and accessible at all times. She’s working on getting a website up to book use of the tipi, and secure funds to keep the fire going and offer more traditional teachings with elders and other knowledge keepers.
In the meantime, she plans to use it for the full moon ceremonies she’s hosted for the last twenty years. Instead of cramming up to 30 women into her living room, they will gather around the orange glow of the fire that lights the tipi under the night sky.
With a master’s degree in social work – earned in 2017 when she was 69 years old – and as a survivor of Indian Day School, in her counselling Ms. Fenton provides mental health support for survivors of residential schools, as well as those suffering from trauma, grief and loss. She travelled to Edmonton this past summer to support residential school survivors during the Papal visit.
“It’s always been a part of my life because I watched my parents – how they were always helping people,” she said.
Ms. Fenton said her own journey of health and wellness began after hitting rock bottom as a young mother with addictions. Finding strength in her Anishnaabe spirit name, Eagle Woman, she started to learn about her own history and how to follow the traditional role of living a good life, called “the red road” in her culture. Going back to university as a mature student also opened doors.
“A lot of uncovering of my mind, decolonizing my mind from Christianity, from colonization,” she said. “Learning about our history to a deeper level, and looking at and seeing how resilient my ancestors were and how strong they were … and the stuff that they must have gone through and lived through. It was a lot of healing, inner healing.”
With the rise in addictions, mental health crises and family violence during the pandemic, Ms. Fenton believes it’s more important than ever to have support systems in place for those affected.
The rates of accidental opioid overdoses in Northern Ontario over the last few years were almost three times higher than Southern regions of the province, according to a report co-authored by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, ICES, the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario, and Public Health Ontario.
Another report, released in November by the Chiefs of Ontario and the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, found the illicit overdose death rate for Indigenous people doubled during the first year of the pandemic. There were 116 Indigenous opioid poisoning deaths between March, 2020, and March, 2021, a 132 per cent increase from the previous year, while the rest of Ontario’s population saw a 68 per cent increase.
While there are other tipis in the city, they’re often not easily accessible or are only available at limited times, Ms. Fenton said. She hopes that hers can be a place of healing for all those who could use help.
“I saw the need a long time ago,” she said, “the need for people to have a place to come to just sit if they want to sit in there and just be.”