Alberta Cancer Foundation

Rebuilding Trust Through the Circle

By: Travis Klemp

For many Indigenous communities, the circle is a sacred symbol representing interconnectedness. The circle holds immense importance from the medicine wheel to the sun, the moon and the lifecycle. For those going through one of the most difficult journeys of their lives, it can be a place where they feel safe to share and feel supported.

At Wellspring Calgary, experts in community-based cancer support recently reached the one-year mark of offering Indigenous sharing circles for Indigenous patients, caregivers, family members and friends living with cancer.

In January 2020, Wellspring chief operating officer Sheena Clifford, alongside her team — including Arrow Big Smoke, Indigenous Patient Navigator with Cancer Care Alberta — started the process of creating this unique and necessary approach to assisting Indigenous people experiencing cancer. After nearly a year of consultation and collaborative efforts between Big Smoke, Wellspring’s teams in Calgary and Edmonton and Indigenous Elders, the circles began. Clifford says there was immediate interest and support.

Clifford shares how, when Big Smoke came to Wellspring Calgary to offer the sharing circle idea, it was something they knew was needed.

“We knew Indigenous people in Alberta living with cancer have additional challenges to accessing support, including systemic racism,” says Clifford. “When she [Big Smoke] came to us, she shared that people were searching for something like this to connect them with other Indigenous people on similar journeys.”

The Indigenous sharing circle is not only for patients or those diagnosed with cancer, but also for caregivers, family members, friends and others who have a connection to someone impacted by the disease.

On the first Monday of each month, patients and loved ones meet for an hour and a half virtually or over the phone with others ready to share, listen and support their Indigenous brothers and sisters.

While virtual meetings may be a sign of the times, they will likely be here to stay for the Indigenous sharing circle program. Clifford says there are significant barriers for Indigenous people in rural communities and cancer patients in general when it comes to travelling. The current virtual setup allows people to participate from anywhere across the province.

Wellspring works with two Cree Elders and one Blackfoot Elder, who lead the circle and begin each session with a prayer, a blessing or sometimes a song. It allows participants to connect with their culture and feel supported with teachings they grew up with or feel disconnected from.

“For some patients, they did not have the opportunity to live with their culture or language or connect in this way throughout their life,” says Clifford. “And now, they are living with cancer, and many people are feeling like they really want to feel that connection to their culture.”

For Bob Phillips, a 69-year-old Métis diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2019, the sharing circle has given him a chance to connect with the trio of Elders and other Indigenous people in general.

“I remember clearly noticing that I was the only Indigenous person in the room when I was getting treatment or participating in other support programs, and it was isolating,” says Phillips. “Cancer is something that can be isolating on its own, but when you don’t see any of your own people, it is difficult.”

Phillips says he has certainly experienced racism in and outside of the health-care system, but the sharing circle has created a safe space where, rather than feeling isolated by his indigeneity, he can celebrate it.

“This is the type of atmosphere that is critical to sharing because Creator is involved in the ceremony,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for the Elders and the other Indigenous people openly sharing their stories because we know not a word will be shared outside of the circle. We are completely safe and supported by each other and Wellspring Calgary.”

The sharing circles also support family members who may be experiencing significant stress.

“We owe it to our families and ourselves, the people who love us, to look after ourselves,” says Phillips.

Both Phillips and Clifford say programs such as the Indigenous sharing circle are important steps toward building trust between Indigenous communities and the health-care system. The circle is also a step toward meaningful and lasting reconciliation.

Phillips has spent three decades working in Indigenous relations in multiple industries and government and says these are the types of programs that allow Indigenous people to be heard and supported in a meaningful capacity.

Gillman Cardinal is a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation in northern Alberta and is one of the three Elders leading the circles alongside Casey Eagle Speaker and Ernie Poundmaker. Cardinal says it is a unique and sacred experience to share with participants — one that is equally as important to him.

“I’ve worked closely with families struggling with multiple issues, health and otherwise, in the past, but not directly with cancer patients,” says Cardinal. “So, this is a sacred and emotional experience because I have family and friends who have been on that same path.”

Cardinal also echoes Phillips in that patients do not always have many opportunities to share their feelings about recovery or diagnosis with Elders and other Indigenous people.

“When this was created, and I was asked to be a part of it, I was so happy to help because I know a lot of people have never had this opportunity,” says Cardinal. “It is one of the most honourable and respectful circles I have ever been a part of. The circle is healing; it always has been and always will be.”

“The circle is healing; it always has been and always will be.”

—Gillman Cardinal