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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Charting the Future of Native Mental Health in Canada

The NMHAC’s Ten-Year Strategic Plan

M. Terry Adler

Reprinted from the "Aboriginal People" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 5 (1), pp. 7-9

“The strategic plan of the Native Mental Health Association of Canada (NMHAC) is a first in the history of Canada. It is a vision, mission and long-term plan to promote and enhance native mental health in Canada based on Indigenous worldview, a unique perspective that differs significantly from Western conceptions of mental illness and mental health.”1

So begins the document that outlines a plan for realizing the vision of the NMHAC. That vision is “a Canada where First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and communities embrace physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health and wellness, maintain their diverse cultural and traditional values and beliefs, and share the same social justice and economic opportunities as all other Canadians.”1

The road to the strategic plan

The Native Mental Health Association of Canada grew out of the Canadian Psychiatric Association Section on Native Mental Health, formed in 1975. Canada’s first Indigenous psychiatrist, the late Dr. Clare Brant, established the NMHAC in 1990. 2 The association is a key contributor to the work of the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the First Nations Inuit Health Branch (FNIHB) of Health Canada, on behalf of Indigenous Canadians.

From the beginning, the board recognized there was a need for a national plan to address the mental health and wellness needs of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people. They knew that most people working in the field were crisis oriented, with little energy or resources to do more.

The board did not have the funding necessary to do strategic planning until 2005. That year, FNIHB provided the NMHAC with funding to develop a 10-year national action plan.

A collaborative process began. Meetings were held in Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver and Duncan on Vancouver Island over a period of two years. “Thought leaders,” mainly of Aboriginal background and familiar with the realities of First Nations life, were brought together to come up with guiding values, working principles aligned with these values, core goals and strategies for meeting these goals. The action plan was finalized in April 2008.

The plan’s guiding values

The foundation of the plan consists of value statements that serve as guiding principles for the actions of board members and other parties with an interest in the mental health of Aboriginal people and communities. These stated values provide a baseline against which the value of new projects and initiatives is measured. They help clarify and resolve issues, determine direction and build community. They include:

  • Respect: The inherent worth of all people is implicit in all the work done by the NMHAC.

  • Honouring and including: Inclusiveness and diversity are honoured, and the NHMAC is open to contributions from all those dedicated to health and wellness.

  • Sharing and caring: The NMHAC is committed to creating environments where caring and sharing occur.

  • Connectedness: NMHAC believes in the connectedness of all people to each other and to spirit, the land and its resources.

  • The Circle of Life: NMHAC values people of all ages, the ceremonies that celebrate people as they move from one stage of life to another, and the spirits of our ancestors.

  • Cultural safety: In a health care relationship, cultural safety begins with the practitioner. The practitioner must recognize structural inequities and power imbalances, and understand and challenge their role. Cultural safety includes openness to participating in cultures other than the one we are born into. It also includes owning our inherited cultural history and biases, and being aware of how these influence our beliefs, perceptions and actions. This increases our ability to relate to other people as whole human beings.

  • Literacy: Literacy is about communicating, interpreting and translating messages; relationship building; transfer of knowledge; and awareness. Inherent in this is mental health literacy.

  • Personal and community empowerment: Empowerment comes from a secure sense of personal and cultural identity, and is central to healing. The NMHAC supports all processes, practices and tools of knowledge that assist people and communities to build on their own knowledge and strengths to empower themselves.

  • Walking with grandmothers and grandfathers: The NMHAC values the experience and wisdom of Elders and their vital role in transmitting culture.

  • Collaboration: People demonstrate collaboration when they agree on a mutually important project and work together cooperatively for its realization.

  • Valuing the knowledge of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis cultures: NMHAC values the knowledge, values and practices of Indigenous peoples within Canada and around the world. As we put values into practice, we model culturally good ways; we walk the talk.

  • Youth: NMHA is committed to improving its understanding of child and youth realities and to creating a safe environment for youth to become active members of the Association.

The strategic initiatives

NMHAC has committed to 10 goals or initiatives for enhancing the mental health of Indigenous people in Canada. These goals are interconnected and all are equally important (see graph1 below).

The board provides leadership and lobbies for initiatives that contribute to community, family and individual wellness; it does not provide services directly. Three such initiatives are:

  • to develop a national action plan for youth suicide prevention

  • to develop a strategy for youth participation

  • to champion a centre that promotes family restoration and community development

These goals represent a holistic approach that honours core Indigenous values of family, community and self-determination. These core values are conveyed through customs, rituals and ceremonies, which bring people together to enjoy the relational nature of life in the community. They also help community members connect with the teachings of their ancestors.

The outcome of such practices is a community of care—a way of life that was undermined by the effects of an oppressive colonial history and by discrimination that continues to disadvantage Aboriginal people.

The Strategic Plan in practice

The strategic plan serves a variety of functions. It guides decision making about education and training conferences. It helps the NMHAC determine priority activities such as the Symposium on Stigma held in Ottawa October 3 to 4, 2007, which was made possible through collaboration between the Mood Disorders Society of Canada and the NMHAC, with funding by FNIHB.

The plan guides decision making regarding staff, volunteers and future research. It provides information about the NMHAC, and a useful model for other organizations engaged in values-based strategic planning. The NMHAC actively seeks partnerships to build better mental health in Canada for Indigenous people and all Canadians.

Toward reconciliation

For transformative change to take place, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people must grieve and heal from losses they have suffered historically. The relationship between Aboriginal people and other Canadians must be repaired and reconciled.

Canadians who wish to be part of the process of reconciliation can do so by:

  • familiarizing themselves with Canadian history from an Aboriginal perspective

  • familiarizing themselves with the publications of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the initiatives of the Mental Health Commission of Canada

  • attending forums and conferences that address issues of importance to Aboriginal people

Print copies of the strategic plan are available from the NMHAC, [email protected], or at the NMHAC website,

“Mental health is a sign of balance, harmony and connectedness among the interior aspects of the human person (spirit, mind and body) and the world he or she lives in. It is a characteristic of families and communities, as well as individual human beings.”1

About the author
Terry is an adult educator, social worker and art therapist, who has taught and learned from Aboriginal people for 25 years, through Capilano University and the Salishan Institute. She has been a member of, and volunteer for, the National Mental Health Association of Canada since 1990
  1. Native Mental Health Association of Canada. (2008). Charting the future of Native mental health in Canada: Ten-year strategic plan 2007–2017. Chilliwack, BC: author.

  2., “About Us.”


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