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Sweating it out: Inside an Aboriginal recovery home in Surrey

Cwenengitel Aboriginal Society’s facility helps heal through sweat lodges and cultural traditions
Tom Oleman in front of the men’s lodge at the Cwenengitel Aboriginal Society’s support home for men in Whalley. (Photo: Amy Reid)

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I pulled up to the Aboriginal recovery home in Whalley on a hot Friday night.

I was there to take part in a backyard sweat lodge, just one of many cultural traditions used to help heal the men who come through its doors.

Other than that, all I knew about the culturally-based treatment facility was that many of their intakes are gang members.

At the Cwenengitel Aboriginal Society (CAS) facility they offer counselling, life-skills training but also traditional healing to the residents of the home, and they welcome the community to join their rituals as well.

Tree and timber rested upon the grass on the front lawn as the sun shined down, and I could already smell smoke from wood chips that, it turns out, had been burning for the better part of the day in preparation for the ceremonious sweats that were to take place that night.

I was greeted by lodge keeper Rick Trevena, who gave me a tour of the recovery home before the sweat began.

The first stop was the craft room. “There’s an eagle in here,” he showed me. “These are elk hides for doing drums.”

Trevena explained they teach leather-working, drum-making and carving as part of the recovery program.

Walking through another door we entered the “Spirit Room.”

“There’s a big drum here and every Thursday night we have a talking circle,” said Trevena. “So everybody sits down here and we pass around a talking stick and everybody gets out the stuff that they want. It’s open to the community. It’s kind of like what you’d see at a 12-step program, except it’s an Aboriginal way of dealing with things. We’ll sit at the drums for about half an hour and sing songs.”

The Dry Dog Society was set up for those who attend the sessions and stay sober.

Throughout the house was more hide – deer and buffalo to be specific.

“There’s enough to make probably 36 moccasins, two or three war shirts and a couple of native dresses,” said Trevena. “We also take apart eagles.”

The sweat lodges are just part of the treatment offered in the home. CAS has operated an Aboriginal culturally-based treatment program for 23 years and usually have about 10 men in the Whalley facility.

As far as Trevena knows, it is one of only two places in the Lower Mainland that do strictly culturally-based treatment, and the only one in Surrey.

Sadly, First Nations people in B.C. are three times more likely to die of overdose, according to provincial data released earlier this month.

SEE MORE: First Nations people in B.C. three times more likely to die of overdose

According to the report, First Nations people made up about 10 per cent of the overdose deaths between January 2015 and July 31, 2016, or roughly 60 people.

While 3.4 per cent of B.C.’s population is status First Nations people, the proportion of those overdosing – with some resulting in death – was about 14 per cent, or 1,903 overdoses.

Addiction is what the Cwenengitel society hopes to combat through cultural traditions and connection to the Earth. But healing is tough for most they help, as many of the men are deeply institutionalized, Trevena explained.

“I think we have one or two federals and lots of pretrials,” he said. “The federal releases, it’s usually pretty difficult to get them out of the mindset of being in jail because they’ve been in for a long time. Other times it’s very difficult to try and get them to participate in the community. Because where they come from it’s a sign of weakness.”

At CAS, Trevena said they focus on education and overcoming social issues.

“Abandonment issues, anger management, lack of strength, no ‘No’ button. A lot of them are in here because they’ve breached off of and breached off of and breached off of,” he said. “If they can last a week, then I give them six weeks. If they last six weeks, then it’s up to two years they can stay here, depending on what they’re doing. If they’re going through university, we let them stay here. We’ve helped people get their masters, get into journeyman programs, we’ve sent people up to work on hydro lines just to get them away.”

Trevena said the dream is to grow the operation – and grow big. “We want to grow it from 10 beds to 100. So that’s 50 women, 50 men.”

After Trevena’s tour of the home, I sat at a modest table on a second-storey deck overlooking the lodges, before the ceremony began, and met the man behind the operation.

The elder – and executive director of Cwenengitel Aboriginal Society, which runs the house and the sweat lodges – is modest, too.

“We’re not here to hurt you. Maybe to make you suffer a little bit,” said Tom Oleman (pictured above) with a grin.

Below us, people gathered – some members of the home, some residents of the community who decided to join for their own reasons.

The mingling of ethnicities, ages and walks of life was fascinating.

A middle-aged white woman who enjoys gardening. A former gang member who has overcome addiction. A South Asian woman who said she wanted to explore new cultures. David Dalley, who co-founded the Surrey Interfaith council. A young woman who was new to Surrey but wanted to continue her sweat lodge practices.

Oleman tells me he’s been doing lodges for about 25 years.

“It’s not that long really,” he mused. “But I do a lot of lodges.”

He began doing sweats after years of “bad living,” Oleman explained.

With his teacher, he built a sweat lodge in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. After it proved difficult to find people to “pour” the lodges, he decided to learn himself.

“After a year, people started to come,” he said. “I never really had a big gathering. Seven to 28 people. I’m not a medicine man. I’m not a healer. I’m not a sun dancer. I’m not native American church. I’m just a man who prays a lot and I carry a pipe.”

So, what exactly is a sweat lodge and what do people experience?

“We describe, generally, the lodges being the womb of our mother. Mother Earth, eh,” Oleman said. “So when you go into the lodge, you’re going into kind of a rebirth. You’re going in for purification. You’re going in to ask for things. You’re going in to send things out to people you love. You’re going in to see if there’s anything outside of your reality, eh. For some people, when they do see those things outside their reality they get frightened. It comes from you, eh.

“People that are afraid, people that are being stubborn, people that are not willing to look at themselves have a really hard time,” added Oleman. “They won’t sweat, they get very uncomfortable, they burn up, eh. They want to get out of there. You might see lights in there. You might see colour. You might hear things. It’s part of the experience. Or you might see nothing at all. The only thing I ask people not to do is to send harm to someone else.”

The time had come to sweat.

There are two dome-shaped sweat lodges in the backyard, which couldn’t have been much more that four feet tall. One for men, one for women.

Blankets, tarps, wood and branches come together to make an enclosure that’s pitch black when sealed.

Before we can enter, we must go through a smudging cleansing, which involves the burning a bundle of dried herbs or branches. It’s said the ancient purification ceremony cleanses the soul of negativity.

So one by one, we approached Trevana, who used the smoke from the burning smudge stick to cleanse us.

Then it was time to enter the lodge.

We sat in a circle, our backs nearly touching the lodge’s interior walls. Side by side, we sat and waited for the rocks to enter. The rocks have been heating for hours inside a massive “fire furnace,” which is a more than six-foot-tall black structure.

Inside the lodge, a hole in the ground serves as a gathering place for these red-hot stones, or “grandfathers” and “grandmothers” as they’re referred to by the woman leading our women’s lodge, sun dancer Laverne Paul.

One by one, the stones were brought in on what resembled a pitch fork, their red glow all that is visible in the pitch-black tent.

As each rock entered, one of us was tasked with sprinkling herbs on the rocks, which immediately glitter and emit an aroma.

Water was poured over the stones, emitting heat, which is almost immediately overwhelming.

The temperature rises with each hot stone brought in, gradually, throughout the several-hour sweat lodge.

They say the experience is different for everyone.

Surely, it is. For me?

It was, in a word, cleansing.

For those three hours, my mind let go of the worries that often plague my mind.

I wasn’t worrying about the troubles at work I faced that day, or my to-do list for the next. My stresses in life seemed to fade away and be gone from my mind.

An amazing feeling, if only for a brief period.

But it was also revealing.

During the lodge, our “pourer” would sing traditional songs and tell us stories, but she would also ask questions and, one by one, we would go around the circle and reveal our innermost worries, thoughts, hopes and dreams to this group of strangers.

At first, it felt uncomfortable.

“Who do you wish to pray for?” our pourer asked.

Like me, others spoke of grief and loss, as well. And society’s struggles. The environment.

But somehow, revealing those worries, and exploring them, didn’t bring with it the anxiety it would outside the walls of that tent. It was a release.

Tears were shed. By many.

At times the heat would become almost unbearable. And as someone who has no problem doing Bikram Yoga (for those of you who don’t know, that’s 90 minutes of yoga in a sauna), this was so far beyond that intensity that it’s hard to describe.

But the songs, and drumming, and releasing of worries would bring me back.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat.

It was an unforgettable experience, to be sure. But most unforgettable was an exchange with Oleman during our 40-minute interview prior to the sweat.

He caught me off guard when he turned me, the interviewer, into interviewee.

“What is truth to you?”

At first I thought it was rhetorical. But he asked again.

“Everybody has a different answer,” he continued.

After a moment, something just spilled out: “Truth is my experience of the world and my experience myself.”

“That’s perfect, that’s perfect,” he replied, smiling. “A lot of people don’t understand that, eh. That your truth is your past. Everything that happened before we walked in the door is your truth.

“If you have a negative experience, if you’ve not been taught how to deal with abandonment, how to deal with grief, how to deal with loss, how to deal with losing someone’s respect, then you crash, eh. We try to teach people how to survive in a good way. The four goals of this place are to be free of substance, to be socially acceptable in a larger world, to have the means to start to be financially independent and to be accepting of themselves. That would be the perfect person walking out the door.”

A public sweat is planned for the fall on a first-come first-serve basis. For more information, email

Tom Oleman in front of the men’s lodge at the Cwenengitel Aboriginal Society’s support home for men in Whalley. (Photo: Amy Reid)