If you are in distress, you can call or text 988 at any time. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.

The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Are you having a lightbulb moment?

The SPARK Knowledge Translation Program charts a path for those with an idea to improve research and practice around mental health, substance use, or addiction. A look at the Grand Council Treaty #3 project, which serves as a mental health life-raft for 28 communities.

In the early days of COVID-19, Darlene Curci was taking note of the challenges in Kenora, Fort Frances, and Dryden. She is the Indigenous systems coordinator for Grand Council Treaty #3, which comprises 28 First Nation communities across 142,000+ square kilometres in northwest Ontario and southeast Manitoba.

“A lot of things were happening on the ground while we were going through lockdown,” she recalled. “Our health team was being deployed to help our communities through COVID by providing resources.”

As she worked, Curci was able to observe the evolving needs and challenges of coping with the pandemic. “Some of the communities are isolated and have few resources, which must then be shared across a large geographical area,” she said. “We don’t have specialized resources to address mental health or addiction issues. Psychiatrists have to fly in from Toronto, or else people must go to Winnipeg for specialized services.”

While those services may be rooted in a clinical practice, Treaty #3 communities have land-based, traditional, or combined approaches that include Western models of health and wellness. As Curci was looking for a way to bridge these approaches for Treaty #3 communities, she saw a social media posting about the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s SPARK program. After seeing how SPARK works to ensure success, she applied to the program — which includes 16 hours of workshop time and a one-year followup mentorship — to turn that idea into action.

Connecting the dots
SPARK’s Knowledge Translation Program seeks to provide the tools and resources needed to close the gap between what we know and what we do in the mental health and substance use fields. It gives people who have the germ of an idea — the spark — the means to foster positive change in their communities. As studies show, that process normally takes several years. But the SPARK Innovation to Implementation (I2I) framework can dramatically reduce that time.

Recent graduates (or SPARKies) include the Writers Collective of Canada, a charity that creates workshops for those under-represented in society. They partnered with Veterans’ organizations to offer expressive writing workshops as a non-clinical health intervention. Another charitable organization called Body Brave also worked with SPARK to help address service gaps for people seeking support for disordered eating.

The SPARK program asks applicants to focus on a problem they’d like to address and provides coaching and mentorship to participants across the seven I2I steps:

  1. State the purpose
  2. Select an innovation
  3. Specify actors and actions
  4. Identify agents of change
  5. Design the knowledge translation plan
  6. Implement
  7. Evaluate

For Curci, “the exercise provides a rigour that focuses the mind while also balancing the need to be agile and adaptable in working with different communities, specialties, levels of expertise, and ways of communicating. When I was going through the application process, I had to write out my intention, and that helped me focus on where I wanted to go with my idea.”

Over the course of the program, she developed the key output — The Grand Council Treaty #3 Mental Health Survival Guide Toolkit — which now serves as a “mental health life-raft” for all of its First Nation communities.

“It was a challenge to bring great value to the community by analyzing a large volume of information and conveying it in such a way that it would be useful to them,” she said. “But in the end, that process helped me reconnect with people in a less intrusive and more engaging way.”

Spark session

A SPARK planning session from February 2020.

The 50-page booklet includes practical advice on how to respond while in crisis, guidelines for engaging with Elders, practical hang-on-the-fridge lists with key phone numbers, colouring pages, worksheets to assist with stressful times, and tips for interacting with people based on where they’re at. For example, a section for teens and youth discusses boundaries, pointers on creative expression as a form of wellness, and red-light/green-light examples of healthy relationships.

The booklet is based on Ga-nan-da-wis (good health), a therapeutic concept rooted in traditional and cultural healing approaches to achieve emotional and mental balance, culturally and spiritually. Also included are mental health tips for parents, activity suggestions for Elders — like taking a walk or having a sweat with people in your bubble — and those contending with the cumulative and collective effects of historical (or intergenerational) trauma. Substance use, addiction, family violence, and suicide prevention are all addressed, along with isolation, loneliness, and finding balance when using technology.

Curci’s project is rooted in the Minobimaadziwin strategy (cited below) developed by Treaty #3 organizations, Elders, and community members, and was launched as a guiding framework in December 2019. Its 13 values are a throughline connecting Indigenous knowledge, wellness, and current realities related to COVID-19.

Grand Council Treaty #3 Minobimaadziwin Strategy

  1. Unified approach
  2. Engage Elders
  3. Promote cultural way of life
  4. Support Anishinaabemowin as healing mechanism
  5. Partnership and network development
  6. Address root causes of mental health
  7. Build community capacity
  8. Education and prevention centered
  9. Treaty #3-specific tools and training — Promote education and awareness on COVID-19 prevention practices
  10. Culturally safe services
  11. Healing rooted in traditional knowledge and practice-land based approach
  12. Respect treaty rights and relationships
  13. Every door is the right door

These guiding principles are informed by Treaty #3 traditions. “We are very strong and focused in our traditional ways,” Curci said. “We have developed our own child-care law, health law, and natural resource law — Manito Aki Inakonigaawin — it is the framework for how we do business.”

Her survival guide toolkit was launched during Mental Health Week in May 2021. After all 28 communities received an initial box of booklets, an increasing demand led to a subsequent reprint of 2,000 more copies. People see great value in what it offers, often using different resources for their specific needs. They tear out pages to post near their desks or take photos of the contents that help them most in challenging times.

“In a moment of distress, when things seem impossible, it’s a way to check in on yourself,” Curci said. In addition to being the creator of the booklet — she uses the tools herself. “I find it relaxing,” she said, referring to the colouring pages, along with activities like 10 Minutes to Reflect on Your Day (to build self-esteem) and the My Moods exercise.

Social workers also appreciate the quick tips to help guide people through thoughts of suicide by discussing risk and protective factors and providing counselling helplines, in addition to traditional guidance on grief and loss. The booklet’s foreword from the Grand Chief notes that “everyone’s mental health needs are different.” Rather than put forward well-intentioned platitudes or oversimplifications, his message focuses on the importance of asking for help when it is needed, “because there is always hope for new and better day.”

Learn more about Grand Council Treaty #3.


Fateema Sayani is the manager of communications at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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