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For 30 years, Elder Harry Francis from the Piapot First Nation has been offering Elder and ceremonial teachings to help people living with addictions.

“I start with incorporating the modern day addictions training and then from there, including spiritual beliefs, our traditions into addictions and particularly the mental health,” said Francis.

He has been helping Indigenous youth at the Leading Thunderbird Lodge (LTL) since it first opened 13 years ago. The facility assists youth who are experiencing addictions with drugs, alcohol and solvents by offering a holistic style of treatment.

“When I walk up the stairs and come in the door and the kids come running they say, ‘Mosom!’ They give me a big hug. They call me Mosom because in ceremony I adopted them as my grandsons. The staff call me brother, uncle, relative. When someone calls your Mosom, when you’re adopted, that’s very meaningful for me because then I remember the meaning, what it mean to me with my grandfathers,” said Francis.

“(Francis) is such an awesome man. He makes this place a home. I think of him as my uncle and we share lots of teachings and the same understanding of life. He helps me strive for what LTL stands for. In that it’s culturally based for these boys to heal through their mental being,” said Vee Whitehorse, the day manager with LTL.

“Harry brings a lot to the table. On top of being an Elder and teaching the boys, he brings stories, teachings, support, counselling, structure and family. He brings so much more than I think anybody expects of him. For me he’s a big support and he’s a big listener and he’s taught me a lot in the 2 years that I have worked so I think we’re very fortunate to have his support and continued dedication and drive,” said Brittni Duesterbeck, evening team lead, LTL.

Francis was introduced to ceremony by his grandfather at an early age.

“I was born and raised on Piapot with old people. I spent a lot of time with grandmother and grandfather. My grandfather was the last of the free roaming people [before Canada became a country]. He didn’t go to school, he didn’t speak English. He told me stories about when he was out on the prairie, he was from the west and our group of people were from Nekaneet. He was the one that encouraged me to learn about ceremony and spirituality.” said Francis.

For Francis, addictions work is close to his heart. In 1996, he lost his oldest daughter to a drug overdose and lost his younger brother to alcoholism.

“The hardest thing for a person to ever experience is to see their loved one being lowered into the ground. I wish that on no one. [My daughter] changed my life around. I took addictions classes and learned about addictions. Now I try to help people. I try to help families and mothers and fathers so this doesn’t happen to them,” said Francis, holding back tears.

Francis uses many of his life experiences to help him keep going. He also shares one specific story with the youth if they’re struggling with the loss of a loved one. He explained in his own Cree language and then translated it in English.

“As my grandfather was getting very old, he said, ‘Grandson, very soon I am going home. I’m just about finished my work on Earth here. When I leave grandson, do not cry too long. I will see you within time. I’m gonna go on ahead. I will go and wait for you there. When you are done your work on Earth, when you are called.’ That story has helped me through my trauma, my grief, it has helped me mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I use that story to stabilize myself when I lost my daughter and when I lost my little brother. My belief is in time I will see them but in time I need to continue doing positive things on Earth,” said Francis.

Francis says he will continue his work so the next generation is ground with love, self-confidence and self-identity.

“I want the youth to be responsible for themselves, to be guided to become responsible citizens and productive citizens, to know who they are and to have an identity of who they are.”