Berma Bushie of the Community Holistic Circle Healing project in Hollow Water, Manitoba, describes the use of healing circles as a response to sexual abuse in an Aboriginal community.


The area of Manitoba in which Hollow Water is located is one hundred fifty miles northeast of Winnipeg and has a combined population of approximately one thousand people. The people live in four neighbouring communities (Manigotogan, Aghaming and Seymourville which are Metis settlements and Hollow Water is a status Indian Reserve).

In 1984 a Resource Team was formed to work on healing and development in these four communities. It was comprised of political leaders, service providers from all the agencies working in The area, and a strong base of community volunteers. In essence, the Resource Group had two vital functions. First, it was the core group of those people within the population who are on a healing journey themselves and are determined to help the rest of the people to undertake their own journeys, so that the communities will be safe and healthy for their children and grandchildren. Second, the Resource Group constituted the integrated program effort across all disciplines and sectors (such as education, politics, health, religion and economy) that is leading a sustained long-term community health development process.

The first disclosure of sexual abuse came in 1986. Before that time, no one talked about it. When Hollow Water people looked at their community before 1986, alcohol and drug abuse loomed large as a problem, as did unemployment and a need to reroute the education of their children in the cultural ways of their people. At that point there was no turning back. It became very clear that there had been a great deal of sexual abuse going on for many years, but that talking about it was taboo. Indeed, most of the members of the Resource Group had somehow been affected by it. They gradually discovered that as the blanket of alcohol abuse was removed, many of the people were holding on to acute anger, hurt and dysfunctional behaviour patterns that were related to sexual abuse or to some other violation that had been done to them in their past. It became increasingly clear that if the community was to ever succeed in the political and economic realms they had a lot of personal healing work to do.

What followed was a very active period of learning and healing. The Resource Group consulted with many groups across North America who were dealing with similar issues and by 1988 had set up their own training program called S.A.F.E. (Self-Awareness For Everyone), modelled after the New Directions Training being offered at that time by the community of Alkali Lake. This step allowed them to bring this type of training to as many of their community members who were willing to begin a journey of personal healing and development.

One of the by-products of the opening up of trust and communication produced by the personal growth training was a dramatic increase in the number of sexual abuse disclosures. The Resource Team soon realized that there was a fundamental conflict between what the justice system does with offenders and what the community needed to do. What was actually needed, they realized, was a new negotiated relationship with all the agencies who have a stake in dealing with sexual abuse cases, which are:

• Child Protection workers (if the victim is a child, which they most often are)

• The Police

• The crown attorney and judges

• Mental health workers

Other primary stakeholders in the process needing a great deal of love, caring and skilled attention include:

• The victim

• The victim’s family

• The victimizer (or abuser)

• The victimizer’s family

• Other community members and community agencies affected by the abuse

The new negotiated relationship would have to spell out a strict set of procedures about what to do at the time of disclosure and how a disclosure would be dealt with by the courts to allow for the healing process to take place. A basic system and agreements were worked out that have since been further developed and refined. This model was named Community Holistic Circle Healing (CHCH), and works basically as follows:

1. An intervention team consisting of representatives of CHCH, Child and Family Services, Band Constable conducts an initial investigation to find out what really happened. The victim’s story is gently and lovingly recorded. The victim’s safety and, as well, the presence of reliable and trusted people to support the victim through the crisis is ensured.

2. Once it has been determined (beyond reasonable doubt) that abuse has taken place, the abuser is confronted and charged. At this stage, the combined power of the law and the community are used to force the abuser to break through his or her own dental to admit to the abuse, and to agree to participate in a healing process. The abuser’s choices are a) to plead guilty and then to be sentenced to probation requiring full cooperation with the healing process, or b) to be abandoned to the courts, with jail as the probable outcome.

3. If the abuser agrees to the healing road, he or she then begins a three to five year journey, which ends in restitution and reconciliation between the abuser and the victim, the victim’s family and the whole community. When an abuser commits him or herself to the healing process, the CHCH team asks the court for a minimum of four months to assess the authenticity of the commitment. When abusers agree to take the healing option, they usually do so out of fear of going to jail. It is therefore important to determine whether or not they are actually ready to participate fully in the healing process. During the four-month period, abusers are asked to undergo a process of looking deeply into themselves and really breaking through the denial to admit to themselves and others what they have done and how their actions have hurt others. This process involves four circles.

The first series of circles is held in which the person is asked to share what they have done. Often they can only admit bits and pieces, and they try to avoid talking about the details. Gradually the abuser is able to admit everything, and is helped to feel the love and support of the circle. It is made clear that the goal of the healing process is to help the abuser to become a healthy and productive community member. During this time the abuser also must work with a sexual abuse counsellor once a week. This process also can involve psychologists or other helpers. They assess the abuser’s willingness to fully engage in the healing process.

The second circle requires the abuser to bring his or her nuclear family together, to tell them what he or she has done, and to deal with the family’s response. The third circle repeats the second circle process with the family of origin (i.e. parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.). The fourth circle is the sentencing circle. In this circle, abusers must tell the whole community (respresented by whoever attends the circle) what they have done and what steps they have already taken on their healing journey. CHCH staff say that if a person goes through all of these steps, they are then convinced of his or her commitment to the healing process.

In all, the CHCH process for dealing with abusers has thirteen steps as follows:

    1. Disclosures

    2. Establish safety for the victim

    3. Confront the victimizer

    4. Support the spouse or parent of the victimizer

    5. Support the families that are affected

    6. A meeting between the Assessment Team and the RCMP

    7. Circles with victimizers

    8. Circles with the victim and the victimizer

    9. Prepare the victim’s family for the Sentencing Circle

    10. Prepare the victimizer’s family for the Sentencing Circle

    11. A special gathering for the Sentencing Circle

    12. A sentencing review

    13. A cleansing Ceremony

It is important to point out this model does not only focus on the abuser. Victims receive a great deal of care, love and skilled therapeutic attention in dealing with the trauma of their abuse. However, we believe that one of the unique features of Hollow Water CHCH model is the way it brings the Canadian legal system into the circle of the community in order to creatively use that system to help heal the community. Another feature of the CHCH model is a strong emphasis on the ownership of the abuse and the accountability required of abusers. This is a significant outcome in terms of the effectiveness of Aboriginal healing models and approaches.

Today Hollow Water enjoys a fairly high level of sobriety (around eighty percent) and they are actively dealing with the sexual abuse issue. Some of their current challenges and aspirations are outlined in the following section.

Current Realities and Challenges

1. The Work Load

Now operating in its tenth year with a staff of seven full-time professionals and community volunteers, the CHCH team is extremely busy with the work of counselling victims, the families of victims, victimizers and the families of victimizers; running healing circles and support groups; investigating new disclosures; going to court with victimizers and managing their court-ordered assessments and healing processes; and even working with individuals (sometimes assigned by the courts) from outside the community.

Between August and October 1998, the court assigned eight new cases to CHCH. It is important to realize that according to the Hollow Water model, this does not mean that the CHCH team now had eight more individuals to deal with.

Most cases involve (at minimum) an abuser, one or more victims, and family members on both sides in need of support. One case can often mean having to work with an additional eight to ten people. In addition to the immediate families that are impacted, associated families, distant relatives, friends and even individuals whose own story of abuse is called forth by this story –all of these can also end up on the case load of CHCH. Sometimes a disclosure triggers other disclosures and the circle broadens still further.

2. Assessment Team Meetings

Assessment Team Meetings are held bi-weekly to address specific cases from a current as well as a planning perspective.

All meetings were held at the Hollow Water First Nation Administration Building. Representatives from the following agencies were presen: CHCH, Child & Family Services, Health & Social Services - Eastman Region, Medical Clinic, Health & Welfare Canada, Roman Catholic Church, NADAP, RCMP, Frontier School Division, Hollow Water First Nation Council and traditional teachers. There were 32 Assessment Team Meetings during this reporting period.

3. Court Hearings

Duties include providing the reports to Crown Attorney, which are developed by individual workers who are working with the offender pending charges. Liaison with the lawyers and Crown Attorney during remand period. Upon sentencing, workers do a written report about offenders process about their heating journey.

Clients attend court either in Adult Provincial Criminal Court, Youth Court or Family Court.

The following cases include such crimes:

    • Sexual abuse

      e.g. Sexual touching


             Sexual exploitation

             Sexual intercourse

             Sexual interference

    • Family Violence

      e.g. common assaults

             Assault of spouse

             Assault causing bodily harm

             Assault with a weapon

    • Property Crimes

      e.g. Break and Enter

             Theft - under 1000

             over 1000

             Possession of stolen goods

    • Possession of Narcotics

    • Drunk Driving offences

During this reporting period CHCH workers have attended 85 court hearings in Pine Falls and Winnipeg.

4. Circles

In this year end report, the circles during this year includes circles with:

    • victims

    • family of victims

    • victimizers

    • family of victimizers

    • staff

During this year-end report there were 282 circles. Debriefing after each circle. Staff sharing circles are conducted Monday mornings when needed.

5. Individual Sessions

Individual sessions have no time limit, some sessions range from 1 hour - 4 hours. They include counselling, anger management, child within therapy, sweats, ceremonies etc.

During this reporting period, 7 CHCH workers had 490 individual sessions.

6. Case Conference

Within this reporting period there were 218 case conferences. Workers work closely with other agencies to ensure clients have the supports they need. Agencies/Organizations such as:

    • RCMP - Powerview detachment - Band Constable

    • Legal Aid lawyers

    • School teachers



    • Treatment Centres

    • Selkirk Healing Centre

    • Peguis Treatment Centre

    • Pritchard House

    • St. Norbert Foundation

    • Child and Family Services

    • Southeast Child and Family Services

    • Northwest Child and Family Services

    • Hollow Water Child and Family Services

    • Eastman Region (Provincial Child and Family Services)

    • Probation Services

    • Parole

    • Chief and Council of Hollow Water First Nation

    • Psychologist

    • NADAP

    • Nurse

7. Home visits

Home visits are a part of the CHCH workers duties. This practice accommodates the clients who are unable to attend circles, for lack of a babysitter or a ride to the Band Office. Having visits in the home is also a way of keeping workers connected to the community members. Home visits also provide an atmosphere of safety and privacy for the clients. There were 352 Home visits between 7 workers in this reporting period.

8. Sentencing Circle

The Community Sentencing Circle was held on August 13-14, 1998. Six community members were sentenced through this process. Four were adults: three men, one woman, and two male youth. Each person was probationed to the CHCH process. The length of time varied between 6 months to two years probation.

9. Community Work

CHCH staff work at strengthening the circle within the community. In this reporting period there have been numerous meetings/circles with School Staff, to address specific cases as well as share common concerns and resources. Our mandate and our relationships are scrutinized to ensure that we complement and support each other’s endeavours to create a safe place for our children.

The CHCH workers were involved in many other activities during this reporting period such as:

    1. National Child Day - Pancake Breakfast

    2. Feast (drum)

    3. Black Island Days

    4. Halloween Dance - Party

    5. Christmas Tree

    6. Community Circles

    7. Fine Option

One CHCH worker was involved with the Fine Option Program. She saw 74 clients in this reporting period.

10. Human Resource Development - Training

Fifteen people recently graduated as accredited therapists from the Community Centred Therapy Program at Red River College. This means there is now a solid pool of individuals ready and able to step into an expanded CHCH program.

Berma Bushie, Sharon Klyne and Donna Smith are currently enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Work Program (8 weeks training for the year). Marilyn Sinclair finished a 14 day course in Capable People, also a 5 day course on Babes.

11. Outreach

Hollow Water very frequently receives delegations from communities across the continent. Because the CHCH staff regard it as their responsibility to share what they are doing with others, every effort is made to give quality time and energy to the work of educating these groups about what is happening in Hollow Water. Staff often receive invitations to travel to other communities to give workshops and presentations, but have had to limit these excursions to one per month because of the strain it puts on an already overloaded system.

CHCH is often approached to assist communities and agencies in improving their response to sexual abuse. Assistance provided falls into three categories:

    1. Conferences/workshops/presentations;

    2. Community/Agencies requesting CHCH to travel to their community, and;

    3. Communities/Agencies coming out to Hollow Water. During this reporting period the following communities requested and received assistance from CHCH.


This tension (between needs and resources) has not overshadowed a more fundamental kind of "thinking in the future tense" that is the hallmark of true pioneers. Hollow Water team members were clear about the resource squeeze they feel, but their primary attention remains focused on the process and needs of the healing work itself. Their observations about the next steps the process needs to take are summarized below.

1. Healing Lodge

A fundamental next step will be to build a healing lodge that can serve as a centre for both residential and outreach programs and, in accordance with the holistic healing model, have the capacity to take in whole families.

2. Cultural Foundations of Treatment

The healing program that has emerged at Hollow Water is still developing. It is becoming clear that while the model and strategies for healing practised by dominant culture professional psychologists have merit, they are not necessarily the only, or even the best approaches to use in working with Aboriginal people and their communities.

The Anishnaabe clan system and the cycle of seasonal ceremonies contain within them powerful processes and strategies perfected over thousands of years. A challenge for CHCH is to draw on these without violating the principle that such traditional knowledge cannot be bought and sold. Whether allowing knowledge to shape the methods and approaches of a professional healing agency constitutes a violation of that principle is a question now under discussion. [Note: Since the ceremonies were always a means of helping the people to live and work according to time-honoured spiritual principles, it seems to us that it should be possible to draw on the wisdom and the principles related to healing and holistic living, leaving the ceremonies themselves pure, intact, and accessible, to all who wished to participate in them.]

CHCH team members were clear that Anishnaabe language, laws, and wisdom need to acquire an even higher profile in the healing process used in Hollow Water than they already have (which is considerable compared to many programs), and that achieving this would require considerable further developmental work.

3. Linking Treatment to Training

Another key insight for future development is the need to link treatment to training. This observation is based on the understanding that abuse and dysfunction are a reflection of a much larger pattern that relates to the social and economic well-being of the community.

Building the capacity of community members to live healthy personal lives, to carry on economic activities leading to prosperity, to function as mutually supporting community members, and to participate meaningfully in processes of local governance are all important aspects of the community healing process. Clearly, beyond treatment, fostering learning for human and community development is a necessary aspect of promoting the shift to a community which no longer abuses it’s children. CHCH sees the development of this type of training to be another important next step.

4. The Key Role of Women

It has become clear that in many ways women are leading the healing movement in Anishnaabe communities. While there are notable exceptions, many of the CHCH supporters and team members are women. One participant explained, "We’re mothers and grandmothers to all of our children. We don’t give up on anyone. No one is considered incorrigible and not worth bothering with. The long-term key to transforming our community is to educate our women to their true responsibilities, not only as mothers, but also as community members."

By this is meant that building the capacity of women for active participation in social, economic and political life of the community is seen as a critical next step for healing in Hollow Water.

5. Re-orienting Policing Programs

Inherent in Hollow Water model is the combined power of the law and the will of the community confronting abusers with the hard choice of following a healing path or facing serious consequences. Standard policing is oriented to the hard consequences (such as jail) but not to the healing. There is a need to strengthen the capacity of police (including special constables) serving the community to understand and work with the healing models.

6. Economic Development as Treatment

Prosperity runs far deeper than the pocket book. In addition to generating income, it has to do with people’s capacity to trust each other, to cooperate, to help each other and to feel the intrinsic satisfaction of serving others and doing useful work. An important next step for community healing for CHCH is to promote local prosperity based on locally available resources such as fish, rice, meat, and vegetable growing, as well as on locally needed services such as a bakery, laundry, feel services, etc. Beyond training people (there are many trained people with nowhere to practice their skills) there is a need for incubating real local enterprises into which people can put their energies.

These initiatives would require that people practice patterns of healthy living and human relations in order to succeed. Catalysing, nurturing and supporting this type of healthy development process is seen as a primary line of action related to community healing and definitely one of the important next steps for CHCH.

7. Youth

Currently the CHCH protocol does not provide for working with youth, and yet more than half of the population of the community is children and youth. In order to shift the underlying pattern of life from dysfunction and abuse to wellness and prosperity, a comprehensive youth healing and development initiative is also an important next step.


What emerges from this analysis of next steps are a few very fundamental lines of action:

a) The establishment of a Healing Lodge, a centre with resident teachers and healers that works with individuals and whole families through their healing process.

b) Linked to the Healing Lodge would be a comprehensive training and community development process aimed at building the capacity of people to build healthy, prosperous lives.

c) A key element of the training and healing work would focus on building the capacity of women to assume their rightful roles (as described within Anishnaabe culture) as promoters and guardians of the public good. Training women to be good human beings, good mothers and grandmothers, good spouses and good friends would be part of the process. Beyond these, building the capacity of women to participate in governance, economic development and social transformation work will be vital.

[Note: Participants were very clear that this emphasis on women’s development was not to in any way discount the role of the men, which was acknowledged as being just as important as that of the women. They are open and receptive to healing, learning and growth now, and investing in them now will pay dividends for the whole society.]

d) Also linked to the Healing Lodge would be a systematic outreach process to other communities in the region in, the form of training and technical support.

The CHCH program as a resource for the rest of the country has few (if any) rivals. It seems to us that Hollow Water CHCH is one of the real leaders in North America in both its understanding and its practice of community healing and the restorative justice process. Their comprehensive grasp of the stages and needs of the process, as well as their grounded and practical ability to look beyond treatment to the restoration of healthy family and community life, makes them a precious resource for all Aboriginal communities. In our view, this capacity needs to be protected and further developed and invested in. In terms of Hollow Water’s own development path, the timing is right for them to become a regional and even national training resource related to community healing and restorative justice processes.

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