Cody Erasmus, left, and Johnny Ongahak outside the Tree of Peace friendship centre in Yellowknife. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
“Men are stronger when they stand together,” the Native Women’s Association of the NWT declared last week in announcing a new group: the Northern Brotherhood of Men.
Cody Erasmus and Johnny Ongahak are standing together outside Yellowknife’s Tree of Peace friendship centre ahead of the brotherhood’s first session, which they will lead.
Erasmus graduated from the Northern Indigenous Counselling program at Vancouver’s Rhodes Wellness College, where his father Roy had completed the same course. When Roy and his wife Jean then created a program to teach Indigenous counsellors in the Northwest Territories, Cody helped to run that program – where he met Ongahak, one of the students.
The Northern Brotherhood of Men is one of the first initiatives to follow the graduation of 15 people from the program earlier this year.
“It’s kind-of a dream job: working with one of my friends, my colleagues, my old – I don’t know – student. I helped him join the program in the beginning and now we’re working together, so it’s pretty cool. I’m excited to watch a bunch of men grow and become healthy,” Erasmus said.
“This is my first project that I get to facilitate, co-create,” said Ongahak. “I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”
Meeting at the Tree of Peace every Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm, the program will “help men be more supportive of women and … become allies in fighting violence against women,” the Native Women’s Association said in a press release.
Grace Blake, the Tsiigehtchic-based president of the Native Women’s Association, told Cabin Radio the group provides a home for “men who are willing to do the work and are interested to learn more about violence and abuse against women in order to help exterminate these behaviours.”
“Men are a very important part of family, especially in traditional families,” said Blake, noting health minister Julie Green’s recent assertion that many NWT residents aren’t coming forward to access available mental health supports.
“We must include men in all healing for our families to be healthy and whole,” Blake said.
Erasmus, preparing a room at the Tree of Peace for the opening session, added the group would be beneficial for “any man who can benefit from learning about healthy lifestyles, self-responsibility, and responsible anger.”
“Everybody has anger,” he said. “A lot of the violence that happens towards women is anger that comes out sideways. And it might be contributed by substances, which a lot of people use to numb their feelings or to just forget what happened to them in the past.
“So we want people to be able to come in and address those issues, those problems that happened to them a long time ago that they might not even remember. The body remembers.
“We’re able to facilitate groups where we can help them get into those old feelings and process them, let them out. And then when a conflict arises between them and maybe their spouse or their children, they’re able to just articulate themselves and verbalize what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and not be violent – give them alternatives to the way they would have let their anger out in the past. Letting it out by saying, ‘Hey, I’m feeling a lot of anger right now,’ instead of just hitting somebody or swearing at somebody.”
“I have three daughters, and they’re Indigenous,” said Ongahak. “Cody has an Indigenous daughter and son. Just hearing about violence against women all the time, and me growing up and seeing it happening to family members of mine, it was like, what makes me healthy? What’s my thought process to all this?
“I’m applying everything that I’ve learned and everything that I do, from counselling to self-care, into this project.”
‘Exemplifying what to do’
Reflecting on statistics that show many recent NWT suicide cases have involved men in their 20s, Erasmus believes the new group can indirectly help by modelling behaviour that men can use with relatives later.
“Us showing them empathy will give them an example of how to show their family members and friends empathy,” he said. “We’re going to be exemplifying what to do.”
The focus, said Ongahak, will be promoting healthy men as advocates for women – and giving them tools to speak up when they see violence.
“There are a lot of contributions that create this violence,” said Erasmus,
“There’s intergenerational trauma, which we’ve seen from our parents and their parents, which stems from residential school. And there’s also lateral violence, like a crabs-in-the-bucket mentality. As Indigenous people, a lot of our people are afraid to see others succeed because it’s like they’re going to be left behind in the bucket, right?
“To stick with that analogy, maybe me and Johnny are on the outside of the bucket, and we’re helping them get out.”