It is said that organizations have their own culture. Walking into Ganohkwasra’s men’s programming section to interview Executive Director Sandra Montour, one can feel that Ganohkwasra has developed its own organizational culture based on love, kindness and understanding. Montour – Mohawk nation, Turtle clan – is a mother of two, and a grandmother. When we think of effective leadership at Six Nations, Montour stands out not only because of her unique, principled approach but also because of her tenacity in reaching goals that benefit the common good at Six Nations.
Ganohkwasra translates to mean “love among us” and it serves not only as an appropriate name, but also as the guiding principle for policy within the organization. The centre has a reputation for being trailblazers in their understanding of family violence and their willingness to address the issue using a mixture of both modern modalities and traditional knowledge.
Montour advises that there have been conscious efforts to acknowledge that violence is not just perpetrated against women by men. The services offered at Ganohkwasra focus on the family. The shelter at Ganohkwasra offers safety to both men and women. The shelter is now supervised by a man, which Montour believes makes it one of a kind in Ontario, if not Canada. The key principle or understanding at Ganohkwasra is that we must respect our interconnectedness with each other and with the spirit world. This understanding informs program development and policy development.
It is Ganohkwasra policy that staff must take counselling. It is also policy at Ganohkwasra to take responsibility for your feelings. If someone feels offended by a comment made by another staff person, their policy is that it is up to the staff person to go back and try to work it through with the other person.
“Sometimes it takes two or three times,” Montour said, “but the person is not allowed to walk around talking about the other person because that behaviour festers a horrible energy and creates a poor working environment.” She explains it’s then that person’s responsibility to not do it again, though she admits, “We will because we are human.”
Though no one is perfect, the policy is in place to make the work environment feel safe. She stated that while it is staff’s responsibility to ensure their own wellness, their supervisor can also help them. The supervisor will sit down to do a self-care plan with each employee, focusing on setting at least one goal in each of the four areas: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual.
Montour stressed the importance of self-care when you work in this field. Staff must take care of themselves, not just for their own benefit, but as a requirement to properly serve their clients. This job deals with life or death situations.
Montour told of a time when she had been working as a counsellor and her ears suddenly felt really clogged. She went to the doctor and the doctor told her that there was nothing in her ears. Montour realized that she had heard too many stories of trauma and it had manifested physically in her. She had a good reiki session to assist her at that time.
Today, in addition to her full-time position as the fearless leader at Ganohkwasra, Montour also maintains a small private practice from home with a small list of clients – just enough to keep her happy. She believes strongly in alternative therapies, so she also charges and sells crystals through her home business, Native Crystal Energy. She makes aromatic oil blends that help induce sleep or relieve stress and pain. This, in addition to time spent with family, is Montour’s self-care.
The stress in the Executive Director position often comes from the battles to access appropriate funding for Ganohkwasra. Montour has found it necessary to become more politically involved. She advocates provincially for Native shelters because, as poor as Ganohkwasra is, the rest of the shelters that serve Native people in the province are poorer. She stated that there are so many shelters that are feeding their residents using food obtained through food banks. They have no money for counselling services. Montour actively participates in the Aboriginal Shelters of Ontario, which will be releasing a needs assessment soon, comparing the disparities of resources granted to on- and off-reserve service providers.
“I feel proud to go out there and talk about our programs and services. But we’re always striving to be better. Our people deserve the best,” she says.
Ganohkwasra serves 2000 clients a year and has a constant waiting list. Montour reported feeling sick when she heard that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not going to fund an inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. She stated that she “did not know where it came from,” but upon hearing of Harper’s callous response to the MMIW issue, she sat down and wrote a “not so pretty” letter about systemic racism from the perspective of a white man looking down on Aboriginal governments and thanking the Canadian government for being a good role model. Reading Montour’s letter, one can hear the frustration of having to fight for every little morsel obtained for this community. The letter was sent to numerous media and Montour has received a few requests for interviews as a result of the letter.
On behalf of Two Row Times and the Six Nations community, we would like to extend our heartfelt appreciation for the effort put forth for the betterment of our community by Sandra Montour, her staff and the board of directors at Ganohkwasra. The work you do here is visible. It is felt. It is appreciated and we are a better community because of your efforts.