New counsellor at Kanesatake's Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge will serve Akwesasne

·4 min read

Recovering from addiction can’t happen overnight, and though in-patient care is often the best course of action for starting a recovery journey, it’s important that care continues after a residential program.

The Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge knows this better than anyone, and that’s why they’ve brought in Thomas Sylvester, a new outreach counsellor working to support Onen’tó:kon’s services as well as provide better long-term care for individuals in Akwesasne and surrounding areas.

“I think this is something that the community needs,” said Sylvester, who is from Akwesasne. “We need somebody from the community that understands people, that can help them in a way they need to be helped.”

As well as being a certified peer-recovery advocate and trained social worker, Sylvester is also in recovery himself, which he hopes will allow him to lead by example.

“I’ve been sober for seven years now, and I don’t have plans on going back,” Sylvester explained. “I want to give that back to the community. They helped get me here, so I want to give back some of what I got.”

Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge’s clinical supervisor Travis Gabriel said he believes Sylvester’s role will fill a much needed gap in the Lodge’s services.

“The world of substance use is ever-changing. I’ve been in the world of recovery now for 17 years, and it’s just not the same world that I started in,” Gabriel said.

“We really have seen over the years there’s a strong need for us to be in the communities having more of an impact on the recovery process. This is a goal we’ve had. We’ve met the goal, and now we’ve got some really innovative ideas,” Gabriel added, noting that outreach plans include a bigger focus on group activities, such as using talking circles.

Though Sylvester will be primarily serving the Akwesasne region, his work will be valuable for all Onkwehón:we who utilize the lodge’s services, explained Onen’tó:kon executive director Lori Tarbell.

“For us as Indigenous people, there’s no separation. We’re all Indigenous, we’re all family, so we’re trying to care about everyone and cover our bases to help as many people as we can,” she said.

Tarbell said that many individuals who do not live in Kanesatake come to the Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge for their six-week inpatient treatment program.

“I know a lot of our out-of-town clients, like those from the Cree Nation, have a lot of resources when they go home,” she said. “What we’re seeing is that we didn’t have that for this area. We needed somebody that could be there, and (Sylvester) is the best person I could see doing that type of work.”

The next steps for Onen’tó:kon’s continued growth will be the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA) for a small detox unit on Cornwall Island, which Onen’tó:kon will help ensure is serviced with additional support.

As well, Sylvester plans to establish better long-term support groups.

“We’re trying to put together an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting right now, because there’s not one available in our area,” Sylvester said, noting that Akwesasne deals with a unique situation of having some services available on the US side of the border. He said that individuals often don’t want to cross, meaning services need to be more comprehensive so that nobody slips through the cracks.

“If we have services that can be local for everybody, it would be of benefit to the whole community,” he added.

Gabriel agreed, noting that the expansion of Onen’tó:kon and the addition of Sylvester will help relieve some of the pain felt by Onkwehón:we communities, who have been affected by the drug toxicity crisis at a disproportionate rate.

“It’s really hopeful for recovery. We’ve been hit hard in recent years, we’ve lost a lot of people,” he said. “We want to do our part to get in there and give something before and after treatment so our people have a better chance.”

For those in Akwesasne and surrounding areas who are seeking support from Onen’tó:kon’s outreach services, Sylvester can be reached at 450-613-9696, or at For those in Kahnawake, Kanesatake, Montreal, and surrounding areas, outreach counselor Ashley Norton can be reached at 514-668-6399, or at

Eve Cable, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door