Crisis response with an Indigenous lens

June 14, 2024

Painted Sky (Zhizhoobii'igaade-Giizhig-Inini in Ojibwe), whose English Western name is Gary Johnston, is a crisis worker and Indigenous specialist with Toronto Community Crisis Service (TCCS). He has been responding to mental health and addictions related calls with TCCS since the pilot project launched in April 2022 and culture and practice.

In November 2023 the City of Toronto green lit city-wide expansion of the TCCS program after seeing promising results in the first year, including a 78 per cent diversion from police and hospital emergency services. The expansion is expected to happen in summer 2024.

Painted Sky emphasizes the need to have Indigenous specialists on the TCCS team and throughout CMHA Toronto generally to better serve Indigenous people across Toronto. We spoke to him about his work with TCCS, how his own Indigeneity informs his work, and about why it’s important to practice with an Indigenous lens to best serve Indigenous people who are facing mental health challenges in Toronto.

Painted Sky’s comments have been edited for length and clarity. This article follows the Indigenous Style Guide.


Indigenous People are the Keepers of the Land across Turtle Island. It is very important to have Indigenous People like me involved in the Toronto Community Crisis Service. There are a lot of mental health issues and trauma in our communities and there are a lot of Indigenous and non-Indigenous survivors out there who experience intergenerational trauma, and who are suffering because of this trauma. I have the skills, the expertise, the education and also the lived experience to support them.  

I provide my expertise, training, skills and education using the Indigenous language and lens by delivering Indigenous Culture, Teachings, and Indigenous Practices through Toronto Community Crisis Service.

I am also facilitating a new training for all TCCS staff. It is the Indigenous Cultural Competency Training which focuses on Indigenous Communities and Mental Health.

This training is to provide the TCCS team with the Indigenous Lens of the Indigenous Perspective.

Outside of TCCS, I am actively involved in the community by providing Indigenous Cultural Services. I facilitate and help my own community through ceremonial practices, language and teachings. I am also an Indigenous musical artist and perform my own music. It gives me an opportunity to connect and speak about mental health with the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

I follow these practices of the Indigenous Culture through what we call ‘The Red Road’ (Mino Bimaadiziwin), which means ‘The Good Life.’  I have been practicing this way of life for over 30 years.

Also, I follow and practice the Seven Grandfather Teachings which are Honesty, Truth, Humility, Bravery, Wisdom, Respect, and Love.

I am a Knowledge Keeper and Sacred Pipe Carrier who carries two sacred pipes.

A Knowledge Keeper is one who is not considered an Elder but who carries Traditional Knowledge and expertise in different spiritual and cultural areas. Sacred traditional items such as the Sacred Eagle Feather are passed down from generation to generation and the Knowledge Keeper is entrusted to use leadership, honesty, truth, responsibility, and consistency to take care of these sacred items.

The titles Knowledge Keeper and Sacred Pipe Carrier must be earned with respect from our Indigenous Elders and from those within our Indigenous communities.

Historically, I am one of the last descendants of Chief James Nawash who rode with Chief Tecumseh in the Battle of Thames of 1812 in Moraviantown, Ontario. Chief Nawash was one of the War Chiefs of the Western Tribes and was an ally of the British. My Indigenous blood line consists of Ojibwe, Salteaux, Chippewa and Pottawatomi descent and I am a member of Couchiching First Nation, Treaty #3, near the town of Fort Frances in northwestern Ontario.

As a Sacred Pipe Carrier and Knowledge Keeper, I walk the Red Road to the best of my ability in the life that Creator has given me. It is a spiritual way of living by giving thanks to the Creator every day in our Indigenous Culture – or whatever you believe in regarding your Higher Power.

Our four Sacred Medicines also play a very important part in our Indigenous Culture. The four Sacred Medicines that we, as Indigenous people, use in our culture (and there are others as well that have more objectives or purposes and interpretations) are Tobacco, Cedar, Sage, and Sweetgrass.

We incorporate all four of these medicines and they help the community, especially those who are in crisis, in many ways. I have incorporated these four Sacred Medicines on many of our crisis calls here in our community in Toronto.

Every crisis response call is different. We respond to situations such as people experiencing suicidal ideation, disorderly behaviour, disputes, and we do wellness checks.

The reward of being a crisis worker is in knowing you made a difference in helping those in the community today and those in their future.

As the Indigenous specialist, my motto is: “The Creator molds us, we mold Ourselves; we mold the Community and the Community molds us.”

Due to the Personal Health Information Protection Act, I cannot disclose any personal information, but I’d like to share a story about a crisis call I had with a young woman and I was able to incorporate Indigenous Teachings to help this young woman.

This young woman was experiencing a crisis and was at home alone. When the community crisis team arrived, she was very upset, very overwhelmed with a lot of anxiety. Her parents were out of the country and she was trying to cope with her anxiety but she had no idea what to do so she called 211 for help.

She invited the TCCS team into her home and we asked how we could help her. As we were talking to her, I noticed a Smudge bowl – a large shell – with a Sage bundle tied up inside the bowl on the shelf.

I asked her if I had her permission to bring it off the shelf. She agreed and I told her that I’m an Indigenous specialist and Knowledge Keeper on the Toronto Community Crisis Team. I said Sage is one of our Sacred Medicines used in our Indigenous Culture and it is something that could really help her to manage her anxiety and stress. Sage is a powerful medicine that helps reduce stress and anxiety when you’re feeling in crisis. The power of this medicine, its essence and its aroma, help you return to your baseline.

The young woman, my colleague, and I ended up smudging together. It was a special moment where we shared some tears. By the end of the call we were able to have this young woman referred to case management for a follow-up and she consented to our services for support for six months.

Now that TCCS has been approved for city-wide expansion, I’d like to have the opportunity to mentor people and train new crisis workers and students. I’m really hoping that we have more Indigenous specialists join us.

I want to make a difference for our Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous communities here in Toronto.

We, as Indigenous people, have vision. Being an Indigenous specialist and helping my community is a great achievement for me. I truly believe that, if you have it in you to follow your dream, you have it in you to succeed. I thank the Creator every day for leading me into this vision and for creating the Toronto Community Crisis Team. Miigwetch (thank you).

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