Items on table ready for the beginning of the ceremony

'Beating Heart of the Community': Indigenous Cancer Program gifts drum to Michael Garron Hospital Oncology Unit

The aromatic hints of sage and sweet grass filled the air at The Bear’s Den All Nations Traditional Medicine Sweat Lodge at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) on July 6 for a special ceremony.

MGH was the first of nine hospital cancer care sites to humbly receive a drum for its oncology unit – a gift from the Toronto Central Region Indigenous Cancer Program to support culturally inclusive cancer care for First Nation, Inuit and Métis community members.

“It’s so important for us to have the heartbeat of the drum,” says Elder Little Brown Bear, director of Aboriginal education, programs and culture and The Aboriginal Healing Program at MGH, who led the smudge and pipe ceremony to accept and cleanse the drum.

“It stands for the heartbeat of Mother Earth and symbolizes the heartbeat of our community and what keeps us going.”

Drums are more than a musical instrument; they represent lifelong connections with all living things and the Creator. The circle represents balance, equality, wholeness and connection. Drums are given as gifts in thanks for good work or to acknowledge an important relationship or time in someone’s life.

For First Nations Peoples, the drum represents the universal heartbeat of Mother Earth. This special rhythm facilitates healing and realignment of the four realms of human existence (mental, spiritual, emotional and physical) as the Creator revolves around the rhythm. The drum, when combined with voice, creates a hum that rests between the voice and the drum and is thought to be the spirits of the Ancestors.

“The drum is considered medicine because the heartbeat calms people,” explains Leonard Benoit, Indigenous Patient Navigator and Program Lead, who offered the Elder tobacco and presented the drum to the MGH community at the ceremony.

MGH’s oncology program – comprised of an inter-disciplinary team of oncologists, haematologists, nurses, pharmacists, a social worker and clerical navigators – provides diagnosis and treatment for a wide-range of cancers such as lung, breast and colon, in addition to blood disorders. The team provides highly specialized, compassionate and individualized care for each community member. 

“This drum will be displayed and utilized proudly. It symbolizes the patient being at the heart of what we do and represents the care team and patients’ hearts beating as one. It serves as a reminder to us all of the need to attend to our mental, spiritual, emotional and physical wellness,” says Lindsay Martinek, Director, Professional Practice, Renal, Oncology, Nursing Resource Team & Academic Partnerships at MGH.

“This tremendous gift will bring a sense of calm, equality, balance and hope to our team, our patients and our families as we walk the cancer journey together. When we hear the beat of the drum, we will be reminded of the lifelong connections it represents to Mother Earth. It was an honor to join in the acceptance of this drum with the Elder, on behalf of the oncology program at MGH.”  


Items on table ready for the beginning of the ceremony

1 – The Elder prepares the ceremonial table. The cloth represents the medicine wheel and four directions. The sacred medicine sits within each doorway of the cloth: tobacco in the East, cedar in the South, sage in the West and sweet grass in the North.

Opening remarks at the beginning of the ceremony

2 – After Sarah Downey, president and CEO, MGH, welcomes a small group of representatives from MGH and the Indigenous Cancer Program, she delivers a land acknowledgement. She then welcomes Leonard to say a few words, who provides background and historical context of the drum and its significance.

Elder lights the sage for the ceremony

3 – The Elder lights the sage in his abalone shell before the smudge. The abalone shell is said to enhance feelings of peace, compassion and love.

Leonard and Elder cleansing the drum

4 – Leonard and the Elder cleanse the drum by washing it in the smoke of the sage.

Elder smudges Leonard during the ceremony

5 – The Elder uses his Eagle feather as he offers the smudge to Leonard. Leonard gathers the smoke in his hands and pushes it over his head to cleanse his mind.

Elder smudges oncology team during the ceremony

6 – The Elder offers a smudge to everyone in the circle including members of the oncology team: Mackenzie Hui, nurse practitioner, Rachel Isaac, social worker and Maxine Castello, manager. Mikki Layton, Interim Chief Nurse Executive (and former nurse practitioner specializing in oncology) and Mark Fam, vice president, programs at MGH, participate in the smudge.

Elder cleanses sacred pipe during ceremony

7 – The Elder cleanses his sacred pipe in the sage. The sacred pipe is used to call on support from the Ancestors to bless the drum. The left side is the bowl and considered the female side and the right side is the stem considered the male side. The left represents the nurturing side and the right symbolizes the warrior protector.

Elder lights the sacred pipe during the cremony

8 – The Elder lights the sacred pipe.

Elder begins the ceremony of gifting the drum

9 – The Elder removes his mask to conduct the ceremony and blesses the drum with the smoke from the sacred pipe.

Christine speaks for the water during the ceremony

10 – Christine Devine, Wellness Specialist and Oshkabaywis (Helper to the Elder)speaks for the water. Water is Life and women are life givers, and so it is a traditionally recognized responsibility for women to take care of that which is necessary for Life. We ask the water to cleanse the ceremony, the space and intentions for the future. It’s also an opportunity to call the ancestors, the spirit animals, and the four directions into the space to help us do things in a good way. It is also to honour the murdered and missing Aboriginal women and the children who didn’t make it home.

Sarah beats the drum during the ceremony

11 – The Elder asks for a volunteer to start the heartbeat of the drum so it will truly be ours. Sarah Downey is unanimously called upon to beat the drum for the first time. 

At the end of the ceremony, Sarah and Elder tie the orange ribbon

12 – The drum was gifted to MGH and wrapped in a cloth with an orange ribbon with a request to tie it to a tree to honour the children who did not return home. The Elder suggests tying it to The Bear’s Den All Nations Traditional Medicine Sweat Lodge. Together, Sarah Downey and the Elder tie the ribbon.

Group photo at the end of the ceremony

13 – Thank you to the Indigenous Cancer Program for their generous gift of the drum and to all who participated in the ceremony. A special thank you to MGH’s remarkable oncology team who will use the drum to care and comfort community members. 

For more information on the Indigenous Cancer Program, please scan the QR code below or contact Leonard Benoit, Indigenous Patient Navigator of Toronto Central Region at:

Email: @email
Phone Number: 647-309-1794

Scannable qr code for Indigenous cancer program
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