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A terrible injustice has occurred to the indigenous peoples of Canada. The following article is part of our ongoing work to clarify the core issues, the current status, and to assemble the best recommendations that might restore everyone’s rightful place in our society. It was first given in Sep. 2017 at the Canada West Mission Conference in Vancouver, BC, by Barbara Oldale, has been lightly edited, and will be expanded.
In the early days, Indigenous relations with the British were mutually respectful. Their ceremonies recognized and maintained a complex need for honesty, mutuality, and compassion within trade agreements and interrelationships. The British required the support of Native Peoples for their expansion endeavors, and Indigenous Peoples believed that the land and resources belonged to all and was meant to be shared. Those Europeans who overcame the language barrier and negotiated with the chiefs were well aware of the complexities and the ingenuity of tribal traditions, negotiating procedures, of Indigenous integrity, intelligence, and compassion.
Traumas: Genocide and Structural Violence
Events which followed early European-Indigenous relations led to the destruction of the way of life for Native Peoples and to their near-extinction in the Americas over the next 500 years. Many have called their destruction genocide, although the most recent researchers describe it as largely unintentional, the effect greedy settlers who were intent on claiming the right to ‘free land’, but also due to the effects of colonization, nation-building, and urbanization. The European belief in the concept of Terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery denied that Indigenous peoples had rights to their own lands. Europeans thought they were entitled to claim any land which had not been previously annexed to another country regardless of who was living upon it. This mindset-policy-disregard for Native rights largely led to the extinction of tribes, to marginalization and their continuing oppression today.
Waves of infectious disease brought by Europeans killed an estimated 90% of the native population. It’s hard to imagine what effect that situation might have, were it to happen to today: it would destroy our fabric of life, our economic systems, our webs of connections and interdependencies, our customs, habits, and traditions—and it did in Indigenous societies. Loss of families and cohesive ways of life drove Native survivors mad with grief. All systems broke down. As elders, healers, chiefs, and those tasked to provide basic needs succumbed to disease, there was no one to care for the sick, and every life battled for survival. Traditional ways of life were erased. Only a few survived. Those who remained attempted to repopulate their numbers by joining rival tribes, through intermarriage with black African and white Europeans, and by capturing replacement relatives through warfare.
It became much easier for Europeans to conquer a population in a state of death, grief, and disarray. The colonizers proclaimed that God’s will was being done as plagues eliminated First Peoples. Most of us are familiar with this history. After initial contact and disease subsided, structural violence became the acceptable norm as warfare, slavery, colonization, proselytization, famine and starvation became embedded practices. Tribes were removed from the lands which were sacred to them, they were deprived of traditional methods of subsistence, and of self-governance. Equality of women and respect for children, which had traditionally been practiced by Indigenous peoples, were undermined as patriarchy and corporal punishment practices were instituted by European governors. Over the past 150 years, Canadian governments and churches colluded to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into white society through the Residential School systems and via ‘adopting out’ policies. The aim was to do away with the Indian problem altogether. Parents could no longer be parents; they were forced to give away or be deprived of seeing their children for years at a time; children could have no contact with parents and siblings, they were beaten or witnessed beatings regularly or were sexually abused by their custodians in the Residential School system, they were prevented from speaking their language, and some witnessed the deaths of other children in care. An estimated one-half of Residential School children died in care. Although in 1996 the last school was closed, governmental apologies were issued, and financial recompense has been awarded, the effects of the policies still cause suffering and are the source of the dysfunction which exists in Indigenous communities today. Lost was the ability of the community and parents to raise, nurture, and love their children as well as maintain their traditions, language, ceremonies, rituals, and identities. Children of Residential Schools felt they were not white—they were not accepted or loved in the church-instituted schools, and they no longer fit into the network of their families of origin or into Indigenous culture. They did not know who they were or where they belonged. They were deprived of a human’s basic heritage. It’s due to their unusual stamina and endurance that some have survived today.
PTSD, Complex PTSD, and Transgenerational Trauma
What are the effects of historical and structural trauma on humans? Today the effects are characterized as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is a form of psychological wounding--the result of a specific historical event; it can be transmitted to succeeding generations via psychological, sociological, familial, cultural, and political-bureaucratic mechanisms. Unhealed PTSD impairs parenting skills, creates distressing narratives, alters epigenetics, distorts spirituality thinking and practices, and perpetuates cycles of abuse. PTSD reactions to disaster are characterized by anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, panic, sleep loss, anorexia, social withdrawal, depression, body symptoms, and prolonged grief reactions which may precipitate into personality disorders, dissociations, and forgotten identity. The result of such mental breakdown is a decreased ability to feel emotions, a fear of losing control, an inability to express anger or alternatively to become aggressive, commit domestic violence, to be alienated detached, alone, unable to love, to become a substance abuser or to be suicidal. The Holocaust is the prototypical example of historical trauma and PTSD as described by researchers; it lasted for a period of about a decade, but recovery through succeeding generations has been remarkably swift. But this has not been the case with Indigenous peoples. Five centuries of trauma in native communities has been perpetuated in the form of ongoing disease, violence, traumas of various sorts, loss of autonomy, political oppression, and bureaucratic control. This has been the ongoing Indigenous way of life since the time of first contact.
The remedy for PTSD is that sufferers are encouraged to tell their stories and to successfully experience solidarity with others, with those who empathically witness, listen, and understand. The testimony process instituted by the TRC was a purposeful attempt to promote solidarity and empathetic witnessing through the telling of their stories. It’s been acknowledged that psychotherapy for individuals and families may also be a necessary component in the healing process. The remedy for the more prevalent structural violence which wounds and gives rise to mental health problems is to understand and trace the looping effects from political processes, ideology, and policies which promote the subjugation of peoples (Kirmayer, 2014). This exploration will require an understanding of political processes and policies as well as an evaluation of them. Understanding political processes is an essential element in discovering and implementing ethical and political responses which will revitalize Indigenous culture and redress enduring inequities of power. Structural factors which need to be addressed include the enabling of traditional subsistence patterns and community autonomy, addressing the problem of land appropriation and resource extraction by governments and corporations, proposing solutions to economic inequalities and poverty, changing ambivalent attitudes and negative stereotypes of them by the larger society, addressing discrimination, and responding to the ongoing problem of bureaucracies and globalization which are at cross purposes with local Indigenous identity and solidarity.
In the past 50 years, a breathing space has emerged for Indigenous peoples in Canada; they’ve begun to experience some relief from their oppression, and some are formulating a future for themselves and their communities. In such institutions as Athabasca University, many Indigenous peoples are emerging from their education with a deeper understanding of their history, and their intent and desire is to support their people. Many are becoming educators and others have taken up the practice of law where they are skillfully addressing treaty violations and combating the oppression imposed by governments and society.
Human resilience, when given a chance, is the norm. Briefly I want to share the strengths of these four First Nations’ cultures.
Mi’kmaq (Atlantic Canada): continue speak their language and practice traditional customs; they have always regarded themselves as equal partners in political arrangements since the early days of Canada. They utilize a process of conflict resolution which involves 1- prayer, 2-it fleshes out the sequence of events which lead to an offence, 3-requires restitution--the appropriate action is carried out, 4-and apologies are offered in a setting in which all persons gathered may be heard.
The Mohawk take political action: they have reasserted control over their health services, education, economic development and community services, and they’ve strengthened links to their sister communities. They have a creation story which describes how to beautify the planet, and they look forward and plan seven generations into the future to promote sustainability practices. Environmental sustainability practices are vital to human welfare today.
The Metis, who are spread over a wide geographical area, emphasize self-reliance, autonomy, and independence. They are resourceful and have a strong work ethic.
The Inuit have displayed qualities of persistence, resourcefulness, endurance, and adaptability under harsh—Arctic--conditions. They practice the virtue of niriunniq—hope—which is an aspect of their resilience. They wait for hope to reveal itself to them.
Calls to Action
Over 2000 lawsuits by Indigenous people against the Canadian government generated a statement of apology and reconciliation by PM Harper in 2008. Public recognition of the atrocities and hardships that Indigenous peoples have suffered was expressed, financial compensation was awarded to those who endured the residential school system, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. The TRC has allowed Indigenous peoples to tell their stories, provided an archive which reminds the public of native history, and has influenced the educational curriculum of this and of subsequent generations. The TRC provided 94 calls to action for implementation some of which have been directed to churches. I draw to your attention only to three that might of interest to your congregation.
48. …, to formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation. One possibility is, “Respecting Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination in spiritual matters, including the right to practise, develop, and teach their own spiritual and religious traditions, customs, and ceremonies, consistent with Article 12:1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.
59. …learn about various church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary.
61. …to establish permanent funding to Aboriginal people for various community controlled projects such as:
i. … healing and reconciliation.
ii. …culture- and language revitalization.
iii. ...education and relationship building.
iv. Regional dialogues for Indigenous spiritual leaders and youth to discuss Indigenous spirituality, self-determination, and reconciliation.
Cheng, A. A. (1997). The Melancholy of Race. The Kenyon Review, 19(1), 49-61.
Kirmayer, Dandeneau, Marshall, Phillips, Williamson. (2011). Rethinking Resilience from Indigenous Perspectives. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(2), 84-91.
Kirmayer, Laurence J., Joseph P. Gone, Joshua Moses. (2014). Rethinking Historical Trauma. Transcultural Psychiatry, 299-319.
Wesley-Esquimaux, Cynthia C., Magdalena Smoleweski. (2004). Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing. Retrieved from National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: Aboriginal Healing Foundation Reports: http://nctr.ca/reports.php
I’d like to leave you with a thought expressed by Anne Cheng (1997) in her article, Melancholy of Race, and particularly relevant to our church’s mission initiatives of abolishing poverty, ending suffering, and pursuing peace. She says that “social organizations incorporate the very losses they instigate. If history enacts denigration, then history will be structured by that brutalization” (59). If we denigrate and brutalize others, we do the same to ourselves. I believe Community of Christ is on track when we view all races, cultures, ethnicities, and genders as equal, worthy, and beloved by all. We have the opportunity to right wrongs, change policies that are harmful, and become inclusive of all peoples.
The following link is part of an educational module that is dealing primarily with the residential schools and its terrible legacy:
http://www.projectofheart.ca (opens in new window)
Also, in June, 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its summary report and recommendations, some of which is above. You can visit the TRC web page (new window) which has a link to the actual report.