Recently, Canada has once again been given a grim reminder of the country’s dark past. With the discovery of multiple mass graves at the sites of former residential schools across the nation, we have had to revisit the systemic racism, atrocities, and injustice the Indigenous population of Canada has been subject to. The Indian Residential School (IRS) system is one of the most egregious examples of this. Their role was “to kill the Indian in the child”, according to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). Aboriginal children were taught to be ashamed of their culture and heritage in an attempt to assimilate them into Canadian culture. They were also victims of physical and sexual abuse and neglect at the hands of their “educators”, and yet there was little to no proper schooling involved. Such an experience at a young age is bound to have negative consequences on survivors’ mental and physical state. Sure enough, adults who were enrolled in the IRS are more likely to suffer from mental and physical health complications.
This is in addition to the historical oppression that the First Nations have faced since these lands were colonized by European settlers. The Aboriginals’ territories were slowly and methodically encroached on, and by the time the dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, the aboriginals had already seen their holdings greatly reduced. The Canadian government continued to break treaties and seized even more land while pushing the natives to places less suited for agriculture and economic development. Hate crimes, racism, and discrimination also endured for centuries in Canada, and unfortunately we cannot say that these issues are behind us.
Historical and Intergenerational Trauma
It has become apparent that the negative effects of the IRS and the historical trauma that the Aboriginals suffered through are not limited to the individuals who experienced them. Intergenerational trauma (or transgenerational trauma) is when the effects of one generation’s negative experiences is passed down to the next, and this phenomenon is present within Aboriginal communities across Canada. Family members of IRS survivors are more likely to suffer from mental health problems like their parents than the children of Aboriginals who did not attend the schools. The IRS robbed future mothers and fathers of parenting skills and proper human interaction. They were also removed from their cultures and tribal teachings, stripping away an integral part of their identities. These issues have been passed on to the next generation of Aboriginals, creating a cycle of dysfunctional mental health/ family dynamics.
Understanding the Issue
Awareness about the historical plight of First Nations peoples is incredibly important to understand what exactly they have been and are going through. Thankfully, the Canadian education system is improving when it comes to teaching about the plight of the Indigenous peoples of Canada, with the news and media crucially filling in holes left out by the curriculums that still need improvement. Canadians have a personal responsibility of learning about the people who we live with and, in many cases, whose land we live on. It is imperative as knowing more about them helps us empathize and understand the situation many of them are in now. When we see the epidemic nature of drugs and alcoholism within indigenous communities (at rates much higher than the national average) we must understand that these are symptoms of an issue spanning generations. Many communities have been stuck in a cycle of poverty for decades and so cannot pull themselves out of the socio-economic turmoil that comes with financial insecurity.
How To Move Forward
The First Nations aren’t the only group of people to suffer from historical and intergenerational trauma; however, they haven’t been given the opportunity to treat the effects of the injustice that has plagued them for centuries. Internally, the Aboriginals have started to come together as a group to reignite their culture and mend their social fabric. They know their situation better than anybody and several Indigenous organizations work towards these goals. Currently, it seems they struggle to reach many Indigenous communities outside of reserves.
The Canadian government has the greatest responsibility and ability to lift them out of this endless cycle of suffering. Ottawa needs to start atoning for its past actions by investing considerable sums of money into indigenous communities to try to improve the economic situation. The poverty that the Aboriginals were thrust into due to systemic racism and discrimination must be overcome so that they can heal from their past and current traumas. This brings us to the abysmal mental health coverage for Canadians in general. This needs to change as mental health issues run rampant within Indigenous communities and are both a symptom and cause of other socio-economic issues. Youth programs are also needed to help engage young aboriginals with school or in after school clubs to help them reconnect with their roots.
Hypocritical apologies will not change the situation hundreds of thousands of Canadians are in. The Canadian government needs to take ownership of its crimes and begin making amends. We can garner more support for our cause by allying with those who already campaign for policies that focus on mental health and investment in oppressed minority communities. Organizers, activists, and concerned citizens must outline to the government that deflecting blame onto the Catholic Church will not excuse it of its participation in tandem with said institution in causing many of the issues Aboriginals face today. To not only do this but go the other way and continue to force the Aboriginals off their land in the name of economic development (see the Trans Mountain Pipeline) is absurd. Voters need to make clear this is a priority for many Canadians so that politicians will address it seriously and cease their lip service. As usual, it is only through coming together as a united front will we be able to make meaningful change.