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the whole picture

Current attention on the First Nation’s community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario, Canada cannot be ignored. I commented on the situation in a previous post a little out of focus; December 2, 2011 but feel it deserves further consideration.

In my previous post I stated that perhaps the Federal Government “could acknowledge their responsibility for the issues and give the First Nations peoples of Canada the respect they deserve and stop focusing on money and their dysfunctional relationship with the leaders they have enticed into the white man’s questionable way of doing business”. Let me say more about that.

Prior to some research work that I completed last year I believe I was about as familiar with the circumstances of the First Nations People of Canada as most other Canadians. Not knowledgeable. Sure while in elementary school I had learned a small amount about the various tribes in Canada and about their culture and some of their customs. My personal interest in their healing practices led to some further study.  However most of my understanding was obtained a long time ago and admittedly anything I had learned had now been coloured with government reaction and media coverage of the same that painted the First Nations People in a negative light. We would hear similar comments to those recently made by our current Prime Minister Stephen Harper stating that enough money had been given to the First Nations People and they had not used it wisely, so why should more be given. The blame for any continuing issues in the First Nations communities always, like now, went right back to the community itself with the Federal Government stepping away and denying any responsibility. If the issues stayed in the press the Government would, almost certainly reluctantly, commission a study, a review, or a report that of course would never be acted upon. The attention to the issue in the media and by Government would die down but the issues in the communities remained and were left to fester.

Having done the reading and research that I did last year I became very aware of just how ignorant I have been about the circumstances of the First Nations People of Canada. I came to realize that I had never really had the facts.  I had not appreciated the conditions of the First Nations People from the proper perspective. For so many years I had not understood the impact of the decimation of their culture through the colonization process led by the Euro-Canadians.  In The art of sharing , November 24th, 2011 I highlighted the Canadian Government’s ban of the Potlatch ceremony which is just one example of the process to turn the First Nation People into God-fearing Euro-Canadians. But there was so much more. The expectation of the Canadian Government, for the people who had lived and survived for many many years on this land before the settlers from Britain and Europe had arrived, was that these people needed to become like the white man. There was no tolerance for a different way of life or for a different spiritual approach. The First Nations People were forced to drop their language, their cultural traditions, their hunting and gathering practices and follow the misguided ways of the white man. Tearing children away from their families to go to residential schools was one of the main tactics used to break the culture that the white man did not understand and took no effort to learn about. That “the family is the heart of life” within the First Nations’ culture was completely ignored (see Learning from others….Cowichan teachings, November 29th,2011). The impact of the residential schools is just another example of the cultural annihilation, the disintegration of the family structure, the ongoing stresses and the corresponding economic issues that have directly impacted the First Nations communities in Canada.

can't see the forest for the trees


Granted in the late 1990’s the Canadian Government acknowledged the impacts of the residential schools on the First Nations people but from my perspective they did little else.

What has not been addressed is what the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) refers to as “historic trauma transmission (HTT). This is defined by AHF as follows: “historic trauma is understood as a cluster of traumatic events and as a disease itself. Hidden collective memories of this trauma, or a collective non–remembering, is passed on from generation to generation, as are the maladaptive social and behavioural patterns that are symptoms of many disorders caused by historic trauma. There is no “single” historic trauma response; rather, there are different social disorders with respective clusters of symptoms.  HTT disrupts adaptive social and cultural patterns and transforms them into maladaptive ones, which manifest themselves into symptoms of social disorder.  In short, historic trauma causes deep breakdowns in social functioning that may last for many years, decades and even generations.”

Learning this information drastically altered my view and understanding of the issues facing the First Nations people. So many of the issues that had puzzled me over the years and had me at times questioning why these issues could not be surpassed were now clear. I got it! The cycles of poverty, mental health issues, addictions and poor health that I had seen in relation to First Nations people through my work started to make sense. Until we addressed the deeper causes, the issues would keep repeating themselves.


This new awareness altered my thinking not only about the issues that we are hearing these communities are up against today but also my thinking about what the next steps might be. It seems clear to me that this is much more than a money issue or a more specific issue of the need for adequate housing and clean drinking water.  It is even bigger than the need for attention to improving education and health services for the people of these communities.

First Nations and other Canadians must begin a conversation to address the past and the future and go forward from today. An honest dialogue about healing between the people of these communities and concerned Canadians must replace the typical paternalistic (colonial) top down approach of the Federal Government. We need to start talking about what makes sense for people and supports them to live well. We must move away from governments and leaders who pretend that the needs of the general population are a priority for them.

The Attawapiskat community and the First Nations Communities of Canada deserve the chance to return to a sense of dignity and respect. We, all Canadians, need to come to a real and mutual appreciation and acceptance of the cultures of both the First Nations and of Canadians. We share the land and we must share compassion and respect for each other if we are to move forward.


Irene McDermott © 2011