Table of Contents
Four Worlds

Part II - Healing Issues in Aboriginal Communities

This chapter will provide a very brief overview of the social and historical processes which have contributed to the healing issues which face Aboriginal communities today. As well, a short description of the current conditions in these communities which must be addressed in order for Aboriginal people to move toward well-being in all aspects of their personal and community lives is included. Next, the current social security system will be examined in terms of its contribution to the presence or absence of personal, family and community well-being. Finally, some of the strengths and resources which Aboriginal people have developed to promote health and balance will be put forward.

It is important to note at the outset that no two communities are exactly the same. There are more than three hundred different Aboriginal cultures across Canada, each with its own distinct language or dialect and world view, and each with its own historical experience. This means that the observations in this chapter will have to be very general. As described in Part III, an important part of the healing journey is the process of telling the story of the events which have contributed to current trauma, dysfunction and pain. In other words, every community needs to be able to tell its own story. The observations made here are not intended in any way to substitute for that process. They are merely included to help provide a background to the identification of the major healing issues which many Aboriginal communities have in common.

While it is true to say that no two communities have the same story to tell, it is also true that Aboriginal people have much in common. Even though linguistic, cultural and historical differences seem to set Aboriginal communities apart, the spiritual and philosophical foundations that connect Aboriginal people from many different nations to the land, to the Creator and to each other are remarkably similar. It is also true that Aboriginal communities in Canada have been sharing and learning from each other as they have worked to develop effective programs and treatment centres to address some of the important healing issues they all face. This combined experience is a strong foundation for the tasks still to be accomplished.

A. The Un-Making of a World: A brief review of historical processes that undermined traditional systems for maintaining balance and harmony. European Contact

The earliest written records we have of contact between European and Canadian Aboriginal peoples is through the diaries and journals of explorers, missionaries, traders and government workers. While each community of people has its own story to tell, there are strong similarities across the continent in terms of:

a. How Europeans viewed Aboriginal people (as children, as "in-the-way," as savages, as a problem to be overcome);

b. What motivated European contact with Aboriginal people (saving souls, commerce and trade, gold and other resources, a need for land);

c. How Aboriginal sovereignty and Aboriginal land was viewed (all Indigenous peoples are subjects of the Crown and all lands are property of the Crown and therefore ours to exploit and rule).

These views are confirmed over and over in government records, Hudson Bay traders' journals, and missionary correspondence. Two of the latest treaties to be signed in Canada involved the Dene people of the Mackenzie Valley. Fr. Renee Fumoleau presents very powerful evidence that even as late as 1900 (Treaty 8) or 1921 (Treaty 11), Aboriginal people were viewed as obstacles in the way of nation building and the exploitation of a vast reservoir of natural resources ranging from timber and gold to oil (Fumoleau, 1973).

What did not happen for the most part in the relationship between Europeans and Aboriginal people was the meeting of human beings as equals, and the building of alliances based on mutual respect and justice. The sheer force of numbers and superior fire-power on the side of the Europeans and the gradual erosion from within of Aboriginal people's concept of self-worth and identity all contributed to the gradual un-making of a way of life.

The Process of Contact

Following is a thumbnail sketch of the process of European contact. Each of the elements listed occurred in slightly different ways, in different time frames, and brought different outcomes depending on which parts of the continent we consider. Nevertheless, most Aboriginal people have been impacted in some way by all of these.

1. Trade - When Aboriginal people began getting involved in the fur trade as guides and trappers, many traditional economies gradually shifted from subsistence (you take what you need) to being centered on cash. With this shift came a gradual dependence on certain foods and other staples for which cash was needed. Some of the impacts of cash dependency were as follows. a) It took more and more time and energy to get less and less food and other needed trade goods. b) When the fur trade collapsed at the end of WW I and WW II (Europeans weren't buying furs), trading posts closed without notice. Trappers and their families arrived at trading posts with furs but no one was there. Many starved. c) Traditional economies shifted from mutual responsibility and sharing as a prime value to individualized wealth and poverty. All of this set the stage for later welfare dependency.

2. Missionization - European missionaries came to save souls and introduced a gradual process of eroding away people's belief in their own spirituality and cultural heritage. One impact was the introduction of spiritual and cultural self-doubt and distrust of one's own experiences, traditional wisdom, teachings and ways of understanding the world.

3. Disease - There is some considerable evidence (from the journals of early European explorers and fur traders as well as from skeletal remains) that Canadian Aboriginal people prior to contact were remarkably healthy, both physically and mentally. They lived a relatively balanced lifestyle with plenty of exercise and a simple, natural diet. They were well adapted to the bacteria and viruses in their home environment and they had developed effective strategies, using herbs, cleansing ceremonies and other therapies, for dealing with disease and injury.

Hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people died as a direct result of contact with Europeans. The report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People describes what happened in this way.

Famine and warfare contributed, but infectious diseases were the great killer. Influenza, measles, polio, diphtheria, smallpox and other diseases were transported from the slums of Europe to the unprotected villages of the Americas. The subsequent decline of the indigenous population is often described as genocide or a holocaust. (RCAP, Vol. 3:112) From an estimated figure of about 500,000 people before contact, the population of Aboriginal people in Canada had declined to a bit over 100,000 by 1871. In northern Canada, the major impact of the disease epidemics came even later. For example, flu epidemics in 1911-12 and again in 1921 killed thousands of Aboriginal people in the North. One Yukon woman tells the story of a girl who was nine or ten when her entire family got sick and died. The family was out on the trap line. The little girl somehow made her way to another camp some fifty mile away. She was the only survivor in her family of seventeen people.

4. Colonization and Bureaucratization - The economic and political annexation (i.e. take over) of Aboriginal peoples and their lands to serve European economic and geo-political interests left most Aboriginal peoples impoverished and dependent on others for basic survival needs. Most Canadian Aboriginal people were eventually placed on set-aside lands called "reserves," and made to organize their community affairs according to Canadian government legislation (such as the Indian Act).

The chief and council system (really a copy of the municipal mayor and council model) was imposed, and many aspects of life from cradle to grave came to be highly regulated. These rules and regulations were almost never of the people's own making. One overall impact of this system is an increase in dependency on others to solve problems. Today, many communities are still struggling with this foreign system of government that seems to perpetuate fragmentation, disunity and corruption, and seems to discourage and even undermine the political empowerment of grassroots people. Communities must also work with a justice system that is driven by a very different view of how to define and deal with deviance, dysfunction and imbalances in behaviour.

The report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal people (cited above) describes this process as follows:

The transformation of Aboriginal people from the state of good health that had impressed travellers from Europe to one of ill health, for which Aboriginal people were (and still are) often held responsible, grew worse as sources of food and clothing from the land declined and traditional economies collapsed. It grew worse still as once-mobile peoples were confined to small plots of land where resources and opportunities for natural sanitation were limited. It worsened yet again as long-standing norms, values, social systems and spiritual practices were undermined or outlawed.

Traditional healing methods were decried as witchcraft and idolatry by Christian missionaries and ridiculed by most others. Ceremonial activity was banned in an effort to turn hunters and trappers into agricultural labourers with a commitment to wage work. Eventually, the Indian Act prohibited those ceremonies that had survived most defiantly, the potlatch and the sun dance. Many elders and healers were prosecuted. In these ways, Aboriginal people were stripped of self-respect and respect for one another. (RCAP, Vol. 2:113)

5. Education - Education was used as a tool to domesticate (read Europeanize) Aboriginal people. The basic belief of those who ran the early mission and government residential schools was that Aboriginal cultures and language were primitive and inferior. The only chance Native children would have for a "decent" life would be to learn to speak English (or French), to become good Christians, and to learn to read, write and think the way white people do. Assimilation was the conscious goal of education. Native people were to become absorbed into the dominant culture. They would cease to exist as distinct cultural entities.

Following is a brief outline of the impact European schooling has had.

a. Some Aboriginal people gained the tools they needed to live and work with the dominant society. Without these people, many communities would have had an even greater difficulty with the context of modern Canada.

b. Whole generations of children who were sent away to residential schools were not parented within the embrace of their own families, cultures and communities. Children parented by institutions have no role models of how to be parents themselves, especially in terms of passing on the values and teachings of the culture.

c. Many children experienced tremendous fear, suffering, pain, trauma, and the loss of language, culture, traditions and relatives.

d. Many children learned to be ashamed of their own identity, and to distrust and disbelieve in the value of the traditional past.

e. Cut off from their own past and Native identity but not accepted in the white world, many of these children grew up caught "between two worlds."

f. Community norms and boundaries were never internalized in these children. They never learned traditional concepts of respect and how to view everyone as "relations." Foreign concepts of behaviour and boundaries were introduced. Wide-spread physical and sexual abuse were introduced into the behaviour patterns.

g. When these people returned to their home communities (1950s and 1960s), the traditional safeguards to protect the community from disease were simply not there. This generation of children had grown up without them.

Among these safeguards in may tribes was the annual cycle of ceremonies marking the turning of the seasons, critical passages of life (such as birth, puberty, commitment to service, marriage and death), and significant religious observations. All of these served as a constant reminder to participants of spiritual purpose, moral boundaries, duties and responsibilities to self and to the community, and the sacredness of life. When this framework was removed and not replaced with anything that effectively achieved the same goals, many people were uprooted from the very foundations of healthy living with no guidance and no idea where to turn for guidance. Perhaps this was the greatest loss of all.

6. Health - As mentioned above, prior to contact Aboriginal people generally had effective methods for preventing and treating illness and injury. Through the colonization, bureaucratization, missionization, and education processes described here, the control of healing and other health practices was largely transferred from Aboriginal people to programs and institutions sponsored by the Canadian government. While this new system helped to mitigate some of the devastating health problems which developed through the early contact period, it also failed to protect the health and well-being of Aboriginal people in many ways, including the following. a. The new health care services had no foundation in the traditional knowledge and cultural values and practices of First Nations peoples. They were unfamiliar and frightening for many Aboriginal people and further undermined their trust in and identification with their own identity and resources. They also took some Aboriginal people away from their communities, sometimes for very extended periods, when they required certain types of medical treatment (e.g. related to tuberculosis).

b. Traditional healers were ridiculed and persecuted. They had to practice their arts in secret and many Aboriginal people no longer availed themselves of the benefits of their skills and knowledge because they did not know how to access these services or because they had been taught to mistrust, fear or condemn their own healing traditions. Through this process a great deal of very valuable cultural knowledge has been lost.

c. The dominant societyís health system tends to focus on what some people call the "sick care system" rather than on a holistic approach to optimal well-being. This means that Aboriginal communities only have access to certain types of treatment and prevention programs through government funding, rather than to the type of healing and human and community development which are needed to restore individuals, families and communities to the type of health they could enjoy.

d. Aboriginal people lost control over the institutions and processes which were supposed to protect the health of their people. They were taught that the dominant society knew best which services and programs they needed. Even now as many communities are negotiating with the Canadian government for the transfer of health programs to their control, they are often being given administrative responsibility for existing programs but very little real power to actually re-create health and social service programming in order to move toward maximum health and well-being.

7. Media - The impact of the media on the thinking and behaviour of community people, especially young people, is profound in most Aboriginal communities. Dominant culture television, movies and radio influence everyone towards values of individualism (the rights and well-being of the individual are more important than those of the community), materialism, and the ever-declining morals of the dominant culture.

Another significant impact of the media on the health and well-being of Aboriginal communities is the images and stereotypes they have perpetuated about First Nations peoples. Media coverage has tended to focus on problems, on sensational events, and on a rather shallow description of cultural characteristics. This type of reporting has contributed to the sense of shame, low self-worth and confusion about cultural identity which many Aboriginal people feel.

B. Current Conditions

Out of all of this, a gradual pattern of community disease began to emerge. Some of the signs and symptoms of that disease included a gradual increase of alcoholism (which exploded to levels of ninety percent or more in some communities in the 1950s and Ď60s when it became legal for Aboriginal people to purchase and consume liquor); power struggles and jealousy created by the new political system; internal disunity over religion; the introduction of sexual abuse as a community pattern through the residential school generation; family and communal violence, suicide and other mental problems; and an increase in poverty, the neglect of children and dependency due to addiction and dysfunction.

Precise statistics concerning the extent of these problems are difficult to obtain, and they do vary considerably from one community to another. There is general consensus, however, on the fact that Canadian Aboriginal people suffer significantly and disproportionally when compared with the general population from the effects of poor physical, mental and emotional health. This section briefly highlights some of the indications of ill health and social breakdown in Canadian Aboriginal communities.

Indicators of Poor Physical Health

Poor physical health is of course a serious problem in itself. It is often a cause of trauma and brings on feelings of loss, of poor self-worth and of helplessness and hopelessness. It also means that people are not able to achieve their full potential to contribute meaningfully to their families and communities. It consumes resources which could otherwise be devoted to other development priorities such as the development of viable economic options, human resource development or health promotion initiatives designed to move people toward optimum well-being rather than merely to achieve freedom from disease or injury.

Poor physical health also provides clear evidence of unacceptable social and economic conditions in Aboriginal communities. All of the indications of poor physical health listed below are very directly linked to poverty; to poor housing and sanitation; to high rates of addiction and other types of dysfunction; to political and administrative systems which have been unable to rise to the challenge of developing policies and programs which lead to integrated social development; to unworkable relationships with the federal and various provincial governments; and to inequities with respect to access to services, to opportunities for human resource development, and to the benefits of economic development in Canada at large. Some examples of the indications of poor physical health in Aboriginal communities which are also an indication of more pervasive social and economic breakdown include the following:

Indicators of Poor Mental, Social and Community Health The 1991 Government of Canada document entitled "Agenda for First Nations and Inuit Mental Health" offered the following definition of mental health. Among the First Nations and Inuit communities, the term mental health is used in a broad sense, describing behaviours which make for a harmonious and cohesive community and the relative absence of multiple problem behaviours in the community, such as family violence, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency and self-destructive behaviour. It is more than the absence of illness, disease or dysfunction--it is the presence of a holistic, psychological wellness which is part of the full circle of mind, body, emotions and spirit, with respect for tradition, culture and language. This gives rise to creativity, imagination and growth, and enhances the capacity of the community, family group or individual to interact harmoniously and respond to illness and adversity in healing ways. (Steering Committee on native Mental Health, Agenda for First Nations and Inuit Mental Health, p. 6) This type of holistic definition of mental health (which is certainly consistent with the approach taken in this study, paves the way for exploring a range of conditions which are indicators of the current mental, social and community health status of Aboriginal communities. The health indicators described in the above section paint a rather one-sided and disheartening view of the conditions in Canadian Aboriginal communities. It is also important to explore the many positive initiatives and trends which are taking place. These will be looked at in Section D below of this chapter, which briefly examines the resources and strengths Aboriginal communities bring to the task of re-building their social security system so that it leads to individual, family and community well-being.

C. The Current Social Security System

As outlined in Part I of this document, the current Canadian social safety net is made up of a blend of income security, health and social insurance programs and a constantly changing array of "social adjustment" services, designed to help "disadvantaged" groups find their place within the mainstream of Canadian social and economic life. For Aboriginal people these benefits typically include access to income support programs (e.g. social assistance, old age pensions, disability benefits), education benefits and health services (including both insured and some non-insured benefits such as prescription drugs, eye glasses and dental work). Reserve communities also receive transfer payments to provide housing, to operate local government and to run special programs, ranging from job creation to substance abuse treatment and prevention.

Many Canadians would consider this a rather comprehensive social security system, yet if we are to judge by the summary of the conditions in Aboriginal communities presented above, it is clearly not leading to even a minimally acceptable standard of well-being. Aboriginal people themselves have long been calling for a reform of the system and the Canadian government is of course anxious to re-define its own responsibility for social security in Aboriginal communities.

It is not the scope of this study to explore the full range of issues which must be considered for comprehensive social security reform. Our focus is the relationship between the need for individual, family and community healing and the re-creation of the social safety net, but it is not always easy to make clear distinctions since all the issues involved in social security reform are closely inter-related. What follows is a brief summary of some of the factors which must be considered in order to create a social safety net in Aboriginal communities which takes into account healing needs and processes.

D. Strengths and Resources for Healing in Aboriginal Com-munities Section B of this chapter summarized some of the conditions in Canadian Aboriginal communities related to the need for individual, family and community healing. At the end of that section, we commented that Aboriginal communities also have many strengths and resources which are being used to move their people toward greater well-being. This section will attempt to outline some of those assets, as well as to provide a brief history of the overall development of what has come to be referred to by many as the Aboriginal healing movement.

The Aboriginal Healing Movement

The years between 1950 and 1980 were some of the darkest years in living memory for many Canadian Aboriginal communities, but they can also be thought of as the darkest hour before the dawn. For there really has been a dawn in recent years, a new awareness of spirituality, Native identity, and healing in many Aboriginal communities across Canada.

The seeds of trust and awakening were always present, planted by wise elders generations before in stories, songs, ceremonies, and sacred teachings. Much of those old ways had gone underground because of religious and legal persecution as well as political repression.

The 1960s were a period of political and cultural reawakening for many peoples in both the United States and Canada. The birth of the Aboriginal rights movement, through such organizations as AIM (the American Indian Movement ) in the United States and the National Indian Brotherhood in Canada, marked the visible and more public beginning of a new era in modern Aboriginal healing.

In addition to the political empowerment process, three other powerful streams have contributed to the emergence of what is clearly an indigenous peoples healing movement.

They are :
1.       The revival of traditional spirituality.
2.       The introduction of personal growth and healing as a primary line of action in community life through such        programs as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and a whole host of strategies and programs for addressing substance abuse, sexual abuse, violence, and the need for personal growth.
3.      The health promotion and healthy communities movement.

Many communities have experienced the revival of old ceremonies, practices and teachings such as smudging, the sweat lodge, the use of the sacred pipe, fasting, vision quests, and ceremonies for naming, healing, reconciliation, and personal or collective commitment. Some communities seemed to have forgotten their own ceremonies and so whole generations of younger men and women travelled to other communities and tribes across the continent to find spiritual teachers who would help them recover something of their own Aboriginal spiritual teachings and practices. Sometimes, as the teachings and songs of another tribe were introduced in a community, the elders would begin to share their own heritage which they had hidden away in their hearts for so many years.

What is significant about all of this relative to the issue of addressing social security reform is that the bringing back and re-legitimizing of traditional spiritual and cultural teachings has already contributed a great deal to community healing and development processes. Indeed, much of the primary thinking about what healing is, how it can be promoted and maintained, and how it is intimately contained in the whole hoop of life encompassing individuals, families, groups, organizations, communities, and nations-- many of these insights have come from indigenous people's cultural foundations, and are now actually being borrowed and used by dominant society health practitioners because they are so powerful and effective.

The other primary stream which continues to contribute to the indigenous people's healing movement (in addition to the political empowerment process and the revival of indigenous spirituality and culture) is the addictions and human potential movement. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has made a significant contribution. It is important to note that many Aboriginal people have been helped through participation in AA, and also many communities have been impacted and helped because AA members stuck it out and persistently held meetings (sometimes for years) even if only a few people ever came. It is also fair to say that many communities took AA concepts and practices (such as the twelve steps) and integrated them into healing approaches that were better suited to community realities and conditions than non-Native, urban approaches to running AA meetings. At the same time, the adult children of alcoholics and codependency models were emerging out of AA, and these approaches have also been a profound influence on the content and process of the Aboriginal healing movement through the pioneering work of people like Jane Middleton-Moss and Ann Wilson Schaef.

The human potential movement provided another sub-stream in the healing process. This movement has its origins in gestalt therapy, holistic health, eastern yoga, meditation and cultural development strategies, and in the performing arts, (theatre, music, and dance applied to healing). From this sub-stream came a strong focus on health and wellness rather than sickness. The health promotion/determinants of health approach is now recognized by dominant culture health professionals as a legitimate strategy for addressing fundamental health issues. This departure from the "medical model" has much in common with Aboriginal community healing concepts and practices. The Aboriginal healing movement has gained support and legitimization from the mainstream health promotion field. The converse is also truth. The field of health promotion has also been significantly enriched by exposure to Aboriginal models and strategies.

In Canada, the Aboriginal healing movement was given a major boost by the Health and Welfare Canada through the establishment in 1982 of the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP). The first directors of this program made a tremendous contribution to the Canadian Aboriginal healing movement simply by listening to indigenous community voices, and supporting indigenous thinking in the building of solutions to address the prevention and treatment of alcohol and drug abuse. By the early 1980's, alcohol and drug abuse had been recognized by Aboriginal leaders and health professionals as the number one health problem facing Aboriginal people in Canada.

As can be seen from this thumbnail sketch outlining the emergence of the Aboriginal health movement, no one person, group, or community can be credited with starting the movement. Spiritual leaders, elders, and very many others had been praying for some way to help their communities out of the black hole of despair that was engulfing them and killing many of their people. Countless community heroes and heroines have sacrificed years of their lives to bring it about and there were many outside helpers who arose in the form of role model communities or helping organizations that continue to contribute to the process. The following section lists some of the types of resources and strengths which Aboriginal communities in Canada have developed through this courageous and dedicated search for processes which would help return their people to the health and balance they once enjoyed.

Assets and Resources for Healing

It is important not to underestimate the tremendous resources and strengths which Aboriginal communities already have as they tackle the challenge of rebuilding strong, healthy nations. As mentioned earlier, they have a great deal to teach Canadian society in general when it comes to understanding the central role of healing in any human and community development processes. What follows is a brief summary of the strengths which can be built on for the task of creating a social security system which leads to well-being and prosperity.

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