‘Note: In this editorial, Bill employs “First Nation” to identify communities controlled under the Indian Act and known previously as Indian Bands. “First Nation” emerged as a new and more relevant name after Canada’s constitution was amended.
The concept “aboriginal” refers to Canada’s three “First Peoples” - the Indians, Inuit and Métis - and “indigenous” is used to describe people of the planet who are also considered as “First People,” such as the Maoris of New Zealand.
Before contact with Europeans, Canada’s indigenous people enjoyed relatively good health and knew cures for many illnesses. Traditional wisdom and knowledge of the land as a resource for the community was essential for their health and well-being.
Since contact with - and colonization by - the Europeans, First Nations communities have experienced serious physical, emotional and spiritual ill health. This is evident in physical health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and mental health challenges such as violence, abuse, depression, suicide and dependence on addictive substances.
Colonization occurs when one people is conquered by another people through destroying and/or weakening basic social structures in the conquered culture and replacing them with those of the conquering culture.
Colonization robbed First Nations of most of their land and resources. First Nations people relied on the land for making a living in self-sufficient ways. Their food supplies came from the rivers, forests and meadows, and materials for clothing and shelter came from the trees and animals. They lived in collectives of families that shared responsibilities for hunting, ensuring shelter needs were met, preparing and preserving food, and raising children and taking care of the elderly. However, with access to their traditional lands seriously restricted, dependence on government and mainstream programs and services increased.
Families were relocated to a much smaller land base ‘on the reserve.’ At the same time, children were being removed from families and placed in the Indian residential schools. This had devastating effects on the people. They could no longer be self-sufficient, proud and purposeful. They were not able to provide adequately for their families and many experienced starvation. The sense of purposelessness was magnified, because the children were taken. Loss of the land base meant loss of the foundation for their traditional social, economic and cultural ways of life.
Colonization robbed First Nations of their cultural inheritance. The death of thousands of people through introduced diseases meant that their vast knowledge could not be passed on to the survivors. The right of parents to pass on what they knew of their culture to their children was blocked by oppressive residential schools. After two and three generations of the residential schools, traditional language and culture was displaced by a poorly taught foreign language and alternative lifestyle.
Colonization created stigmatization of First Nations. Colonizers viewed and treated Canada’s indigenous peoples as lesser human beings. The poverty, mental health challenges and other struggles faced by First Nations stem from colonial policies and practices. These include: the reserve system, laws banning spiritual practices, the residential school system and, more recently, the “’60s Scoop” of aboriginal children by child welfare authorities. Discrimination continues to this day; it is still enshrined in policies and practices of Canadian social structures.
Colonization has caused an epidemic of child apprehensions. Children are apprehended today mainly because of deprivation and poverty, not because of sexual abuse and violence. (2) Many caregivers did not learn how to care for and raise healthy children; in fact, most were not themselves parented because they were removed from family and community and put in residential school. They know institutional, custodial care, but not the healthy nurturing of traditional family life. Many of today’s parents and grandparents were deprived of an upbringing that would have:
- enabled them to develop a relatively secure personal and cultural identity (3)
- transmitted and strengthened the relational nature of their lives—the connectedness with the land, its resources and all other things of the Creator
- fostered growth and development that would facilitate meaningful bridging between cultures and nations.
A way to regain dignity and a community of care
Decolonization refers to a process where a colonized people reclaim their traditional culture, redefine themselves as a people and reassert their distinct identity.
As a professional educator, mental health practitioner and consultant to First Nations, I see decolonization as the way to healing and restoring family and community health. The process requires:
- learning how to learn and undertaking a journey to wellness that involves self-care
- understanding forces of history that have shaped present day lifestyles
- discovering, naming and transmitting indigenous knowledge, values and ways of knowing, together with understanding selected Western ways
- applying and adapting both indigenous and Western knowledge, values and ways of knowing to address present-day challenges effectively.
First Nations people must take positive control over their lives as individuals, families and communities. They must build on who they are culturally and understand history from an indigenous perspective. Reclaiming and building on cultural strengths contributes to a secure personal and cultural identity for all First Nations and other aboriginal groups. Grieving and healing of the losses suffered through colonization is a further step toward collective wellness and self-determination.
During my adult lifetime, I have seen such shifts in consciousness and perception of ourselves. In the 1960s, we usually referred to ourselves as Indians, adopting the name and status the Canadian government had imposed. But as we addressed more closely issues of aboriginal title and rights and increased our research, we began to identify ourselves with our tribal names.
Further change came in the 1980s connected with patriation of Canada’s constitution and our self-government aspirations. “First Nations” became the popular reference for us. This is strong evidence of our growing consciousness of our ancestors, our relationship to the land and other resources, and the importance of traditional languages.
More and more First Nations leaders and workers are calling for healing, family restoration and strengthened communities of care. These people promote a renewal of cultural practices and teaching history from an indigenous perspective. They call for education and training that combines the best of mainstream and indigenous knowledge, and for building the capacity of workers to improve the quality of life in their villages.
A parallel process of consciousness raising must occur within Canadian society, so stigma and discrimination against aboriginal Canadians can be eliminated, both on the personal and the structural levels of society.
About the author
Bill is a member of the Skwah First Nation, one of the 24 Stolo First Nations. He was first of his village to graduate from university. His career includes 15 years of professional work in corrections and over 30 years in post-secondary teaching. He is chair and president of the Native Mental Health Association of Canada and chair of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Advisory Committee to the Mental Health Commission of Canada
1. Mussell, W. & Stevenson, J. (1999). Health authorities handbook on Aboriginal health. Vancouver: Aboriginal Health Association of BC. www.bchealthguide.org/first_nations_healthguide.pdf.
2. Aboriginal Health Foundation. (2008). From truth to reconciliation: Transforming the legacy of residential schools. Ottawa: author. www.ahf.ca/publications/research-series.
3. Mussell, W. (2005). Warrior-caregivers: Understanding the challenges and healing of First Nations men. Ottawa: Aboriginal Health Foundation. www.ahf.ca/publications/research-series.