March 2020: Rebuilding
While the world is distracted by Covid 19, I have been mulling over the idea of rebuilding (heads up, this is going to be a long rant!). Not my home—that I am renovating, not rebuilding, thank goodness! Recently, I watched an interview that impelled me to share my thoughts on a controversial topic: Truth & Reconciliation for indigenous Canadians. The interviewee, Tanya Talaga, proposes a more accurate word to reconciliation is rebuilding. I concur. There is nothing to reconcile between two unequal partners. The goal of colonization was obliteration—not collaboration. And it nearly succeeded. However, what remains are empty shells of once proud and soulful members of many nations.
It reminds me of the Holocaust. There are similarities between how Hitler and John A MacDonald tried to destroy not only a group of people, but a rich and vibrant culture and its various communities as well. A difference between the first prime minister of Canada and the leader of the Third Reich is dramatic impact. MacDonald (and other early politicians) managed a subtle, invasive, insidious, genocide that masqueraded as colonization for the good of the people of Canada. But which people? The ones who welcomed or invaded? The betrayal, deceit, and trickery used by Canadian government officials and politicians are abhorrent and would never be tolerated today.
In fact, they would be considered war crimes. Yet the general populace is tremendously dismissive of the indigenous situation. I was raised on the same platitudes and blame-the-victim attitude. Hence, countering ignorance is key. We are inundated with books, movies, documentaries about the atrocities of WWII. There is no denying it happened; that it was horrid and wrong on so many levels. The world has, for the most part, taken ownership of WWII and made efforts to prevent a repeat. We can’t imagine how it happened in the first place and are incredulous that there is a viable threat of it happening again.However, history has repeatedly proven that it does repeat itself. We have seen it in countries on all continents at various points in recorded history—dynasties in China; tribal wars in Africa; the British, Russian, and Roman Empires; Spanish conquests. Since the dawn of time, rulers have invaded countries, conquered its inhabitants, decimated cultures (Polynesian Islands, Celts, Aztecs, Mayans, to name a few). Enlightenment appears to have a short shelf life.
Which, in trauma terms, begs the question: how to break the pattern of abuse? Throwing money at the problem is another version of sweeping “it” under the rug (aka “hush money”). But that is not in the true spirit of “reconciliation.” Reconciliation implies restoration—that ship sailed with the first broken treaty and scurvy-infested Hudson Bay blanket.
In therapeutic aims, to restore a broken relationship requires all parties taking ownership of what they contributed to the situation and what they bring to the table moving forward. New terms of the relationship are negotiated. If all parties do not benefit in mutually satisfying ways, then someone sacrifices for the sake of the relationship, the relationship shifts (usually a downgrade) to factor in discrepancies, or it disintegrates.
So far, the Canadian government holds the power and calls the shots. It is by no means a mutually satisfying relationship, and separation or disintegration is not an option. Hence Canada’s indigenous peoples are forced into making the sacrifices and downgrading the relationship. None of us would have the privilege of living in this amazing country if it wasn’t for the original inhabitants welcoming the intruders and showing them the ropes of how to survive and thrive. Those who take the position of the “conquering hero,” speak from the colonization point of view—not the conquered—as history generally is written from the conquerors perspective. How arrogant to assume all is fair in war—or accurate in historic accounts.
When what happened 150-200 years ago occurs today, people flee, become refugees, seek asylum. Where are indigenous Canadians supposed to go? It is absurd to think that the country within which modern refugees seek shelter historically created the very environment that forces others out. More ludicrous is the fact that Canada doesn’t own its dark secret. The difference from WWII: Hitler and his henchmen couldn’t hide from recorded reality while Canada hides its dark secret in obscure archives.
My goals with this rant are two-fold: highlight the atrocities (ownership) and consider rebuilding from a trauma recovery perspective. In the spirit of taking ownership, here are a smattering of inhuman government policies (refer to websites end of page): denied women status of any kind (Indian or otherwise); forcefully removed children from their families to attend residential schools with the primary intent “to kill the Indian in the child”; segregated onto reserves (similar to Jewish ghettos); renamed individuals with European names (more cultural distancing); restricted from leaving reserve without permission from Indian Agent (characteristically of ill repute, dictatorial, and sadist—not unlike plantation “slave supervisors”); forbade speaking their native language, practicing their traditional religion; declared potlatch and other cultural ceremonies illegal; denied the right to vote.
“I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense,” Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1882
“The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.” – John A Macdonald, 1887
Impact of said policies—generations of indigenous Canadians “lost in the system.” We learn how to raise children living in families. If you remove children from their families, how are they to learn how to raise the next generation? Their models are punitive, dismissive, and distant institutions. Many of us spend years in therapy for being raised in punitive, dismissive, and/or distant families. Imagine whole communities and cultures!
So if the government is serious about rebuilding its indigenous roots (doubtful given political patterns), step one would be to own the damage it has done to the fabric of families—damage in terms of parenting and attachment issues which lead to unhealthy coping strategies (in any cultural background) such as violence and addictions—which Canada as a whole denies it helped to create and perpetuate.
The second step is developing a strategy—not a vague plan—a strategy with measurable goals and objectives. Clean drinking water for EVERY Canadian would be a great start! Access to equal education and health care. Trauma recovery programs led by local community members. Proper homes, facilities, and infrastructures. All of this cannot be a “top down” approach. Collaboration is key—all parties having a voice at the discussion table—starting from the “ground up.”
Another framework for understanding our predicament from the trauma recovery perspective is to think of what’s involved leaving an abusive relationship. “Canada” (as we know it) abused its original occupants —and continues to abuse with unfair policies and treatment. Not because it doesn’t know better, but willfully and initially maliciously. However, as the victimized partner in this abusive relationship, our indigenous peoples have nowhere to go, no one to turn to. As in domestic violence, there are bystanders—those who see the abuse but turn away or blame the victim. As apathetic bystanders, we join the ranks of those who witnessed the systematic destruction of Jews by the Nazi regime. We are in collusion with the abuser when we don’t speak up due to apathy or passivity. That, too, is hard to own.
Imagine you are the abused partner and believe (re-enforced through experience) you have no one to turn to—what would happen? Most likely, you turn on yourself. The violence turns inwards. Depression and futility set in. You lose your sense of self, your autonomy, your volition, your will to live. Your spirit dies a little more each day. To cope with the negative onslaught, you must shut down. Your entered this relationship in good faith. Now faith is gone. Can you imagine being beaten down every day? How do you press on? Move forward? Rebuild when each attempt is thwarted?
Providing we aren’t forced to leave under drastic measures, rebuilding a sense of self germinates while still in the abusive relationship. We begin to see “this” isn’t working and eventually realize our own spirit or essence will die if we stay or continue “as is.” We timidly begin reaching out to others, determining who can be trusted, seeking confirmation of our unfathomable experience. With their help—and ONLY with the help of trusted others—plans formulate to make change: either to begin a new life of recovery or to begin rebuilding the foundation for a healthier relationship that fosters mutual respect.
If Canada embarks on this recovery mission, it needs to collaborate with the First Nations to incorporate from within—not impose upon from the abusive party. Can you imagine being offered supposed help from the same system that terrorized, denigrated, suppressed, and trampled you? There is NO easy fix to this situation. But until we take ownership of how we all play a part (either passively or aggressively) in this toxic relationship, it will never have a hope to heal. At the very least, we must stop negative speech towards once mighty nations, communities and cultures, individuals, and a situation we know nothing about. Until we are brave enough to engage with the real people involved and learn of their lived experience, adding our voice to the multitude of naysayers is not helpful, but harmful.
Before becoming a trauma therapist, I was one of those turn-a-blind-eye/blame-the-victim Canadians. I can’t anymore. How about you?