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Posted by on Oct 28, 2014 in Featured, The Americas, Uncategorized | 1 comment

“Hold a Mirror” to the Wounds of Canadian Aboriginals

 

Interactive Hearing for the high level plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. Photo Shane Brown, Global Coordinating Group Media Team.

Interactive Hearing for the high level plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. Photo Shane Brown, Global Coordinating Group Media Team.

On September 22-23, 2014, the UN General Assembly held a meeting in New York of more than 1000 delegates and heads of state for the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous People, but “saddening [and] surprising” was that Canada was the only state to vote against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).[1] Despite the very fundamental and primitive goal of the Conference, which was to help “set minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples” as described by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Canada was finicky over the phrase “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) in the third paragraph of the outcome document.[2]

This same phrase precluded the government from voting for the UNDRIP in 2007 also, because it “could be interpreted as providing a veto to Aboriginal groups… [and] could risk fettering the Parliamentary supremacy.”[3] FPIC is a vital component of the UNDRIP, with its emphasis on respecting and acknowledging the position of the Indigenous Peoples when implementing legislative measures, but does not equate granting them absolute power, or at least any more power than other parties, to veto decisions. Perry Bellegarde, the Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief, reiterated that there is no word “veto” in the UNIP and inquired Colleen Swords, the new Aboriginal Affairs Deputy Minister and the only Harper government official to represent Canada at the Conference, to explain the government’s opposition on the Declaration.[4] The answer was not heard at the Conference but instead was written by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt: “our government is focused on working with aboriginal communities on our shared priorities… and a framework that ensures the consultation and accommodation, as appropriate, of aboriginal interests.”[5]

Unfortunately, there are gaps between the government’s proposals and the current circumstances of many reserves. Although largely dependent on the geography, history and the culture of each reserve, the average Aboriginal does not have an as equally privileged standard of living as a non-Aboriginal: inflated unemployment and school dropout rates, substance abuse, unbalanced diet and dilapidated homes are all indications of underdevelopment. These issues are of course, unimaginable for the rest of Canada and often are denied by the government; when Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food referred to the “desperate situation” of Indigenous People in 2012, the government dismissed him as an “ill-informed academic.”[7]

Mental health is inseparably both the determinant and the output for many of the difficulties, yet it is often left unmentioned in Canada. Contrastingly, the UNDRIP explicitly addresses the urgency of “access to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (¶13), measures of attaining this by “empowerment and capacity-building of indigenous youth…in particular in areas of health” (¶15) and examination of “the causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women and girls” (¶19).[8] The Inter-Agency Support Group (IASG), in a thematic paper towards the preparation of the conference, also outlines key problems in the health of Aboriginals and states that the pervasive violation of rights, including “right to self-determination, to non-discrimination, to health, to education, to food, to culture, to land and to water” is the primary origin of health issues.[9]

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are the most sharply prevalent mental health problems in the Aboriginal communities, specific to Canada. The PTSD rates amongst residential school survivors is found to be 64% in British Columbia (research lacks in other provinces) which is much higher than 2-10% of Canadian veterans. [10] The causes of PTSD are sudden or prolonged traumatizing experiences. According to some sociologists and historians, Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people meets the criteria of a genocide generated at the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) 1948.[11] More accurately termed a “cultural genocide” by the UN Genocide Convention, the government intended to destroy Aboriginal culture by “(e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (from home to residential schools) and oppressing their culture and language.[12] Deliberate ignorance of spreading tuberculosis and many unspoken stories of sexual abuse also fall under “(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”[13] In a culture that highly values family and harmony, such loss of security and self-dignity led to long-lasting wounds. Psychological symptoms of PTSD include depression, anhedonia, and social dysfunction in school, work and home. One survivor testified, “when we go into a lot of First Nations health centers there’s posters on diabetes, cancer, HIV, AIDS, safe sex, quitting smoking – those are a lot of [physical] symptoms of PTSD – but we see very little information and awareness about it.”[14]

“Trans-generational grief” is an even greater concern.[15] The children and grandchildren of the Sixties Scoop generation are now experiencing second-hand, and more complex, depression. Youth depression arises from a stronger identity crisis, of not having experienced the residential school era but still being emotionally affected by the stress of their family members. The geographical and cultural distance between a reserve from the rest of the Aboriginal communities and Canada isolate youths from establishing reliable inter-personal relationships and communicating these hardships, which deepens the issue. Lack of self-determination and self-worth are also very highly associated with high depression rates. Depression is the strongest correlate of suicidal rates, and youths from age 15 to 24 represent the group with the highest rate of attempted suicides reaching rates up to 32%; this rate is 6-11 times higher than non-Aboriginal Canadian youths.[16] Sadly and surprisingly, 50% of suicide attempts were related with difficulties at home, mostly due to the “transgenerational grief.”[17] The IASG thematic paper on reproductive health also suggests that discrimination of Indigenous youths makes them particularly vulnerable to health challenges manifested in alcoholism, suicide, sexual violence, early pregnancy and the risk of HIV and other STIs.[18]

The implementation of health programs in the reserves often fails to meet the hoped-for effects. An employee of the BC Aboriginal Network on Disability Society criticized with frustration that the government health experts “parachute in for a weekend or whatever, they do these fancy workshops, you pay them a ton of money and then they fly out.”[19] Relationships take time to consolidate. A weekend of disclosing scars does not cure but only exacerbates them and intensifies distrust in the government. Shortage of mental health services and inadequately trained people also attribute to low level of suicide prevention; for example, in Manitoba, only 6% of Aboriginal youths sought medical help before suicide attempt, compared to 21% of non-Aboriginal youths.[20] It is also necessary to remedy the core origins of PTSD and depression with holistic approaches rather than simply diagnosing and medicating patients. To Aboriginals, wellness is defined by balance with family and the community; therefore restoration of culture and relationship with the land are essential to their physical and mental health.[21]

Major social ramifications of PTSD and depression are high unemployment and school dropout rates, at 30% in 2006 and 58% in 2011, respectively. [22],[23] This leads to low income, which is inevitably associated with poor diet and substandard home conditions. The stress aggregates, leaving very little choice but alcohol and drug abuse. 75% of reserve residents think alcohol is a problem in their community, and this is especially the case for men, who experience acute discontinuity of role in his culture and family.[24] Such dependence then predisposes people to further depression, making them susceptible to express violence to others or themselves. This inevitable cycle repeats and will repeat itself over and over again, until a very effective mental health program is established in the reserves.

As the 2014 report by UN human rights clarified, “Canada has taken determined action… [but] the numerous initiatives that have been taken at the federal and provincial/territorial levels to address the problems faced by indigenous peoples have been insufficient.”[25] The UNDRIP project should extend to Canada, where representatives are sent… to learn how mental problems are identified in the socio-cultural context of those groups, and identify best practices that take into account respective socio-cultural considerations that may render a western mental health perspective less effective.”[26] Shawn Atleo, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, suggests that Canada must “hold a mirror” to reflect the current reality of the reserves, to recognize the lack of sincere and special efforts made by the health sector, and most importantly, to support Aboriginals to also look into the mirror and rediscover their identity.[27]

___________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Lum, Z. (2014, October 2). Canada Is The Only UN Member To Reject Landmark Indigenous Rights Document. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/02/canada-un-indigenous-rights_n_5918868.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations. (2014, September 24). Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/prmny-mponu/canada_un-canada_onu/statements-declarations/other-autres/2014-09-22_WCIPD-PADD.aspx?lang=eng

[4] Lum, Z. (2014, October 2). Canada Is The Only UN Member To Reject Landmark Indigenous Rights Document. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/02/canada-un-indigenous-rights_n_5918868.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Aboriginal Issues. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2014, from http://www.socialjustice.org/index.php?page=aboriginal-issues

[7] Galloway, G. (2013, October 4). Atleo hopes UN visit will ‘hold a mirror’ to gap between Canada and First Nations. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/atleo-hopes-un-visit-will-hold-a-mirror-to-gap-between-canada-and-first-nations/article14696108/

[8] United Nations General Assembly. (2014, September 15). United Nations Official Document. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/69/L.1

[9] UN Inter-Agency Support Group. (2014, June). The Health of Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved October 20, 2014.

[10] Hooper, T. (2014, October 13). PTSD ‘epidemic’ in aboriginal communities Residential school survivors among the many with common symptoms linked to the disorder. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.vancouversun.com/health/PTSD epidemic aboriginal communities/10282545/story.html?__federated=1

[11] Fontaine, P., & Farber, B. (2013, October 14). What Canada committed against First Nations was genocide. The UN should recognize it. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/what-canada-committed-against-first-nations-was-genocide-the-un-should-recognize-it/article14853747/

[12] MacDonald, D., & Hudson, G. (n.d.). The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Retrieved October 26, 2014, from http://davidbmacdonald.com/sites/default/files/Residential Schools.pdf

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Health Canada. (2013, March 11). Acting on What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fniah-spnia/pubs/promotion/_suicide/prev_youth-jeunes/index-eng.php

[16] Khan, S. (2008). Aboriginal Mental Health: The statistical reality. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/visions/aboriginal-people-vol5/aboriginal-mental-health-the-statistical-reality

[17] Health Canada. (2013, March 11). Acting on What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fniah-spnia/pubs/promotion/_suicide/prev_youth-jeunes/index-eng.php

[18] UN Inter-Agency Support Group. (2014, June). The Health of Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.un.org/en/ga/president/68/pdf/wcip/IASG%20Thematic%20Paper%20-%20Health%20-%20rev1.pdf

[19] Hooper, T. (2014, October 13). PTSD ‘epidemic’ in aboriginal communities Residential school survivors among the many with common symptoms linked to the disorder. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.vancouversun.com/health/PTSD epidemic aboriginal communities/10282545/story.html?__federated=1

[20] Health Canada. (2013, March 11). Acting on What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fniah-spnia/pubs/promotion/_suicide/prev_youth-jeunes/index-eng.php

[21] Ibid.

[22] Friesen, J., & D’Aleisio, R. (2014, October 20). Statistical black hole opens door to foreign workers. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canadas-skewed-labour-data-tips-balance-in-favour-of-foreign-workers/article21158372/

[23] Dahaas, J. (2014, May 2). Little progress in on-reserve dropout rate: Report. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.macleans.ca/education/high-school/little-progress-in-on-reserve-dropout-rate-report/

[24] Friesen, J., & D’Aleisio, R. (2014, October 20). Statistical black hole opens door to foreign workers. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canadas-skewed-labour-data-tips-balance-in-favour-of-foreign-workers/article21158372/

[25] Lum, Z. (2014, October 2). Canada Is The Only UN Member To Reject Landmark Indigenous Rights Document. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/02/canada-un-indigenous-rights_n_5918868.html

[26] UN Inter-Agency Support Group. (2014, June). The Health of Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.un.org/en/ga/president/68/pdf/wcip/IASG%20Thematic%20Paper%20-%20Health%20-%20rev1.pdf

[27] Galloway, G. (2013, October 4). Atleo hopes UN visit will ‘hold a mirror’ to gap between Canada and First Nations. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/atleo-hopes-un-visit-will-hold-a-mirror-to-gap-between-canada-and-first-nations/article14696108/

1 Comment

  1. Embarrassing………is all I can say.

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