Canada’s ongoing Aboriginal tragedy took a brutal turn this month, when a 31-year-old Indigenous man, who was on parole, went on a stabbing rampage in Saskatchewan that resulted in the death of 11 people and wounded another 18. This was an example of the ravages of inter-generational trauma, which plagues humanity and ruins lives.
This is an affliction, not a political issue, that can only be addressed through social and psychological interventions that promote recognition, rehabilitation and recovery. This problem is not unique to Canada, as similar issues are faced in Australia and the United States, where there are also many untreated indigenous populations.
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Inter-generational trauma — the transmission of the terrible effects of historical events such as conquest, slavery, serfdom, incarceration, genocide and war between generations — ravages many First Nations, which have been traumatized by colonization and incarceration, but also affects people from many other backgrounds. Many African-Americans suffer from the effects of hundreds of years slavery and abuse, as do millions of others around the world.
The symptoms include alcohol and substance abuse, broken relationships, destroyed families, domestic violence, child abuse and criminality. The accused murderer in Saskatchewan, who also died, displayed many of the symptoms of those caught in this sociopsychological trap.
Convicted 59 times for drunk driving, drug possession, assault, robbery and domestic abuse, his childhood was characterized by neglect in homes where violence and substance abuse were normalized. He should never have been released from prison after admitting that drugs and alcohol would make him “lose (his) mind” and get angry. His release is an unforgivable lapse on the part of authorities.
Indigenous leaders — who have much autonomy in this country — also have a great deal to do in order to remedy the massive problems faced by their communities. This should include instituting more readily available rehabilitation programs to deal with alcohol abuse and the effects of sexual abuse.
Such programs are especially important in a country like Canada, where many Indigenous children were placed into residential schools, in an attempt to “assimilate” them into mainstream society. Instead, the children were often abused and isolated from their families, communities, languages and way of life. Indigenous people in the U.S. and Australia faced similar realities.
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“You store trauma if you don’t deal with it,” explains Catherine Twinn, a lawyer from Alberta who has been an activist, worked in government and continues to work on behalf of Indigenous causes. She served for several years as an assistant deputy minister working on Indigenous policy in the province and said that the underlying problems are not being dealt with by Canadian governments or First Nations communities.
She said in an interview that “white people don’t talk about this — they don’t want to be accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes or of being racists” —- but the failure to diagnose problems means that treatments cannot be applied. “They end up in the criminal, welfare, unemployment systems,” she said. “There are several causes: inter-generational trauma, racism, colonial structures and strong-man leaders who don’t realize that they, and their people, need treatment.”
The statistics tell the story: Canada has 1.67 million Aboriginals, under five per cent of the total population, but they make up 32 per cent of the federal prison population. In the United States, the incarceration rate among Native-Americans is 38 per cent higher than the average for all groups. Likewise, in Australia, Indigenous people represent just three per cent of the population, but 27 per cent of those in prison are Aboriginal.
“Pain is passed down from generation to generation until someone is brave enough to feel it,” said Twinn. “I don’t think the general public is well informed on trauma and inter-generational trauma.… The King of Jordan used to host an international conference on trans-generational trauma, in recognition of the fact that the Middle East population is a traumatized population. Same with Russia, high rates of addiction of 40 per cent or so.”