All Our Relations
Author: Tanya Talaga
Table of contents
We Were Always Here
7 girls who lived in Canadian's First Nation communities whose lives intersected with each other committed suicide within one year of each other. This may have been preventable -funding had been requested from Health Canada for a mental health team but had been denied, alongside cuts to related services. No response to the results of an inquiry into the suicide pandemic was received from the government.
Children in Canada's First Nation communities also die of preventable or curable diseases such as strep throat due to a lack of access to medical care. There's a lack of medical staff, qualifications and supplies. Clinical standards are poor.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) constantly writes and sends studies, reports and funding applications to the federal government requesting basic services such as clean water, sewage treatment, fire trucks and police services, but little progress has been made.
This a result of colonial history. First Nations communities are not helplessly asking the federal government to solve all their problem. Rather, today's legislation results in their only power being to make proposals and ask for funding.
Across the world, Indigenous people that live in colonised countries see much higher rates of suicide in comparison to the equivalent non-Indigenous populations.
- In Canada, suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations people up to the age of 44. For men age 15-24, suicide rates are 126 per 100,000 vs 24 per 10000 for non-Indigenous young men.
- In the US, Native Americans commit suicide 3-10x the national average.
- The Indigenous people in the Amazonas, Brazil are 4.8% of the state's population but 19% of suicides.
- 5.5% of Australia Aboriginal deaths are suicide vs 1.7% in the non-Indigenous population.
The high Indigenous suicide rate has only been seen in modern times. Rates were low in Canada before the forced resettlement and Indian Residential Schools.
Colonised people share a story:
- Historical injustices of colonisation
- Forced eviction from their land, by death or segregation.
- Erasure of their culture and identity caused by government and religious policy.
- Intergenerational trauma from experiences of poverty, abuse and oppression.
- Exposure to suicidal tendencies.
- Discriminatory legislation, now and in the past
- Substance abuse and violence triggered by being economically, socially and culturally marginalised.
Indigenous children grow up without access to the basic determinants of health:
- Clean water and air.
- Safe houses.
- Supportive families and communities.
- Health care.
- A connection to their traditions.
The historical separation from their land and culture has left a spiritual emptiness. Traditionally Indigenous Nations have a connection to the land, believing that humans are part of a continuum of life on Earth and have the responsibility to safeguard the land for the next generation; everyone has a purpose.
Impressions of Indigenous people held by colonist nations:
- Before 1492 (Christopher Columbus), "Noble Savages".
- In the 19th century: social Darwinism was used to justify hierarchies of class, race and ethnicity, in line with Imperial desires.
- In the 20th century, portrayals in film and TV by non-Indigenous actors created a stereotypical image of an Indian wearing a headdress on a horse.
One reason these stereotypes abound is that it's very rare that any written narrative from Indigenous people are publicised. For example the Indian Residential School system was excluded from Canadian school curricula for years, meaning the majority of Canadians weren't aware of the parent-child separation and forced assimilation the Indigenous people were subject to.
The Indigenous worldview is of being cyclically connected to the Earth, to the Spirit and to each other. This is different to the typical Judeo-Christian Western outlook which sees humans as top of a hierarchy, supported by the creation story, bolstered by evolutionary theory.
Western thinking tends towards the linear, from the viewpoints of psychology, science, rationality, as opposed to spiritual or cyclical thinking. Indigenous people have thus been measured against a definition of intelligence that undermines their culture, traditions and knowledge.
There's evidence that Indigenous people have lived in Australia, Canada and the Americas for thousands of years, in large and complex societies with their own customs, laws, systems of governance, cultures, moral codes, monarchs, chieftains and evidence of some form of democracy years before Europeans even discussed it
Big Brother's Hunger
150,000 Indigenous Canadian children were separated from their parents and sent to residential schools. From 1880-1996 139 church-run government-funded such schools existed. Their intent was to convert the children to Christianity and isolate them from their homes, traditions and culture in order to assimilate them into the "Canadian" way of life. In some, children were regularly physically and sexually abused, left hungry - one even used an electric chair for punishment.
The US had similar schools, founded by Captain Pratt who believed Indians were born as blank slates, and removing them from their culture and family structure would let them be shaped into Americans. The children's hair was cut, their names changed and their native languages forbidden.
Huge mines have destroyed swathes of boreal forests, preventing them taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. Resulting displacement of water has further damaged ecosystems.
Big Brother demands what Little Brother has in order to feed its industry, construct its sprawling urban housing developments, and manufacture goods for its consumer-driven society.
The arrival of fur traders changed the Indigenous relationship with the land. Before then they only hunted for what they needed and shared with others. Now there was an incentive to take as much as possible.
The arrival of Christian missionaries changed their relationship with the Creator, fragmenting and imposing a new belief system.
Churches claimed they couldn't do their missionary work effectively because people were spread throughout the land. The Indian Act was created to force Indigenous people onto concentrated reserves, and formed the residential schools to take their children away.
In 1493, Pope Alexander VI created "papal bulls", aka the Doctrine of Discovery, to legitimise the Spanish Empire's conquest of the Americas. They introduced the concept of "land belonging to no-one" - terra nullius.
- For First Peoples that phrase implies the land belongs to everyone - land cannot be owned.
- The Catholic Church and European Empires interpreted it as land ripe for acquiring.
They ignored the existence of the First People in terms of land rights at the same time as acknowledging their population as a way of increasing Christianity's dominance.
After the US declared independence from Great Britain in 1776 no account was made in the treaties for the sovereignty of the Native American Nations. Acquisition and occupation of their land was legalised via hundreds of individual treaties with different Indigenous Nations - a divide and conquer strategy.
Very few of the terms and conditions supposedly granted to Indigenous peoples in these treaties were actually upheld.
The 1830 Indian Removal Act permitted the US president to resettle all American Indians east of the Mississippi river. Those that resisted e.g. the Cherokee were forcibly removed, held in prison camps. Thousands died from disease, exposure or starvations - the "Trail of Tears".
When miners found gold in Indigenous lands there was an effort to kill all the buffalo - destroying the food source, hunting grounds and way of life of the Plains Indians severed their attachment to the land and allowed the miners to move in.
In Canada the 1876 Indian Act was introduced to govern all aspects of Indigenous people's lives - land management, education, culture, identity etc.
~6000 children died due to mistreatment in the Indian Residential schools.
Even though the Inuit were not covered by the act, similar tactics were used against them. There the RCMP killed their sled dogs, severing the source of sustenance, economy and the ability to travel far to visit friends or hunt. The population grew listless, with an existential and spiritual emptiness.
The policy of extermination, isolation, and assimilation repeats itself in the history of Indigenous Nations throughout the world, and still continues today.
In Brazil, sugar cane plantations used Indigenous and African slave labour. The Indigenous people suffered epidemics of tuberculosis, measles, influenza, venereal disease, eye ailments as well as torture and extermination. Those left in the reservations were often ruled by Jesuits - "religious concentration camps".
In the 1950s-1960s the Brazilian genocide continued, driven by a boom in rubber production. Their indigenous people, e.g. the Guarani people, are still under violent attack today, in violation of international law.
The Third Space
The "third space" is a blank space between Aboriginal culture and non-Aboriginal culture.
In Indigenous cultures family units differ from the western traditional nuclear 1-house family by consisting of large networks of strong kinship, sometimes the entire community.
Between 1910-1970, the Australian government removed ~ 50,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands children from their homes - the "Stolen Generations". The policy was influenced by social Darwinism theory - as a supposedly inferior race these people would either die out naturally or be assimilated into white society.
Currently Aboriginal youth are often born into unstable surroundings, to parents with substance abuse issues, extreme poverty, social exclusion or who never had the chance to acquire the skills needed to raise children.
Without a large scale mental health system to support them, it's left to the people suffering to try and find their way back to health.
Trauma isolates people from each other, making it unlikely they'll reach out to others. The only time you feel safe is when you are complete alone.
Sexual abuse is a key driver of Indigenous communities' high suicide rate in Canada.
- The suicide rate amongst young Indigenous women in a Canadian province was 30x higher than same-aged non-Indigenous women, vs 6x higher in males.
It's hard to understand what it's like to grow up in an environment where suicide is "normal" if you are not part of one of these communities.
Risk factors of suicide include:
- in-womb exposure to alcohol
- growing up in an overcrowded house
- food insecurity
- sexual abuse
- close relatives dying by suicide (potentially leading to suicide clusters).
Experiences, behaviours or inherited characteristics that come from things like stable homes, no abuse, good education and a connection to culture act as protective factors.
What is clear is that at the heart of the suicides is a lack of the determinants of health and social equity — health care, housing, and a safe environment
In the US, Native American youth are 2x as likely to be exposed to domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse and poverty vs other groups.
Indigenous population suicides also suffer from underreporting or inaccuracies, due to lack of access to medical treatment and epidemiological tracking.
Being exposed to a previous generation of your family that went through residential school associates with an increased risk for suicide ideation. If two generations then increased chance of reporting a suicide attempt vs being exposed to just one.
Chandler and Lalonde hypothesise that part of adolescent development is a search for a sense of belonging.
"Scooping" Indigenous children to place with white foster families is an issue in Canada, Australia and Brazil.
This increased dramatically in the 1960s. The welfare workers used Euro-Canadian ways and values of child raising to judge the conditions of Indigenous families. If they saw the families ate only wild game, berries and vegetables, or saw some of the social issues associated with reserves (e.g. poverty, addiction), they assumed the child was in danger. Undoubtedly they often believed they were helping the child. But taking the child away induces trauma from the separation from community and family and damage to their identity development.
Today less than 8% of Canadian children under 4 years old are Indigenous but they represent 51% of preschoolers in foster care.
I Breathe For Them
Facebook is a widely used communication tool in isolated Indigenous communities. They've attended events discussing suicide due to their potential in detecting suicidal behaviour online.
The Indigenous worldview that body, mind and spirit are connected have led to holistic healing practices, traditions, medicine and spiritual leaders/counsellors that take responsibility for an individual's entire physical, spiritual and mental health. This is unlike the Western medicine approach which offers different specialists and tools for each component of health.
Many Indigenous people do not trust the Western health system, understandable after a history of having being removed from their land and families, quarantined and confined to "Indian hospitals" with discriminatory behaviour. They can be reluctant to access care for fear that it will not be culturally appropriate and may result in them being removed from their community.
Potentially harmful experiments have been done without consent on Indigenous populations,
- Between 1942-1952, Dr Percy Moore performed nutritional experiments on children in residential schools without consent, involving malnourishing children. Some died.
- The BCG vaccine was tested on infants without parental consent.
Following the British example of locking women who were believed to be prostitutes up in hospitals under the Contagious Diseases Act, "Lock hospitals" were established in Australian territory supposedly to treat Aboriginal women for venereal disease.
- 90% of Aboriginal people in central Australia reported wanting alternatives to hospital care, vs 47% of non-Aboriginal people.
- 1/3 of American Indian and Alaskan Native population don't have access to a doctor or clinic.
- 1/3 of Native Americans don't have health insurance, vs 11% of White Americans.
- The life expectancy of Native Americans is 5.5 years lower than others, for reasons including "inadequate education, disproportionate poverty, discrimination in the delivery of health services, and cultural differences".
In the 1920s the government created segregated Indian hospitals. Community and city hospitals refused to treat Indigenous patients or kept them in separate wards, often overcrowded, badly ventilated or in other bad conditions.
Racially segregated hospitals were common for other populations too in early 20th century Canada, e.g. wards for Chinese and Japanese patients.
It used to be believed that TB got more virulent when an Indigenous person contracted it. The death rates from TB were particularly higher for children living in residential schools. But their illness was often ignored or improperly treated.
Some scholars believe that South African legislators studied the Canadian Indian Act as part of creating apartheid.
In 1953 an amendment to the Indian Act made it illegal for an Indigenous person to refuse to see a doctor, go to hospital or attempt to leave a hospital before being discharged.
If a patient died in hospital their family was responsible for the cost of transporting the body home. They often couldn't afford to do this, so many Indigenous bodies were buried in unmarked graveyards far from home.
Most Indian hospitals closed in the 1960s, but the healthcare of Indigenous people is still deficient. This is despite the fact that since 2007 Article 24(2) of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous people have the right to access the same standard of health care as non-Indigenous people.
Housing shortages make it hard to raise stable families.
- Indigenous children are 2x as likely to die before the age of 1 as others.
- In Canada half of all First Nations children live in poverty. Their life expectancy is 5-7 years less than other Canadians.
- Secondary school graduation rates on reserves at 35% vs 75% for non-Indigenous children.
- Indigenous people are overrepresented in prisons.
- In some communities opioid use is very high - 80% of more, yet addiction counsellors are rare.
The Canadian medical system isn't designed to take into account the current day impacts of historical systemic racism.
There are no doctors in NAN communities, and nursing stations are poorly equipped. First Nations lack healthcare, medication, treatment for chronic illnesses, diagnostic equipment. The Ambulance Act, Fire Prevention and Protection Act and Health Care Quality Act do not apply.
"The system isn't broken; it is designed to do what it is doing."
True reconciliation requires rights and legislation.
Adverse childhood experiences impact a child's later health outcomes. Sexual abuse is one of the most damaging forms. 80% of suicide attempts from young people can be connected to adverse events. The risk of suicide remains high over the sufferer's entire life.
Interventions should be designed and implemented by Indigenous people and communities. The Sami National Centre on Mental Health and Substance Abuse (SANKS) is an example of this being done in Scandinavia.
We Are Not Going Anywhere
The Parliament of Canada in Ottawa sits on the unceded territory of the Algonquins.
In 2017, PM Trudeau committed to a renewal of Canada's relationship with Indigenous Peoples, eventually leading to removing the Indian Act.
Participants of the determiNATION conference agreed that Indigenous peoples' self governance should not be enforced by the Indian Act. There should be no requirement to abandon cultural and spiritual practices, assimilate into the dominant society, have reserves governed by the federal government or have to register to be considered "real Indians".
The same year the Joint Action Table Health Transformation Work Plan was signed which aims to develop a decolonised community-driven health system that gives adequate funding and permits the First Nations to be in control of their healthcare.
Governments can't give "belonging" - they should not be the ones to determine who is or isn't Indigenous.
The Dakota Access Pipeline was to be constructed in a way to damage sacred sites, contaminate drinking water and violate treaty rights. Whilst it ended up going ahead, the protest was the first time that many Indigenous Nations came together in peaceful protest.
The Canadian state education system deliberately keeps the general population unaware of the physical, cultural and spiritual genocide that Indigenous Peoples have been subject to over time. It teaches about "nation-building", but in a way that treats Aboriginal people as bystanders or obstacles. This reinforces the idea that white European civilisation is superior to the Indigenous civilisation.
Lawmakers, judges, politicians et al thus grew up without learning the real history of their country; and this lack of knowledge shaped the policies, rules and programs they create. Non-Indigenous people haven't truly been able to understand the calls for justice by the Indigenous leaders.
Many teachers have decided to learn and teach more about Canada's true history, even without direction by the government.
Reconciliation requires actions to end social inequity. In Nunangat, the median Inuit income is 23% of the non-Inuit income, and they have rates of TB 250x higher than other Canadians.
There have been hopeful developments, with the government creating a Quality of Life Secretariat to lead suicide prevention initiatives.
The strategy also supports reducing overcrowding, poverty and crime, and re-examining the justice system. As well as high incarceration rates amongst Indigenous people, there are calls to incorporate Indigenous laws, traditions and restorative justice into the system.
It is clear that Indigenous Nations must be given the political and moral authority over their own communities that historically they have been denied