Op-ed: Shameful state of Aboriginal community health didn't happen overnight
- John Lagimodiere | February 11, 2015
There is no arguing that the current state of the health of the Aboriginal community is a national shame. Unfortunately Aboriginal people have the worst health indicators in Canada. We lead in a variety of statistics including diabetes, suicide, violent death and child mortality.
These tragic circumstances did not arise over night. The Government of Canada has used the Indian Act and racism to subjugate our people since confederation. As pointed out by University of Regina Professor James Daschuck in his excellently researched book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, the Government of Canada had a starvation policy where they withheld promised Treaty rations as a way to starve the First Nations into settling onto reserves.
A weakened people had no choice but to toe the line, hunker down and just survive during an era where death tolls were high on reserves. Those that survived were then sentenced to over 100 years of the genocidal policy of the Indian Residential schools. The impact of these schools is still reverberating throughout the community.
The harm done in those schools is vast. Starvation again. Medical experiments. Exposure to diseases and high death rates were the norm. And then there was the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional and yes, sexual abuse heaped upon thousands of innocent, defenceless children. Once adults, these survivors buried their fear, shame and self loathing in drugs, alcohol and self abuse.
Augie Merasty was no different. In his book, The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir, Augie bares his soul as a way of healing. Reading excerpts from the book, one wonders how Augie even made it to his 80`s. According to Augie, he sustained a minimum of 500 severe beatings or lashings in his time in these horror chambers. He was also sexually abused by priests and a nun. He buried his pain in alcohol, an addiction that saw his body abused again and again. And life as a person on the street riddled with addiction is not pretty. Violence is everywhere and peril is around every corner.
The schools are closed now but the experience still impacts people who attended those schools. After reading the book, you can understand his pain and how he dealt with it. But Augies pain also affected his children. And their children. But his was not the only family affected. This has led to mental health issues and poor overall health and lots of trauma in our communities. Just go visit any emergency room in Saskatchewan. The proof is right there.
This syndrome winds up seeing many Aboriginal people interact with the health care system, of which we are the highest users on a per capita basis. So you would think that we as a people would find solace and help in this health care system. Think again. The Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based health research and policy group has released a damning report on racism within Canada’s health-care system.
The report reads, “that racism against Indigenous peoples in the health-care system is so pervasive that people strategize around anticipated racism before visiting the emergency department or, in some cases, avoid care altogether.” Sound familiar? How many people have had to make a plan for someone to accompany a relative to visit the doctor or the emergency room? Most Canadians don’t have to do that but I know many that do.
During a crisis once at an emergency room, a distraught friend (he was a survivor of the 60’s scoop and his wife barely survived Gordon’s Indian Residential School) asked me to go speak to the nurse for them. Why don’t you? I asked him. “Because you look white,” he said. “They will listen to you.” The reality slapped me in my face. My friend knew that my white skin privilege inherited from my mom would make it easier. It actually didn’t that time because damage was done and security guards were swarming. It was ugly. And tragic. And totally uneccesary. But unfortunately that is the situation many of our people find themselves in.
So, without that trust, without the safety net of a health care system that is supposed to pick you up and help make you whole again what is a person to do? The despair deepens.
The good news is that this issue is out in the open now. The problem has been spelled out in black and white and champions are calling for change. As we speak health regions are trying to train their employees in culturally responsive care giving. There are First Nation run hospitals and health centres. Innovative and responsive health delivery systems are being created and people are encouraging each other to be better.
Judge David Arnot, the Commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission has this pressing issue on his radar.
“Really, it’s a huge problem in Saskatchewan. It can’t be denied. It can’t be understated,” he said.
Expect a full investigation by his commission and hopefully that will bring change. Unfortunately it can’t happen fast enough. Trauma doesn’t wait.
- Report details racism in health system
- Residential school survivor hopes his story compels others to share