Time Does Not Heal All Wounds: Indigenous Women and Historical Trauma

 Photo: Macleans

Photo: Macleans

Today in Canada, Indigenous peoples as a whole experience discrimination, over-representation in the child welfare system, and increased rates of poverty and substance abuse. However, these experiences especially burden Indigenous women because of the systemic racism and discrimination they face. Legislation such as the 1876 Indian Act and the 1990 Child and Family Services Act target them directly.

For those who are unfamiliar, the purpose of the Indian Act has been to acknowledge and affirm the irreplaceable historical and constitutional relationship Indigenous people have with the Canadian government. The Child and Family Services Act, on the other hand, serves to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect and to provide guidance, counseling and other services to families. The problem with these acts, however, is that they do not offer extensive information on how to prevent the issues at hand, or how to approach the unique social and cultural circumstances of Indigenous women and children.

The statistics of Indigenous women are worrisome with respect to cases of violence, abuse, and death. Indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44 years old are five times more likely to die as a result of violence than non-Indigenous women in Canada. They are also more likely than non-Indigenous women to have experienced abuse. In fact, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) recognized that over 600 Indigenous women were missing or murdered since the 1980’s.

In addition, Indigenous women experience many social inequities, such as lower quality of housing, fewer employment opportunities, lower educational attainment, inadequate physical environments, and weaker social supports within communities. Understandably, these issues lead to increased rates of substance misuse, mental health challenges, suicide, poverty, lack of safe and affordable housing, and barriers to opportunities that could increase their socioeconomic standing.

Historical trauma is crucial in understanding what these women are going through. It is commonly understood as the process by which stressful traumatic experiences from colonialism have been carried over from one generation of Indigenous peoples to the next. This results in the breakdown of traditional Indigenous family structures, which impact parenting across generations. This harsh reality for Indigenous women reveals a need for increasing sensitivity to the intergenerational legacy and ongoing impacts of colonialism.

It is also necessary to develop a better understanding of the historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and child welfare authorities. Presently, there is a lack of trust in Indigenous people, on behalf of their families, their community, the government, and non-Indigenous people. The legacy of the Canadian government forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes has greatly contributed to the mistrust of Indigenous parents. A substance abuse counselor noted that this is an issue that grows in importance with each generation. “What does it mean [for a mother] to have her children taken away as she was taken away from her mother and her mother was taken away?”

An Indigenous mother explained that she never got along with Children’s Aid because her children were taken away from her on the grounds that her past was ingrained in the system. When she mentions her past, she does not speak of her own actions— she refers to what her mother did, what her grandmother did, what her great-grandmother did. Her family history has a direct impact on her current situation, regardless of her actions.

In addition to awareness about the effects of historical trauma amongst Indigenous people, there needs to be improvements in services and treatments offered to them. In order to increase accessibility, a variety of services should be offered through a single source. Retaining pregnant and parenting women who are being treated for substance abuse requires collaboration between substance use treatment sectors, prenatal care, and child welfare. One study found that mothers who were able to attend treatment programs with their children, or who were even able to retain custody of their children during treatment, had higher rates of program retention than those who did not have their children.

Evidently, enhancing services offered to Indigenous mothers will indeed lead to a path of reconciliation. However, historical trauma is not something that will heal with the mere passage of time. There needs to be a genuine effort on behalf of all Canadians to educate themselves about historical trauma and how it affects the every day lives of Indigenous people.