Indigenous peoples in Canada comprise the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. First Nations are groups of Canadian Indigenous peoples classified as distinct from the Inuit and Metis. There are 634 recognized First Nations governments or bands across Canada. Half of the First Nations in Canada are located in Ontario and British Columbia. In 2016, over 1.6 million Canadians identified as indigenous, making up 4.9% of the population. Unfortunately, many within the Indigenous communities across Canada face ongoing discrimination and struggle with substance use.
Many indigenous communities across Canada are concerned with substance use problems. These same communities are also concerned about the perpetuation of colonizing, generational trauma created by residential schools, stigmatizing approaches to mental health, and social narratives related to substance use problems. These problems are generational, often creating a cycle of addiction, mental health issues, stigma, and discrimination. Among many First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in Canada, there is a strong need for equity in substance use treatment. Successful treatment methods have proven to be based on and created for Indigenous culture. However, poor government policies, societal stereotypes, discrimination, and stigma continue to make it difficult to solve these issues.
A Brief History of Discriminatory Practices and Policies Against Indigenous Peoples in Canada
There are three categories of Indigenous people in Canada: Inuit, Metis, and First Nations. The First Nations people were the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada. The Inuit primarily inhabit the country’s northern regions, and the Metis live primarily in the prairie provinces. Indigenous peoples have been in Canada since time immemorial. However, colonial practices and policies forever altered the social, political, economic, and cultural aspects of Indigenous lives.
For example, the Indian Act, pass system, reserves, and residential schools were created to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples. To this day, these policies and practices have had a significant impact on generations of indigenous peoples. Residential schools, segregation, loss of land, unequal access to food resources, and public services have created generational trauma leading to devastating consequences on Indigenous peoples’ health and socio-economic well-being in Canada.
Residential schools, for example, were directly responsible for creating generational trauma. These schools were government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. The term refers to schools that were established after 1880 by Christian churches and the Canadian government. Residential schools across Canada disrupted lives and communities, creating long-term problems among indigenous peoples.
The last residential school closed in 1996. Between 1831 and 1996, there were 130 residential schools. Students were isolated, and their culture was disparaged or scorned. They were removed from their homes and separated from their parents. The attempted assimilation of Indigenous children left them feeling that they belonged neither to indigenous nor settler society. Moreover, students suffered physical and sexual abuse, and it is estimated that at least 3,200 children died in residential schools. However, poor record-keeping by the church and federal government makes it impossible to know how many children died.
Residential Schools, Segregation, and Discrimination Creating Generational Trauma and Substance Use Among Indigenous Peoples in Canada
History has shown that young people who attended residential schools were victims of neglect and abuse. According to research regarding residential schools and substance use, self-reported experiences of sexual and physical abuse during childhood increased the likelihood of alcohol and drug use problems. A study interviewing 358 Indigenous participants found that 28.5% attended residential schools, 35.2% reported having experienced child sexual abuse, and 34% reported having experienced childhood physical abuse. Studies such as this and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report highlight the consequences of historical traumas related to residential schools and the current situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Furthermore, racism is an experience acutely felt by many Indigenous people in Canada. The First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey reported 38% of participating First Nations adults experienced at least one instance of racism in the past 12 months. Approximately 63% felt it had at least some effect on their self-esteem. Unfortunately, there are several negative stereotypes associated with Indigenous people. These stereotypes include assumptions about the pervasiveness and causes of alcohol and drug addiction, unemployment, and violence. A particularly negative depiction is that Indigenous peoples are willing’ wards of the state’ dependent on others, better off when government oversees their affairs.
Additionally, media has played a considerable role in shaping public perceptions of Indigenous peoples. Mainstream media selects what to report, and news reports often focus on the social and economic challenges facing indigenous communities, often ignoring stories of discrimination. Canada’s colonial history did create the disadvantages currently facing Indigenous communities. The economic and social problems became generational. Moreover, Canadian beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours toward Indigenous people remained heavily influenced over the years by colonial stereotypes as a failure to evolve. However, much has changed, and through education, awareness, and acknowledging this part of Canadian history, more is being done to address these issues.
Substance Use Among Indigenous Peoples in Canada, And A Cycle of Trauma and Addiction
The cycle of trauma and addiction is a real problem within Indigenous communities across the country. According to research, a review of case files for 127 residential school survivors who had undergone clinical assessments in British Columbia revealed increased substance use. Approximately 82% reported that their substance use behaviours began after attending residential schools, and roughly 78% had abused alcohol. Reports also indicated that many survivors of residential school abuse became caught in alcohol and drug addiction or other compulsive behaviours.
Social indifference for one century allowed residential schools to continue unabated. Generations of Indigenous children were impacted. Untreated psychological effects have passed from generation to generation in an ongoing cycle of abuse, trauma, and addiction. “Intergenerational or multigenerational trauma happens when the effects of trauma are not resolved in one generation. When trauma is ignored, and there is no support for dealing with it, the trauma will be passed from one generation to the next.” (Aboriginal Health Foundation, 1999:A5)
In 2003, Health Canada reported that alcohol and drug use were considered problems in First Nation communities. Roughly one in five Indigenous youth reported having used solvents, and one in three were under the age of 15. The National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation found that alcohol was the primary addiction or substance use problem. The cause of death due to alcohol use is 43.7 per 100,000 among Indigenous Canadians. Indigenous youth are at two to six times greater risk for every alcohol-related problem than non-indigenous youth.
According to information provided by the National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation, First Nations reported higher rates of emotional and physical abuse of family members, especially of children and elders. The First Nations communities with a higher than average percentage of drug addiction and chemical dependency have higher incidences of suicide, violent crimes, illegal activity, and other forms of abuse. A First Nations Regional Health Survey revealed that among First Nations aged 18 and older living on-reserve in northern communities, 4.7% reported past-year use of illegal or prescription pain medication.
Treating and Preventing Substance Use Among Indigenous Peoples of Canada
According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Indigenous people have poorer health, on average, than non-Indigenous. In addition, populations carry a disproportionate burden of the harms related to substance use, resulting from systemic disadvantages caused by colonization. Solutions to reduce health disparities have included being connected to traditional culture. Much evidence has supported the promise of culturally based and community-owned services to promote individual and community health and reduce health disparities.
In an article published in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Indigenous people of Canada are currently reconnecting with traditional culture in a concerted effort to deal with the pain associated with centuries of cultural dislocation. Mainstream treatment approaches used to treat addiction have led to only minimal success. Research has found that Indigenous people tend not to use the services provided by the majority culture; among those who do, roughly half drop out. Many Indigenous elders and healers believe that reconnection to culture, community, and spirituality is healing for Indigenous people.
Other research has shown that Indigenous people have a rich heritage of healing strategies in dealing with substance use—the solution is based on cultural and spiritual survival. Successful addiction treatment programs stressed traditional values, spirituality, and activities that enhanced self-esteem. The most successful addiction treatment programs for Indigenous people of Canada have been organized and run using First Nations values and approaches.
Research done among Indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand found comparative histories of colonization and dispossession of culture and land. Within Canada, continued policy failures regarding social services, education, and the health care system have resulted in cultural knowledge and language loss in Indigenous communities. However, effective substance use prevention programs for Indigenous people were developed by or together with the community. Community involvement included parents, youth, community leaders, parents, and other community members. Beneficial programs incorporated cultural knowledge, enhancement, including integration of cultural activities. Moreover, this includes learning about traditional beliefs and practices and the integration of culturally specific concepts.
Indigenous communities across Canada are concerned with substance use problems. They are eager to advance effective solutions for prevention and treatment. However, social narrative, discrimination, stigma, and unresolved generational trauma prevent effective solutions from taking hold.
While federal and provincial government policies have done significant damage, in recent years this issue is getting more exposure. As people become aware of this issue, there is increased pressure on the government and society to help repair the generational trauma endured by the indigenous people of Canada.
Overall, it is important to recognize that Indigenous rights are summed up as the right to independence through self-determination regarding governance, land, resources, and culture. Our society is starting to evolve and for the first time, it appears that younger generations are beginning to see the error in the ways of their ancestors. The realization is for naught if definitive changes are not made that create long-lasting solutions to handle the rights of the Indigenous communities.
Furthermore, these solutions need to consider the damage past policies and practices have created. Generational mistreatment has created deep-seeded issues that have become problems in and of themselves. This is especially true when it comes to mental health and substance use. Creating these solutions will not be an easy task but they are imperative to break the cycle and allow Indigenous populations to truly regain what they lost.