We celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada today, and indeed we have a lot to be grateful for. After a long time of social isolation, families are again able to get together to celebrate — to celebrate that most are vaccinated and able to sit together for a gathering of family or friends. But there are still many who endanger themselves and their surroundings by refusing to be vaccinated, and the hospitals are still overflowing in some regions with very sick and dying people. The importance of connection has been brought home in a big way this past year, and we are rediscovering the fact that we are social animals. Some have managed better than others to survive the isolation.
Some have a natural resilience, and those who developed resilience through previous adverse circumstances in their life have fared better than others. No matter what group you belong to, feeling and expressing gratitude develops a positive mindset and helps strengthen the connection between individuals and groups.
The feeling of care for self and others has fostered much discussion and shock about the treatment of aboriginal people in Canada. For many years some concerned members of the community have brought to our attention the indifference of the system in treating the disappearance of Indigenous women. The discovery of the hundreds of unmarked graves of children near residential schools has finally ignited the public awareness of the deep pain and injustice suffered by Indigenous people. The survivors of the residential schools and their offspring are finally getting the attention of the rest of the country. A new awareness is focused on the systemic racial bias that exists in our society. This racial bias permeates all levels of social and government departments and institutions. We have witnessed police brutality and indifferent treatment toward members of that community.
Lately we also uncovered the same shameful bias within the health system. A recent coroner’s inquest in Quebec determined that the death of Joyce Echaquan
was indeed due to systemic racism. This systemic racism is not unique to Quebec; in Manitoba some years ago there was another case of an Indigenous man who had his legs amputated due to severe frostbite because he asked for help at a church and they thought he was drunk, so they closed the door. He had seizures, and needed his medication. He was left in a snowbank, and ended up needing to have his legs amputated. A year later Brian Sinclair
, 45, was found dead in Health Sciences Centre ER 34 hours after arriving without being treated. “Medicine and health always sees itself as benevolent and caring for people. It’s not true for many Indigenous people, it’s a violent encounter,” said Dr. Barry Lavallee, a professor at the University of Manitoba and the director of education for the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing/Ongomiizwin. This statement was made in an inquiry that took place 9 years after the event. “We all know Mr. Sinclair’s death was preventable, and we failed Mr. Sinclair as a health-care system,” he said. “…We need to understand that the perceptions we have, the assumptions we make about people all impact about how we deliver care to individuals, and we really have to come to terms that systemic racism has [an impact] on the way we deliver health-care services.” Unlike Ms. Echaquan, he did not record what was going on and put it on social media. But like Sinclair, Echaquan still suffered from the same systemic racism. The difference was the involvement of social media – the coroner looked into her case almost immediately, since there was a social outcry.
The penal system
and mental health care are other areas that suffer from systemic cultural and racial prejudice. Colonialism has led to cultural alienation, territorial dispossession, intergenerational trauma, systemic discrimination, and socio-economic marginalization, which together continue to have profoundly negative impact on the lives of many Indigenous people today. It is no wonder that in 2017 Indigenous youth accounted for 50% of custody admissions, while representing 8% of the Canadian youth population. The figures are not much different in the mental health and addictions area. The idea that Indigenous children needed to be “integrated” into western culture, and therefore taken away from their parents to be educated in residential schools, had complex and tragic results. The ongoing consequences for many were high rates of serious physical health problems, issues with mental health and cognitive impairment, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, interpersonal violence, family breakdown, and involvement both as victims/survivors and accused/convicted persons in the criminal justice system.
Often cultural racial discrimination leads to discrimination against people who are perceived to deviate from societal norms. A CBC documentary uncovered the dreadful treatment that persisted over more than a decade toward minors who were “Born Bad.”
For over 50 years, thousands of “bad kids” were sent to Ontario’s training schools. Four survivors open up about the abuse they experienced. I watched with horror the way so called educators were allowed to sexually, physically and emotionally abuse children who were mandated to be taken away from their families, often for truancy because of abusive situations, or for minor misdemeanors. I was not entirely surprised, since in my practice in the early 1990s I helped one of my clients receive compensation from the Ontario Government for her incarceration and abusive treatment in one of these “correctional” institutions. Her crime was running away from her foster family where she had been sexually abused. The survivors, all in their 50s and 60s now, are still dealing with the trauma of those days.
As members of a so-called enlightened society, we must take personal responsibility and look for the dark areas inside ourselves which harbor prejudices and biases. Turning a blind eye to our individual biases and only pointing a finger at the system is counterproductive. We are after all partly a product of our environment, our family’s biases, and the belief systems we grow up with. We are part of the system, and need to acknowledge and heal ourselves. To learn to accept, honor and respect differences rather than suppress them. On this Thanksgiving Day we need to celebrate the unique gifts we have as individuals and societies. To share them and respect their contribution in creating a place where people can all be treated as equal contributors and are therefore equally entitled to decent treatment. I feel grateful for the lessons I have learned and grateful for being able to share them freely.