The colonial roots of mental health and addiction among Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Next time someone complains about “drunken Indians” or makes a “gas-sniffing” joke, remember how the legacy of systematic neglect, abuse, abduction, rape and genocide of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people persists today — and how we’re doing very little about it.

The following is a speech given by St. John’s Native Friendship Centre Cultural Support Worker Amelia Reimer at the Oct. 4 “Gaining Momentum” event in St. John’s hosted by the Community Coalition for Mental Health. We thought it was important to share in its entirety with the rest of the province and beyond.

Thank you for coming here tonight to listen and let us share with you. My name is Amelia Reimer, and I am a proud Métis woman.

I was asked to come here and speak to you tonight about mental health and addictions in Aboriginal communities. I have lived and worked in a wide variety of Aboriginal communities throughout my life. There are certain sad stereotypes and certain sad truths that do exist within Aboriginal communities. One of the first things non-Aboriginal people mention to me is the prevalence of substance abuse.

On one reserve where I both lived and worked, we discussed why it was that people perceived Aboriginals as all a bunch of “drunken Indians”. As we talked through it, we saw one of the sad truths is that someone who is down on their luck and intoxicated does stand out in an urban setting — often on a street corner. The people who are going to school, working, taking care of their homes, raising their children — they’re not on public display. They’re not becoming a spectacle. The positive side of Aboriginal communities is not widely publicized. It’s the negative that gets people talking. And pointing fingers.

You may have heard me speak before about missing and murdered Indigenous women. It is a problem so completely out of proportion with the rest of the Canadian population, it’s actually difficult to fathom. It does need to be talked about, and positive change desperately needs to happen.

So what affects our overall health? We look at our physical health, our mental health, our emotional health, and our spiritual health. Within the teachings of the medicine wheel in First Nations culture, each of these areas in our life are best kept in balance. Our physical health or mental health are negatively impacted if we are missing vital components of our emotional or spiritual health.

Imagine the impact in those four areas—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—if your daughter, your wife, your sister, your mother turned up missing. How would it impact you if the authorities couldn’t bother to do a proper investigation? How would you react if those in power around you merely shrugged their shoulders, refused to take action, and even taunted you with hurtful words over what type of person your loved one must be? Next month, your cousin is found dead, and you get the same inaction and cold shoulder again. Next year, it’s your niece.

Did you know that in the year 1500, Christopher Columbus wrote that the price they could get for selling land for farming was about the same price they could also get for selling an Aboriginal woman to a European man? That, in fact, at that time, the best price and the most in demand were girls as young as nine or 10. Girls that today we would think of as Grade 4 and 5 were the most highly sought after for sexualization and exploitation. If they ended up missing or murdered, it wouldn’t have mattered, as another could be bought to take her place. Treating human beings as disposable commodities.

 Now, with the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) report, the general public is becoming more aware of what our history has truly contained.

Aboriginal communities have known for a long time the extremely negative and multi-generational impact that residential schools have had across this continent, but the larger population of Canadians and Americans had no idea. Ignorance was bliss. Now, with the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) report, the general public is becoming more aware of what our history has truly contained. Under the guise of “education”, the reality for so many Aboriginal children was that of physical abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual and psychological abuse. To be taken away from your family, sent off with strangers for an indeterminate period of time, to have your language and beliefs beaten out of you and shamed out of you, and another language and belief system beaten into you. No one to turn to, no one to comfort you or to come to your rescue. Imagine the impact that has on your mental and emotional health. Imagine what it does to your parents’ mental and emotional health.

There was a study done on residential schools in 1907, and it was reported that the death rate among the children was 40 per cent. Children were being intentionally infected with diseases such as tuberculosis, and left untreated — to observe how long it takes them to die. Other studies were conducted on children at residential schools of how well they were able to handle intentional starvation and malnourishment. In light of these findings, authorities decided to send even more Native children to these schools. By 1919, death rates in some schools were as high as 75 per cent. So, in 1920, attendance became mandatory.

In 1928 (the year my father was born), the Sexual Sterilization Act was passed in Alberta. Girls in residential schools were able to be involuntarily sterilized, at the discretion of the school principal; 3,500 Aboriginal girls were documented as having been mutilated in this manner. The same law was enacted in British Columbia only five years later.

Residential schools in Canada began to phase out in 1969, but the final Indian residential school didn’t close until 1996.

 No one thinks anything less of you for picking up a drink to numb the pain. And how could they think any less of you than what they already do? You get called dirty, lazy, a whore, and much worse.

To know that only three or four generations earlier, it was still acceptable for people to be hunting down and shooting, cutting, killing your family. That in 1857, the Gradual Civilization Act was passed in Upper Canada to permanently deny First Nations and Métis Peoples the right to vote, and to place them in a separate and inferior legal category than citizens.

As the residential schools began to phase out, the “Sixties Scoop” was a widespread practice in Canada in the 1960s, ‘70s, and into the ‘80s, of “scooping up” Aboriginal children to adopt them out to non-Aboriginal homes throughout Canada, as well as shipping the children to other countries for adoption. Even today, the number of children removed from Aboriginal communities to be placed in foster homes and group homes is out of control.

Five hundred years of your family being treated as inferior, to have done to them whatever is deemed fit by the authority of the day, to be bought and sold, kidnapped, raped, beaten, detained, imprisoned, killed. This is what we call multi-generational trauma. This is institutional trauma. This is genocide.

As I’m sure other people here tonight will discuss, the prevalence of addictions to self-medicate mental health is a proven connection again and again. So, you can’t vote until the 1960s. Your people still are going missing or being found murdered with very little investigation or repercussions. Authorities won’t listen. Police laugh at you. Judges are impatient with you. You’ve been beaten for speaking up or standing up for yourself and your people. So you put your head down. And no one thinks anything less of you for picking up a drink to numb the pain. And how could they think any less of you than what they already do? You get called dirty, lazy, a whore, and much worse.

These are sad stereotypes and sad truths within the community. Some have been more affected than others. But there are those in the community that strive to be healthy. That fight to heal themselves, their families, and the broader community. There is hope. Positive change is possible. It took 500 years to get to this point. It’s a struggle to climb up out of the hole that has been dug, but it can be done. Especially if we work to extend a hand to one another.

Remember the Mi’kmaq phrase “Msit No’kmaq”.  That means “All my relations” — or, more literally, “We are all related.”  The whole human race — we are all related. Msit No’kmaq.

Nakummek, Tshinashkumitin, Wela’lioq, Marsee, Thank you.

Amelia is a Cultural Support Worker at the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre and volunteers her time with community organizations, serving on the Steering Committee for the Community Coalition for Mental Health (CC4MH) and The Independent’s Board of Directors. She is a proud Métis woman who is originally from the Pacific Northwest, but her home is here in Newfoundland. In her role with the Native Friendship Centre, she has taken on the national Faceless Dolls project — tracking and honouring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in N.L. while increasing public awareness through media, speaking, and events. She also focuses on providing emotional and cultural support to Residential School Survivors so that they and their families can heal from the multi-generational and institutional traumas experienced by entire populations. She is also a single mother with two strong and handsome sons.

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