Full Circle: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation & the Unfinished Work of Hope, Healing & Reconciliation

An excerpt from my book Full Circle: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation & the Unfinished Work of Hope, Healing & Reconciliation, Chapter 3, “Long-Term Visions & Short-Term Politics.”


THE MANDATE of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was conceived as two related components: healing and reconciliation. As a funding agency, the AHF supported these with money and community support workers and other clerical services. Another large part of the Foundation’s work and legacy subsisted in its research agenda, which by 2010 had produced 20 studies all focused upon the Indian Residential School System and its current-day manifestations. The research was meant to advance one objective above all others: healing. The topics explored were enormously complex and included fetal alcohol syndrome, incarceration, domestic violence, sexual offenses and addiction. Behind the complex subjects however were practical questions: what relationship does the Indian Residential School System have to the realities of current-day life? Is there an underlying and perhaps even unifying agent which may account for the many apparent diverse forms of physical and emotional turmoil we can discern in indigenous communities? When communities undertake to solve their problems for themselves, what works, and why? Such were the sort of concrete prospects to which the research agenda was directed.

In 2006, the terrain was sufficiently mapped to facilitate the three-volume 1,150-page journey represented in the Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s final report. Volume I of this report (“A Healing Journey: Reclaiming Wellness”) was authored by Kanien’keha:ke scholar Marlene Brant Castellano and considered in detail the background of the Foundation, its establishment and activities. A large portion of this volume rehearsed the findings of project evaluations and described promising healing practices in Aboriginal communities, closing with a chapter called “The Road Ahead.” Volume II (“Measuring Progress: Program Evaluation”) analyzed the projects funded by the AHF since 1999. Project design, numbers and types of participants, project strategies, sustainability, impacts and outcomes, the healing journey and performance measurements—and a good deal besides—were scrutinized. Three hundred pages of appendices, figures and tables provided the quantitative data and methodology underlying the findings. Volume III (“Promising Healing Practices in Communities”) focused on historic trauma, models of therapeutic healing and healing strategies for distinct groups (Inuit, Métis, urban areas, women, men and youth). Taken together, these volumes provide a thorough overview of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and its funded projects from 1999 to the time of publication in 2006.

The core finding of the final report may be summarized as follows. While most funded projects adopted a combination of traditional, Aboriginal and “Western” academic-based therapeutic strategies, activities derived from and utilizing indigenous cultures, languages and ceremonies were as a matter of general principle felt by participants to be the most effective. As the final report puts it, “research conducted as part of this study supports the conclusion that culture is good medicine.” Especially considered beneficial were projects which brought together youth and elders and which thereby reinforced cultural values and practices. Projects commonly faced a protracted start-up period, during which they struggled with the inevitable challenges of gaining community trust, breaching taboos (for example around sexual abuse), and earning the confidence of participants. Periods of success were typically followed by something identified in the final report as “hitting the wall”—a phase during which apparent and promising progress, buoyed by excitement and a sense of newness, yields to fatigue and an unforeseen setback such as a suicide or the emergence of a new social problem in the community (gang violence, criminal activity, etc.). Eventually the projects which break through this wall begin to establish the conditions which yield community transformation:

Teams told us that when transformation is complete it would become obvious because children would be safe, addictions would be rare, women would be free from fear of violence and a sense of belonging and ownership would prevail. A climate of cultural renaissance, hope and optimism would be apparent, Aboriginal languages would flourish, and Survivors and their families would have the power to influence their communities. There would be movement away from the management of service industries designed to address the impacts of residential school, to the creation of culturally grounded, adequately resourced and self-sustaining institutions that function to maximize social strength. Survivors and their families would enjoy a quality of life second to none in Canada.

The final report concluded that change of this character requires a minimum ten years of continuous activity in a community on average and that “the minimum time line projected to implement the priorities set out above and reach a new, healthier steady-state is 30 years.” Because very few communities would ever approach even the minimum ten-year average threshold of AHF funding at which lasting change was said to begin to take hold, and since many communities had yet even to begin the journey (for many reasons, including denial and other pressing issues), the report recommended a $600 million federal commitment to an “endowment strategy” which would support thirty years worth of healing initiatives, for a total value between 1.1 billion and 1.8 billion dollars, to September 2035.

Around this time, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology released a report entitled Out of the Shadows at Last: Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction Services in Canada. Chaired by the Honourable Michael J.L. Kirby, this committee took a great interest in the issue of aboriginal mental health. Some months before they had heard testimony from the Director of Research, Dr. Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, the substance of which included data, conclusions and recommendations of the AHF final report. Others, among them the future National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, gave personal accounts of the community benefits of healing and the need for a long-term strategy.

Representatives of First Nations and Inuit spoke about the need for long-term renewal of the Foundation’s funding in order to expand and sustain community healing projects. For bc Regional Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, its funding of healing efforts at the community level were crucial to increased emotional wellness in his community. Having observed a decline in suicide attempts among the Nuu-chah-nulth, he noted that

While there is no one factor that we can point to, I know that the work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was tremendous for our people. The foundation allowed for community-based design and delivery of healing.

The author(s) of Out of the Shadows ably articulated the central structural impediment, that healing required a long-term vision and strategy alien to the necessary short-term business of electoral politics: “The Foundation’s funding ends in 2007 and, for many groups, this constitutes another example of the instability created by short-term funding. By the time that communities develop the capacity to apply for funding through the Foundation, none will be available.” The funding did not however end in 2007, the year that the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) delivered a further $125 million for community-delivered services. Negotiated toward the end of the short-lived Martin Government, the Settlement Agreement reflected the Standing Committee’s recommendation to “renew the mandate of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and provide funding for another three years.” These funds were a good and welcomed component of the agreement, even if they did little to address the “instability created by short-term funding.”

Neither the Standing Committee—which “commend[ed] the work done by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and agree[d] with those who call for a long-term commitment to its work”—nor the many other advocates of the longer term vision could prevail against the politics of the arms-length foundation. The HRDC Sponsorship Scandal and the Auditor General’s criticisms of delegated funding arrangements rendered an endowment a political improbability. Given the weakness of the Martin Government in 2005 and 2006, and the pressure imposed by the opposition, the $125 million committed to healing initiatives is in retrospect remarkable. Nonetheless, it was another short-term solution, putting off three years for the 2007 scenario foreseen by the Kirby report.

There is another challenge encountered by everyone working within the mental health field, related to and even more daunting than the challenges of funding cycles and their short-term instability. This challenge is the necessity for bridging an “understanding gap” which is obtained between the mental health and wellness professionals on the one hand and the politicians and general public on the other. One must take care not to overindulge this dichotomy, since there are politicians and non-professionals who have an understanding of, and who support, therapeutic approaches to individual and social problems. There are also many who are unfamiliar, or only very slightly familiar, with concepts such as historic trauma. Then there are those who dismiss the very concept of “social problems,” construing the therapy industry as little beyond a self-enriching racket forever inventing esoteric problems which require ever more public funds. Now and again, one of these skeptics becomes a portfolio-holding minister with whom a government-funded NGO program coordinator is obliged to meet, as part of the not-for-profit ritual of securing the next short-term funding cycle. The securing of public and political support for the work of healing poses such a challenge. Here also the AHF research agenda was pressed into the service of public education, better to cultivate an environment conducive to supporting the work of aboriginal communities.

This was an issue that came up frequently in board meetings. The Canadian (and international) public was gradually becoming informed about the existence of Indian residential schools and the abuses which took place within them. The difference between ignorance and information was great, but greater still was the difference between information and understanding. One could know that the schools existed and that many were abused without understanding what this meant in contemporary Canada. The discussions of board members grappled with the practical challenges of facilitating the gradual transformation of ignorance into information and information into understanding. It posed an intractable problem, year upon year requiring a redoubling of effort and a rethinking of approach. How to explain the residential school experience to the “ordinary Canadian” so that they will understand was a riddle that presented itself with each speech, press release, article, high school presentation, conference and interview. Perhaps it couldn’t be done, and the best one could aim for was approximation. Aboriginal people had been taken from their home, their mothers and fathers, their aunts and uncles and grandparents. They had been placed in the care of people who, whether motivated by well-meaning intentions, regarded Indian cultures and languages and social relationships as hopeless anachronisms with no present and future prospects. The children thus institutionalized were experiments in social engineering, their lives a protracted admixture of fear and loneliness and hunger in many cases punctuated by unspeakable violence and trauma. What few “white” Canadians could ever be expected to feel down in their gut was the buried shame and self-loathing of helpless children tossed into the machinery of the master race.

The people who were there in the early days of the healing movement recall the first steps along the journey, in the work of dealing with alcohol and drug addictions. “I think that was one of the key moments in the healing movement,” says Maggie Hodgson:

It was one of the first big moves that took us outside, in a formal and structured funding formula, what Western society thought was needed to heal us. We utilized knowledge and skills that were Western based and traditional based. But most important, the concept of identity and the importance of the spiritual collective were instituted. The traditional model is different from the Western model. It’s the sense of the self as part of the collective.

For Hodgson it was imperative that people who didn’t have the solutions “stay out of our road” and trust the ability of aboriginal people to move forward with their own healing, drawing upon ceremony, culture and pride, thereby restoring a sense of responsibility for the collective as well as a sense of relationship to, and a place in, the community.

The work of addictions had a historical context. Here, Hodgson uses the metaphor of the community having its hands tied behind its back, rendered powerless and spiritually injured. With this insight into spiritual harm, the healing movement went further along the path of understanding. In the 1980s, certain isolated cases of emotional turmoil and behavioural anomaly came under the term “post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD. This clinical diagnosis could make sense of the experiences of the individual victim of physical or sexual abuse, but it fell short of accounting for the emotional and psychological character of a community. What might be said of a population in which lack of trust, despair, violence, apathy and low self-regard seemed to be widespread, and in which many had simply ceased to care for themselves and for one another? Many aboriginal communities did not, and do not, resemble this characterization—but what of those which did? A famous example was Alkali Lake, where alcoholism was near universal. Across Canada there were aboriginal communities which for generations had known only catastrophe, poverty and stasis. Elders would tell you that, although their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers had very little, materially speaking, they had not known poverty. Impoverishment came later, when the land was taken and communities were forced to relocate. The difference between subsistence and poverty was an epochal difference, a cultural sea-change. Subsistence was a challenge that required people to co-operate and share. Poverty results when these supportive relationships are shattered. With the sudden arrival of land-hungry settlers, aboriginal people experienced a disruption of the food supply and an overwhelming competition for land, followed by colonial domination. They experienced, in short, impoverishment.

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the old ways were under systemic attack from a colonial administration which claimed for itself authority over indigenous populations. Canada arrogated to itself the power to define who was an Indian, and having done so to circumscribe the accompanying rights and obligations. On behalf of distant Ottawa, Indian agents invigilated reserve populations, enforcing the pass and permit laws and bans on cultural practices. Some, like Hayter Reed (whose nickname was Iron Heart), used food as a weapon, starving those who were insufficiently compliant. Death, disease and humiliation overtook what once were proud and independent peoples. Resilience and defiance did not entirely disappear, and forward-looking indigenous leaders successfully negotiated treaties to secure the long-term well-being of their people. Courage, intelligence and principle guided the warriors of this era. Unfortunately, no one could prevent misfortunes like the spread of European diseases, nor could they bring back the Buffalo herds. The overwhelming catastrophes of the late nineteenth century threw everything into the winds. For those who lived through the upheavals, it must have seemed at times as if the world was coming to an abrupt end. It is precisely this sense of overwhelming disaster—of having the secure and familiar foundations of one’s existence suddenly revoked— that many therapists believe is at the root of today’s social problems. Nor are these problems unique to aboriginal people: the spiritual toxins, whether addiction or welfare dependence or loss of cultural pride, are the products of material conditions that exist throughout the world. Poverty, in other words, is the objective endgame of social policies which actively impoverish. The terms that have come to be employed are “complex post-traumatic stress disorder,” and the related but broader concept of historic trauma.

One commonly encounters the notion that residential schools happened a long time ago and that “people need to move on.” In fact, the residential schools were recent, and many who were in one are alive today and still living with the experience. They are the root of the catastrophes, cursively regarded in the previous paragraph, which were a long time ago. The years roughly 1870–1920 demarcate a period when many functioning communities saw their capacity to care for themselves severely undermined. Those alive at that time knew what had taken place because they had seen it with their own eyes. Their lives went on, their thoughts and efforts dominated by the necessity of rebuilding an existence out of the debris left by disease and relocation to the small and often sterile patch of ground called an “Indian reserve.” Their children were placed in the Indian industrial, boarding and residential schools, where the churches and government colluded—unbeknownst to the Indigenous negotiators of the numbered treaties, who meant to exchange the use of their traditional hunting grounds for practical skills training and not for a church–government project of assimilation and Christianization. In the words of educator and activist Don Jackson, “the government has used treaties as part of an extinguishment process and the residential schools as part of an assimilationist process. The two are opposite sides of the same coin.” As the generations came and went, each subjected to the government’s policies of expropriation and assimilation, the memory of the trauma of initial contact receded, but the effects did not. Aboriginal people continued to live under the Indian Act, and thereby continued to be impoverished. This was the new reality, the old ways now shrouded in the fog of yesterday.

The assertion to “get over it” betrays a failure to grasp the nature of trauma. Imagine you had once lived in relative comfort, secure and confident in the knowledge that, whatever happened, you would be able to care for yourself and your family. Then one day a misfortune (perhaps a car accident) took from you not only your material comforts, but your memory of yourself as a confident, capable person. Bereft of identity, your life would doubtless suffer. The generations who lived through the very worst of the misfortunes at least had this: knowledge that there had been better times and that it was not the stupidity, laziness, backwardness or wickedness of the people which had brought forth their lot. They had suffered particular traumatic events that were beyond their control. The generations which came along decades later often had no personal connection to these memories. Looking around them and seeing the effects of the historic trauma, they concluded that “this was just how it is for us.”

Resignation and shame are the primary intergenerational effects of historic trauma, and in many ways the most difficult to counter because they are attended by a sense of inevitability and permanence. One can have few material possessions and be rich in spirit. Historic trauma, in contrast, has impoverished the spirits of aboriginal people. Feeling for the words to describe their emotional and spiritual reality—the pervasive sense that something was broken or missing inside them—people in the 1980s began to speak of the “residential school syndrome.” This syndrome somehow related to a lack of affection and an inability to connect with others and to maintain healthy personal relationships. For the survivors of residential school abuse, the pain was related to their childhood experiences. For later generations of indigenous people, who knew nothing of the schools, it seemed as if the Indian fell from the sky to become a broken and backward creature with no hope of improvement—precisely how many nineteenth century Indian Department bureaucrats saw him.

Perhaps the simplest way to summarize why an Aboriginal Healing Foundation was necessary is to cite this disempowering view of indigenous people. Grounded as it is in the pseudo-scientific and ahistorical notion of racial character, the view that aboriginal people are the victims only of their own cultures and natures impedes understanding and ensures that nothing will ever change. A good example of this is the chronic dependence upon social assistance in aboriginal communities, which has nothing to do with race or cultural inferiority but which reflects a poverty of spirit. One could argue that much of the anger and racism directed toward aboriginal people is an expression of frustration based on a lack of understanding and therefore of empathy. Awareness of the history of colonization in Canada, and of the historic trauma that resulted, is a prerequisite both of healing and reconciliation. A good deal of Canadian history has been marginalized and suppressed because it is too unpleasant and too unflattering. Current generations pay a price for this deliberate act of revisionism. Ignorant of their past, citizens today pay for the social and economic costs of their government’s historic policies—costs incurred in the ongoing management of symptoms rather than in the resolution of primary root causes.

The foundation’s research built upon the work and insights of, among others, Clare Brant, Michael J. Chandler, Phil Lane, Jr., Julian Norris, Michael and Judie Bopp, William J. Mussell and Judith Herman. The Foundation pressed the accumulated work of health researchers into the service of evaluating its nascent and nation-wide network of healing initiatives. Here was a rare undertaking indeed: support, promote, measure, analyze and refine Aboriginal-designed and -delivered therapeutic services tailored to the local needs of former Indian residential school students and their families. Every study was printed and distributed to the public free-of-charge, with permission to reproduce and further distribute for non-commercial use freely granted. Although the Aboriginal Healing Foundation enlisted the services and expertise of professional academics and produced some studies of a strenuously academic character, the research agenda was designed to promote the work of the grassroots and to promote general awareness and understanding of the legacy of Indian residential schools. In academic publishing a mountain top/market dichotomy commonly inheres, but the grassroots hunger for resources and support was such that these AHF publications readily found their way into many communities.

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