Canada's Indigenous Peoples

International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples


Aboriginal Peoples of Canada: Mental Health and Wellness

Lecture by Dr. Josephine Tan
Clinical Psychology Faculty Member
Lakehead University, Ontario, Canada

The session opened with a moment of silence to honor the Native People of the Land. After a brief report on Indigenous Issues, Dr. Josephine Tan presented the history and current situation of the Indigenous people in Canada as well as the efforts being made for healing and integration.

Currently, suicide is the greatest issue. The suicide rate among indigenous people is 13% greater than the national rate. The next is drug use. Not all communities are the same. Some are healthy but some are living in great poverty. Remote communities in the North have more challenges.

In the 1950's the Government initiated a relocation program with disastrous results in its attempt to assimilate the Aboriginal people into mainstream society. The Government created housing, schools, boarding schools, etc., and relocated the Aboriginal people. The aboriginals were told they could return, but that was not the case. There was job scarcity and the people were faced with unfamiliar clothing, food and housing. All of these posed great challenges. The collapse of the fur industry in the 80's created poverty. With that came widespread disease. The aborignals were sent south for treatment. The trauma of the changes and challenges, as well as the loss of their culture and identity, were all bad for mental health.

During the relocation, children were removed from their families by the government and sent to boarding schools. Parents were told that their children were being sent away for the good of the future of the country and for the good of the children's future.

In the schools, the teachers were often unqualified. The children had to wear uniforms and cut their hair. In the Aboriginal culture, hair has great meaning. The children suffered abuse - physical, mental, sexual. There was no nurturing, no holding. The innocent Inuit parents wouldn't believe their children's stories. They fully trusted the government's promise to take care of their children. Some children ran away but then died of exposure in the harsh Canadian elements. The psychological effects are lifelong and were passed on to subsequent generations. Compromised leadership means compromised communities.

To mend the mental health and well-being of the Aboriginal community, different methods are employed:

  1. Connecting with the land: They are being taught skills living on the land. Inuit people love the land. It is connected to beautiful memories "Memory scope" is in the Tundra for them. It reduces stress and anxiety.

  2. Talking, developing secure relationships: The sexes are separated to address their deeper issues and sharing life stories.

  3. Purification ceremonies are held - burning elements, sweat lodges, sacred tents. Healing circles are created in the sacred tents.

The Canadian government is now working on real integration. Some examples of integration efforts are:

  1. All health professionals should be aware of Aboriginal history and culture.

  2. They are trained to be sensitive to discrimination and racism

  3. They are provided the option to learn the language

  4. Students are being taught about cultural influences in health care, training with Aboriginal individuals and communities

Dr. Tan wrapped up her presentation with 5 points the government is highlighting in the healing and integration of the Aboriginal people:

  1. Physical health,

  2. Language and culture,

  3. Education,

  4. Control over health services,

  5. Concern for most vulnerable, the young and old.