Build understanding, build respect: how hard could it be?

Hill Times, January 13 2020

I teach about cultural competence and the lack of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. One of the consistent responses from non-Indigenous participants is shock about the amount of pain that some Indigenous families go through. It’s true, some Indigenous families endure more pain in a year than some non-Indigenous families might endure in decades. However, this isn’t the trauma competition game and there are no winners.

This is a story about building understanding.

A few weeks ago, I met with one of my oldest First Nations friends. We shared how we each were doing, and she shared her cousin had slipped back into opioid abuse and nobody knew where the cousin was. But before anybody jumps to erroneous conclusions, let’s examine the facts.

Why did the cousin slip back into opioid addiction? Because there’s a lack of culturally competent substance use services in urban areas. Why does she need help to overcome substance use? Because she struggled to find healing from trauma of her past. Why did she have trauma? Because she was taken in part of the ’60s Scoop, and grew up without a sense of family and belonging. Why did she grow up without family? Because child welfare agencies thought they knew best to give Indigenous babies to non-Indigenous families, based on the myth that Indigenous parents were not good enough or sophisticated enough to raise babies. Why was a myth of the deficit Indigenous parent? Because Indian residential schools abused so many survivors, who couldn’t find healing. And because child welfare agencies mirrored the pervasive racism of Canada. Why was there pervasive racism? Because it was legislated that Indians were less than civilized Canadians.

Is this an excuse? No, not at all. It’s the all-important context that can offset judgment. The truth is that the cousin who slipped back into opioid abuse has a story full of resilience, a story worthy of respect if we just sat quietly and tried to understand.

Back to my oldest friend who was sharing about how she’s doing. The truth is more complicated. She said, “My uncle was hit by a train, my cousin lost her seven-year old child to suicide, and another cousin slipped back into opioid addition. How was your week?” she asked with a flippant tone. It is the tone my Indigenous friends might use when we really don’t have any other choice but to keep it light, as if we don’t have the energy to delve into it.

It’s true, some Indigenous families endure more pain in a year than some non-Indigenous families might endure in decades. I wish I could say that this was a startling confession to hear from my First Nations friends, except that’s a complete lie. I hear stories like this regularly from Indigenous friends. I suspect this past week for my First Nations friend is one of seven different weeks just this year. And my First Nations friend is one of the strongest, most full-of-grace woman I know.

I can hear the uncomfortable responses from Canadians.

”It sounds unbelievable!” Okay, but, it’s still true.

“How can this happen!” Umm, well, every day in this country, can we please focus on showing empathy instead of your cognitive dissonance?

“I had no idea!” Understood, but now you do have some more knowledge, so what do you want to do with that knowledge?

And here is the gold standard response—a response that focuses on the individual’s story and resilience. “Thank you for sharing, I can see that you have real strength to choose to share it with me.”

Everybody has a story, and Indigenous families need to have their stories heard. With understanding, maybe we can even build some respect.