Colonial History and Its Impact – Supporting Indigenous Senior Victims of Crime

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

When discussing supporting senior victims from the Indigenous community, understanding Canada’s colonial history plays a huge part. This is not only because the senior Indigenous people have a shared geographical background, but also because the suffering and trauma they went through was casted upon them systematically. High levels of systematic victimization came from the authorities and the law, lasted for centuries, and still leaves lingering impacts. The crimes that happened to them were not one or a few harsh random acts, but a planned and mapped out persecution that formed the white-dominant society narrative and norm that we live in today.

In June, our National Indigenous History Month, MCIS partnered with Melissa (Mel) Compton, a multilateral Mi’kmaq/Scottish writer and artist, and presented a free webinar Connecting the Impacts of Colonization to Senior Abuse in accordance with our newly introduced Supporting Senior Victims of Crime Training Program. With Compton’s extensive knowledge and research of history, Indigenous culture and communities, the webinar examined in depth of the roots and causes of Indigenous seniors’ trauma, how it affects them, and even the impact to the younger Indigenous generations.

Indian Act

It’s impossible to learn about the colonial history without looking at the law. In 1867, The Indian Act was introduced. In order to “kill the ‘savage’ in the man,” the European patriarchal system was forced onto Indigenous people, who historically lived in a matrilineal society. Indigenous women, who were the matriarchs, decision-makers, leaders and carried important roles, were suddenly deprived of their social status and treated as properties of men and the country. This complete overthrown of worldview and the accompanied confusion and perpetuation of a false narrative of Indigenous peoples, negatively impacted the functioning of Indigenous communities and dismantled their worldviews.

In the 1880s, the law went further in terms of restricting Indigenous people’s rights. Traditional ceremonies, dances, powwows and many other activities that would involve more than three Indigenous people were officially banned. “It was basically illegal to be Indigenous,” said Compton in her presentation. “They’d be thrown in jail (if they were in groups of three or more), for invoking a riot.” The purpose of these legislations, as quoted on record, was to “get rid of the Indian problem.” The plan was simple and cruel: assimilating those who could be assimilated and punish or kill those who couldn’t, until the entire memory of Indigenous cultures’ existence was wiped out of the land, and the European way of life became the one and only knowledge for those who live in Canada.

Residential School

As the Act and its impact progressed slowly, Indigenous children became the target, because children are “vulnerable, look up to adults and trust adults very easily.” Three types of schools were invented: day schools, industrial schools and residential schools. Enrollment was mandatory. Parents who sent their kids to residential schools would lose custody over their own children, and those who refused would face jailtime. Albeit the government’s promise of education, the majority of activities in schools were religious prayers and hard labour. Most of the children who attended these schools suffered from different levels of abuse:

  • Overwork: Children in residential schools were often subject to 12+ hours of physical work per day;
  • Under-qualified staff: There was no background check for teachers and staff working at these schools. Some of them were even registered sex offenders;
  • Loss of family ties and parental care: Since Indigenous parents were forced to give up their custody to the principals, children in residential schools no longer had the right to meet their parents and family. Gifts or letters from home were often withheld;
  • Prohibition of their own languages and cultural practice;
  • Bleaching of skin;
  • Forced religious adaption and conversion;
  • Malnutrition and starvation;
  • Overcrowding: which often led to the widespread of infectious diseases. To stop the diseases from spreading, sick children were sometimes gathered into mass graves
  • Being forced and subjected to medical and chemical experiments;
  • Sexual and other physical abuse;

…and many, many more.

Impact Today

The purpose of learning about colonial history is not simply chewing on what happened in the past and not letting go, nor is it an act of making excuses for people who have trouble pulling themselves out of the situations they’re trapped in. The last residential schools in Canada closed in the late 1990s, and the children who were abused in these institutions are the Indigenous seniors today. This colonial history is hardly even a “history,” but more of the life experiences of currently living people. Each of these people with a childhood full of experiences that could cause severe mental and physical health issues by no fault of their own: but at the hands of a malicious system and members of settler society.

When we talk about Indigenous seniors, we are talking about an entire generation of people with post-traumatic stress disorder, who then intergenerationally passed down the effects of the trauma. The forced assimilation caused challenges with identity and a loss of many cultural practices, most importantly, their language. The separation of children and families led to loss of the ability to seek support from their own communities. The prohibition of Indigenous activities taught them the fear of expressing themselves and making connections which contributes to the inability to trust those in positions of power or authority. Evidently, leaving an entire race of people isolated and trapped as settler laws continue to target Indigenous peoples and systems of worldview with a continuous false story of who Indigenous peoples are and how they live.

Learning the history is the key, because only by knowing the causes of these issues can we provide sufficient support and debunk stereotypes. This is important to not only those who were born in Canada, but also to newcomers and immigrants, who are often less informed on colonial topics and hold the principle of “my ancestors had nothing to do with this.” It is through undifferentiated education to Canada’s colonial past that we can truly share and walk side-by-side in the same notion that we are in this together.

*Listed examples are parts of the key ideas taken from Compton’s presentation. The full webinar can be viewed here.

Guest speaker biography:

Melissa (Mel) Compton, is a multilateral Mi’kmaq/Scottish artist who uses her lived experience, artwork and therapeutic skills to develop and facilitate specialized youth programs. Mel’s knowledge comes from a vast amount of program/workshop development and facilitation that allows for skill development, positive identity and engagement. Her work as a peer support worker, frontline case manager, anti-human trafficking worker, program and curriculum specialist, and now a Manager of Culture and Wellness programming, has enhanced her ability to develop and provide programming for children and youth through the lens of Etuaptmumk (two-eyed seeing); a concept/teaching of elder Albert Marshall from Unama’ki.