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Rampage Without End
September 8, 2022
Canada rarely makes world headlines, but unfortunately three major stories have become global this year involving the country’s ongoing aboriginal tragedy. This spring, there was the grim discovery of hundreds more unmarked graves beside former residential schools run by the Catholic Church where abuses against aboriginal children took place for decades. In July, the Pope began a “penitential voyage” across Canada to apologize for these crimes and try to help native communities heal. But this week, the ravages of inter-generational trauma caused by the historical abuse of aboriginals unfolded when a 32-year-old aboriginal man on parole went on a stabbing rampage in Saskatchewan and killed 11 people, wounded another 17, then died days later in police custody of self-inflicted injuries. This awful story illustrates how untreated trauma, caused by abuse and violence, lurks behind most of the world’s misery, from violent crimes to addiction, mistreatment of others, and even wars against innocent nations.
Intergenerational trauma plagues humanity and ruins lives. Simply put, it is the transmission through families of the terrible effects of historical events such as conquest, slavery, serfdom, exploitation, incarceration, holocaust, or war. Untreated, it results in alcohol and substance abuse, broken relationships, destroyed families, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, and violence or criminality. Aboriginals in Canada – as well as Australia and the United States – have been victims on a mass scale because they were impoverished, defeated, and traumatized by colonization and incarceration for generations. African Americans suffer too as a result of slavery, abuse, and racism for hundreds of years. In each and every case — individual or communal — the only “cure” is recognition and recovery through major psychological or social interventions.
The man accused of murdering 11 innocent people in Saskatchewan is a case in point. Myles Sanderson was 32 and had been in trouble since he was 12. He never finished school was convicted 59 times for drunk driving, drug possession, assault, robbery, and domestic abuse. Court records show that his childhood was characterized by neglect in homes where violence and substance abuse were normalized. He was diagnosed early on with post-traumatic stress disorder and at a recent Parole Board hearing said that regular use of drugs and hard alcohol would make him “lose (his) mind” and get angry. He was let free anyway, an unforgivable lapse on the part of authorities, and many of his victims included the relatives of his common law wife, mother of his five children.
Canada, the U.S., and Australia each have sizeable aboriginal populations with problems due to untreated mass traumatization. No amount of financial assistance makes a dent, only enlightened leadership helps. For instance, the elders of a small band in Northern Ontario, where 95 per cent of adults were alcoholics, all underwent intensive rehabilitation for alcohol abuse and to deal with sexual abuse trauma. They became sober, but realized that their children and grandchildren were afflicted and needed rehabilitation too. The entire community overcame the problem. They are the only one of Canada’s 630 Indian bands, called First Nations, that have undertaken a major intervention and recovery program for all generations in order to impede its continuation.
Naturally, the overall statistics, in terms of human suffering, are depressingly high in all three jurisdictions for similar reasons. Each country destroyed tribal cultures, confiscated tribal lands (some returned or shared decades later), but, worse of all, placed generations of aboriginal children into residential homes, run by governments and churches, in an attempt to “assimilate” them into mainstream society. Instead, the children were abused and permanently isolated from their families, traditional communities, languages, and way of life. And when released, they were rejected by white societies and often by their own communities.
“You store trauma if you don’t deal with it,” explains Catherine Twinn, a friend of mine and a lawyer from Alberta who has been an aboriginal activist, worked in government, and continues to advocate on behalf of aboriginal causes. She served for several years in the Province of Alberta as a cabinet minister working on behalf of child welfare in the province and said the experience was frustrating because the underlying problems are neither understood nor dealt with by the communities or by governments. “The majority of the populations on many reserves have FASD. [Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders from exposure to alcohol before birth] These cause physical problems or problems with behavior and learning. Often a person with FASD has a mix of these problems.”
She added “white people don’t talk about this – they don’t want to be accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes or of being racists” -- but the failure to diagnose problems mean that treatment cannot occur. “They end up in the criminal, welfare, unemployment systems, and suffer from diabetes, obesity, alcoholism, addictions. And there are several causes – intergenerational trauma, racism, colonial structures, and strong-man leaders who don’t realize that they, and their people, need treatment.”
The aboriginal tragedy in all three countries is swept aside even though the statistics are shocking. Canada has only 1.67 million aboriginals (First Nations and Inuit) or roughly four per cent of its population of 38.6 million but aboriginals represent 32 percent of the male federal prison population and 48 percent of the female prison population. Despite considerable concern and fiscal support in Canada for aboriginals, one in four live in poverty and 40 percent of Canada’s indigenous children live in poverty. To blame is communities with leaders who are impaired, indifferent, and autocratic.
The United States is no better. There are 2.64 million Native Americans out of a population of 329.5 million, less than one percent, but aboriginals represent 2.1 per cent of all federally incarcerated people. A 2022 article in Quartz stated: “Nationally, American Indians are incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the U.S. average for all groups, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 19 states, they are overrepresented in the prison population more than any other ethnic group.”
Australia has the same problem. There are 798,400 aboriginals out of its population of 25.79 million, or three percent, and yet 27 percent of those in prison are aboriginal. Comparing Canada with Australia, The Guardian quoted a Canadian expert Jonathan Rudin, head of Aboriginal Legal Services of Canada: “Aboriginal peoples in Canada were grappling with record numbers of their children being placed in the child welfare system and a huge over-representation in the criminal justice system, but these are the same issues that faced Australia…The reason it’s the same story is English settler colonialism works the same way, which is that you find a place with an indigenous population and then you destroy them as a people.”
“The only significant difference [between the two countries] in incarceration rate is among juvenile detainees, where Australia is markedly worse: 59 percent of all children in detention in Australia are Indigenous, compared with 40 percent of children in Canadian youth jails,” Rudin added. “In the child welfare system, almost 50 percent of children were Aboriginal. The Australian rate is 51 percent.”
The mistreatment of aboriginal children lasted generations. In Australia, an estimated 10,500 children were forcibly removed and placed on missions to be trained as domestic servants between the late 1800s and the 1970s. In Canada, roughly 150,000 were placed in residential schools up until 1996. “Now we don’t have residential schools,” he said. “What we have is child welfare, and when you graduate from child welfare we have jails.”
Some individuals and communities have made “the recovery journey” but the problem remains widespread and destroys the cultural and socio-economic systems within these aboriginal groups. This recent hideous mass murder in rural Canada is an alarming tragedy that’s resulted from this total dysfunction. I asked Catherine Twinn, when does it end? “Pain is passed down from generation to generation until someone is brave enough to feel it. I don’t think the general public is well informed on trauma and intergenerational trauma. This is not only about aboriginals. The King of Jordan used to host an international conference on trans-generational trauma in recognition of the fact that the Middle East population is a traumatized population. The same applies to Russia, where there are high rates of addiction of 40 per cent of so. Russia is like a big reserve.”
Tragically, so is most of the world.