While the opioid crisis continues to devastate our communities, some people choose to blame individuals for using drugs.
But for many people, the path to substance abuse has been blazed by Canada’s colonial history.
Statistics released last year by the province and the First Nations Health Authority indicate that Indigenous people are five times more likely to overdose in B.C., and three times more likely to die of an overdose.
Brittley James, a community wellness worker with Kwakiutl District Council Health, cited that research last week in downtown Campbell River.
She was teaching people to use Naloxone kits, which can save the life of someone overdosing, as part of International Overdose Awareness Day.
Speaking to the Mirror, she stressed that drug use among First Nations people has to do with traumas that are passed along through generations.
“I think it has a lot to do with residential school trauma, the Sixties Scoop, just the inter-generational trauma that has been going on for so many years,” she said. “We are losing a lot of people, and First Nations people especially.”
The Sixties Scoop, for those who aren’t familiar, was the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes by the Canadian government for adoption into non-Indigenous homes.
In the context of poverty on reserves, the government ripped children and newborn babies away from their families, without the consent of parents. The government ramped up the process in the 1960s, but it went well beyond that period.
The federal government has indicated that between 1960 and 1990, more than 11,000 Indigenous children were adopted, but that number may be much higher. Even today, Indigenous people are over-represented in the child welfare system.
The residential school system also violently ripped Indigenous children from their families. And these are not distant, historical occurrences. The last residential school, in Punnichy, Sask., only closed in 1996.
The horrors of life in these government-sponsored religious boarding schools, including sexual abuse and the suppression of Indigenous languages, are increasingly well-known. But other aspects of racist policy in this country remain poorly understood by people from dominant colonial-settler communities.
For example, until 1960, Indigenous people couldn’t vote unless they relinquished their Indian status, a policy designed to speed up assimilation.
And conditions on reserves resembled open-air prisons. Under the so-called “pass system,” which was only phased out in the 1930s, Indigenous people required a travel document to come and go from reserves.
Vernon Harper, a Cree activist and medicine man who died this year in Toronto, recounted in a 1983 interview how federal officials known as Indian agents would control life on reserves, suppressing Indigenous traditions with the force of the law.
He described life on reserves in the early 1950s, including Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan, as being “like concentration camps… where the Indian agent had total control.”
Those Indian agents were known for kicking down people’s doors accompanied by an RCMP officer, “just for minor things… someone didn’t pay a fine, they would kick the person’s door down and drag them out,” Harper said.
He recalled how people who converted to Christianity were given preferential treatment by the Indian agents, while medicine people who continued their traditional practices went underground. Similarly, here in B.C., the potlatch was banned from 1884 to 1951.
The cumulative effect of these anti-Indigenous policies — which all came in the context of displacement by colonial settlers — was nothing less than devastating for the Indigenous people of this country.
Considering this historical background, it’s incumbent on us all to extend compassion towards those whose lives are in ruins. And yet, many people express intense hatred towards poor people struggling with drug addiction, dismissing them as “junkies” or worse.
The anger is misdirected. Don’t get mad at the people suffering from substance abuse and poverty. They are the victims of profound heartbreak. Get mad at the system that put them in this situation.