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COLUMN: Several stages of history created intergenerational trauma for Indigenous Peoples

'These historical events set in motion reactions, emotions, feelings, and mindsets that create victims and survival instincts.'
Columnist Parry Stelter sup C
Columnist Parry Stelter

As Canada reels back and forth in reaction to Indigenous issues, it is necessary to make some clarifications. Most residential school survivors and the generations before and after them have experienced intergenerational trauma. Many may think the residential school system was Canada’s primary form of colonialism. Although it was a significant part of the colonial assimilation policy of Canada, there is much more behind intergenerational trauma among Indigenous People.

Many timelines show critical events of how Indigenous People were negatively affected. I’ve taken historical information from one source and condensed it into timeline of 10 major events that helped to form and initiate intergenerational trauma in the lives of Indigenous Peoples over the last 500 years. The government controlled these events. It explains in more detail why Indigenous People have so many issues with Canada and feel like second-class citizens.

Stage One — 1493: The papal bull Doctrine of Discovery is decreed a year after Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America. Europeans claim legal title to the “New World.”

Stage Two — 1670: The Hudson’s Bay Company is established by English Royal Charter, forming a monopoly, and increasing the volume of goods in the fur trade.

Stage Three — 1600s and 1700s: Tuberculosis, smallpox, and measles spread, intentionally or inadvertently, across North America, devasting Indigenous populations.

Stage Four — 1657: The Gradual Civilization Act is passed by the Province of Canada to encourage Indigenous peoples’ assimilation into Euro-Canadian values. Indigenous men over 21 and “sufficiently advanced” could be given 50 acres of land for their education. Few take the offer, partly because it means losing their treaty rights.

Stage Five — 1867: The British North America Act creates the Dominion of Canada — colonial responsibility.

Stage Six — 1876: The Indian Act is passed by the Government of Canada on the premise that economic, social, and political regulation of First Nations peoples (and lands) would facilitate assimilation.

Stage Seven — 1883: Prime Minister John A. McDonald authorizes the creation of residential schools run by Christian churches to force Indigenous children to assimilate to Euro-Canadian culture and practices.

Time of most excellent tension — 1922: Dr. P.H. Bryce, chief medical officer for Canada’s Department of the Interior and Indian Affairs, publishes The Story of a National Crime. He argues that Indigenous People’s health is being ignored in residential schools and Indian hospitals, violating treaty pledges.

Stage Eight — 1939-45: Between 5,000 to 8,000 Indigenous soldiers fight for Canada in the Second World War, serving in all major battles and campaigns. Most do not receive the same compensation as others upon returning home.

Stage Nine — 1969-70: A federal “White Paper” on Indian Affairs proposes abolishing the Indian Act, Indian status and reserves, and transferring responsibility for Indian Affairs to the provinces. In response, Cree Chief Harold Cardinal writes the “Red Paper” calling for recognition of Indigenous peoples as “citizens plus.”

Stage 10 — 1960s-80s: The federal and provincial governments took thousands of Indigenous children from their homes and placed them in mostly non-Indigenous homes.

Each stage indicates Canadian authorities' mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples. Unfortunately, this same mindset was transferred to regular citizens. Not all Canadians saw Indigenous People in the same way government authorities did, but it set us apart as a problem to be solved. These historical events set in motion reactions, emotions, feelings, and mindsets that create victims and survival instincts.

The purpose of presenting this historical information is not to create more strife and tension. It’s to understand better what took place over the last 500 years that has created intergenerational trauma among my fellow Indigenous Peoples. Many more historical events could have been added. Many Indigenous People are productive members of their communities, yet many still struggle to find out why they always feel so bad.

Parry Stelter is a member of Alexander First Nation, which is part of Treaty Six Territory. He is an author, speaker, and a doctoral candidate in contextual leadership at Providence University.