The following letter has been published anonymously to protect the author’s organization.
Last week, I watched in horror as the RCMP arrested and deported Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their allies from traditional unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, and had the strange feeling that I was witnessing the genesis of decades of trauma, substance abuse and distress.
I work in an addiction resource centre that serves an Indigenous population struggling with substance abuse.
All of our clients have experienced trauma in their lifetime, and more often than not, that’s precisely what led them to consumption issues.
Substance abuse and trauma
Indigenous populations in Canada experience an inordinately high rate of trauma.
Intergenerational trauma refers to the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms. Historical trauma, on the other hand, refers to traumatic events of greater social magnitude that create a collective suffering.
Both forms of trauma affect Indigenous populations, considering their historical experiences of colonization, assimilation, and dispossession.
Many provincial and federal commissions have shown that land dispossession, the state’s paternalism, the criminalization of Indigenous ways of life, and the residential school system are directly responsible for the widespread distress among Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
An average client where I work has experienced trauma, often in their childhood, which has fuelled shame and substance abuse and then hindered their capacity to work and care for themselves and their children. Often, child protection services take their children, creating even more despair and shame.
When our clients knock at our door, they usually think they are worthless and good for nothing. Many have been through unspeakable pain.
We are faced with a vicious circle that is incredibly hard to break. This cause-and-effect relationship between trauma and substance abuse has been repeatedly demonstrated in the scientific literature. Someone who experiences significant trauma and has other vulnerability factors, as is the case with many Indigenous persons in Canada, has a high likelihood of using substances as a coping mechanism.
In an ideal world, we would just eliminate the problem at its source and prevent the trauma, right?
Ongoing colonial violence
Since I saw the photo of a fierce Indigenous female land defender being carried in the dark by two impassive RCMP officers, I can’t stop thinking about my role as a worker in addictions serving Indigenous clients.
Why even bother trying to repair all this damage while the Canadian government generates more at the same time? Why bother trying to decolonize our services while the Canadian government is complicit in blatant ongoing colonization, as seen in the case of the Wet’suwet’en? How can I be true to my mission, which is to help clients, without speaking out about the harmful colonial violence that others endure at the same time?
I know that if my clients were standing in the way of a pipeline, the federal government wouldn’t hesitate for a second to criminalize and arrest them and destroy their land. It would allow their rights to be curtailed by the will of energy corporations. It would treat them as dispensable, like it is treating the Wet’suwet’en today and has always treated Indigenous Peoples.
The federal government knowingly and willingly creates and perpetuates trauma — seeing it as acceptable collateral damage from the activities of energy corporations. And then the government apologizes, pays some compensation as if money alone could repair trauma, talks about reconciliation, and starts all over again.
Questioning the system
In the health and social services sector, we are often overwhelmed by the number and severity of our cases. We do our best to ease our clients’ troubles, to give them tools to survive and to empower them. We often struggle to get our heads above water and take a peek at the big picture. We don’t have the training or the time to do it.
We honestly care for our clients and we do everything in our power, which is very little, to make their lives better. We do everything we can to help them, except for the most important thing: questioning colonialism itself. We rarely question the existence of a culture and a system that generates trauma much faster and on a much larger scale than what we can ever alleviate.
Now more than ever, I am certain that we will never succeed in defeating intergenerational, historical or individual trauma if we don’t eliminate its contemporary source.
We can’t change the past, but we do have control over the present. As health and social services workers, our responsibility is to demand systemic change and hold the government accountable for its actions.
The way we can best defend our clients’ interests is by ensuring they don’t need to become clients in the first place.