Understanding How Indigenous Women’s Health, Colonization & the Truth of Our History Are Interwoven
As we put the final touches on the Women Warriors facilitators manual and I prepare my slideshow to train the new facilitators in Calgary on March 16th and 17th, I am reflective of the importance of understanding how colonialism impacts Indigenous women’s health.
In the academic article, Racism, Sexism, and Colonialism: The Impacts on the Health of Aboriginal Women in Canada, Bourassa, Mckay-McNabb & Hampton (2004) discuss this matrix of oppression as revealed by health statistics:
Aboriginal women have a lower life expectancy, elevated morbidity rates, and elevated suicide rates in comparison to non-Aboriginal women (Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence, 2004). Aboriginal women living on reserves have significantly higher rates of coronary heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease and other chronic illnesses than non-Aboriginal Canadian women (Waldram, Herring, and Young, 2000). A significantly greater percentage of Aboriginal women living off reserve, in all age groups, report fair or poor health compared to non-Aboriginal women; 41 percent of Aboriginal women aged 55-64 reported fair or poor health, compared to 19 percent of women in the same age group among the total Canadian population (Statistics Canada).
The constant cycle of news stories pertaining to Indigenous women’s abuse, neglect and violence highlights the ongoing legacy of colonialism:
In Canada, Indigenous women are five times more likely to die a violent death
Jury finds Raymond Cormier not guilty in death of Tina Fontaine
Red Deer man admits separate killings of two Onion Lake Cree Nation women
While this program provides free fitness classes and nutrition education, the facilitators must also have the cultural competency and vocabulary to express the daily-lived reality of colonization. These concepts include:
- Colonization – the action or process of settling among, and establishing control over, the indigenous people of an area.
- Residential School – Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.
- Double Burden – Aboriginal women in Canada frequently experience challenges and discrimination that are not necessarily shared by non-Aboriginal women or Aboriginal men. Aboriginal women have been described as facing a “double-burden” – for being discriminated against as a woman and further for being Indigenous. (Please review Marginalization of Aboriginal Women). If we add weight bias to this discrimination, some Indigenous women experience a triple burden.
- Reconciliation – The action of restoring estranged people or parties to friendship, the result of which is becoming reconciled. In relation to Indigenous peoples and their history, it is the responsibility of every Canadian to understand the injustices committed in their country’s name. Every citizen needs to learn the history and legacy of Canada’s residential schools and realize that contemporary expressions of racist and colonial policies of cultural genocide and assimilation continue to this day.
- Intergenerational Trauma – the transmission of historical oppression and its negative consequences across generations. There is evidence of the impact of intergenerational trauma on the health and well-being of and social disparities facing Indigenous peoples in Canada and other countries.
- Social Determinants of Health – these are the social and economic factors in people’s lives that can, directly and indirectly, affect a person’s health. For example, if they are not able to afford to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables and therefore cannot possibly eat the recommended amount daily this would be a ‘direct’ effect. An example of an ‘indirect’ effect could include not having had healthy role modeling of food preparation and food purchasing by a parental figure. Social determinants of health can affect health and health behaviors in many different ways. Indigenous peoples are often in situations where they face inequality of these factors that affect health. Certain specific Indigenous social determinants of health have been outlined. These impact Indigenous peoples only and can be added to the more common ones that impact everyone. The common ones are gender (male versus female), Aboriginal status, housing, income, education level and work. Add to these the following Indigenous specific determinants: participation in traditional activities, balance, life control, environmental education, material resources, social resources and environmental/cultural connections. The facilitator needs to understand that all of these factors influence a participant’s life and their ability to make ‘healthy choices’ or ‘change’ their behavior. A facilitator should be careful to never question a ‘choice’, as the participant may not actually be making a ‘choice’, they may not have a choice. A facilitator should support participants to identify what is influencing their choices and what they can actually control. Try to avoid making people feel guilty about their choices.
In addition, the truth of colonial history is important to understanding why Indigenous peoples are “excessively vulnerable to cerebrovascular disease, coronary heart disease, diabetes, suicide, cancer, depression, substance use, HIVIAIDS, and violence” (Bourassa, Mckay-McNabb & Hampton, p. 27).
With that in mind, our Master’s student from the University of Calgary, Megan Sampson has researched the Plains History of Lloydminster to better understand how the colonial practices and policies in this area have impacted the health of our participants. Please read part 1 of 2 written below. Megan’s thesis includes this history and her research findings from her two months of living in Lloydminster and participating in the Women Warriors program. If you’re interested in learning more about her research on food security, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I believe that it would be beneficial for each Women Warriors program, wherever it expands to, to investigate its own colonial history to better understand how it is impacting their participant’s health. During my training in Calgary I will discuss this idea with the new facilitators. I will be doing a short lunch hour presentation on the Friday (Mar. 16th) for some of the City of Calgary’s management team and other stakeholders.
 Bourassa, C., Mckay-McNabb, K., & Hampton, M. (2004). Racism, sexism, and colonialism: the impact on the health of Aboriginal women in Canada. Canadian Woman Studies, (1), 23.
It’s important to practice self-love in the midst of negativity. Here are some of the Women Warriors self-care practices.
I use yoga, flute music, and weight lifting to reduce stress. – Verna
Depending on how stressed I may use more than one strategy.
1) Long hot bath, smooth jazz or other favorite music & candles, 2) Walk in the pasture (we live on 1/4 section) and have a chat with the horses. They always listen and never argue, and when they think they have heard enough they walk away. 3) I go out to my special sitting/praying rock and just be. 4) A good book and a cup of tea or a cold drink if it is hot! – Linda
Location: Village Square Leisure Centre, 2623 56 Street NE, Calgary.
Time: 7:00 pm -8:15 pm.
The contact person for this pilot is: Bev Renaud, Aboriginal Community Social Worker BSW, RSW. Bev.Renaud@calgary.ca
- Dr. Wicklum will be involved with the research for this program and hopefully our Master’s student, Megan will be a support. I will be training three facilitators in Calgary on March 16th/17th.
3) I am a bi-weekly contributor to the Yellowknifer newspaper. In order to view my articles, you must subscribe to the Northern News Services here. My next article, Honorable Minister Caroline Cochrane’s Insights for Women Entering Politics will be released on March 7th.
“Welcome to Lloydminster, Canada’s only Border City, and home to the world’s largest border markers! These 100 ft. pillars signify the provincial boundary and the fourth meridian which marks the border. They represent the four pillars of our city: Oil and Gas, the Barr Colonists, Agriculture, and the Native North Americans (. . . )”
The Lloydminster Native Friendship Centre’s website state’s that its objective is to “promote better understanding and relations between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Members of the Community”. This is a tall task, for how can better understanding and relations occur when the history of one of these parties is all but erased from public discourse? How can this understanding be fostered when acts of colonial violence, such as the abduction and murder of Violet Heathen and Jeannette Chief, are not contextualized and interpreted as symptoms of a long-standing and systemically embedded racism? When poverty, health inequity, substance use disorders, trauma, and injustice (such as that experienced by the family of Colten Boushie’s mourning family) is viewed as if it appeared out of a vacuum rather than as a predictable result of long-term oppression?
It was around this same time when a large migration of Metis people, a distinct nation of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry (primarily Cree, Ojibwa, and Salteaux), began migrating from Manitoba (from places such as the Red River Valley and Portage La Prairie) to Saskatchewan. This migration was in response to a federal delay on delivering cash payments and land holdings they promised in the form of scrip, in response to the Red River Rebellion and Metis assertion of their property rights (Thistle 2016). Denial of farmland in the form of scrip stalling resulted in widespread hunger, and the land which was offered contradicted Metis settlement patterns and interfered with river access. The Metis responded by again resisting, under the leadership of Louis Riel and Alexander Dumont, beginning with a food raid at Duck Lake resulting in a military stand-off. This Red River Resistance coincided with a resistance by the Cree at Frog Lake, Frenchman Butte, and Fort Pitt in 1985 (each of these sites being within a 100-kilometer radius of today’s Lloydminster). It is worth noting that the latter site was successfully captured by Cree warriors at this time. In his 1924 work, ‘Lloydminster, or, 5000 miles with the Barr Colonists’, J. Hanna McCormick notes:
“Many of the vital points in the Riel Rebellion of 1870, and later the
rising of ’85, were in this immediate neighborhood, and many people
now living in the district remember and have close knowledge of those
exciting times. The reader can grasp the sentiment Barr Colonists must
feel when these events are recalled and placed before them [. . .]” (16)
It is therefore apparent that the Barr Colonists themselves had at least a basic appreciation of the vast and complex Indigenous history of governance and resistance in the territory they came to settle.
Part 2 will be released next week. Please read Megan’s other contributions to the Women Warriors newsletter.