Indigenous Women’s Health, Colonization & Truth-Telling

Understanding How Indigenous Women’s Health, Colonization & the Truth of Our History Are Interwoven

Women Warriors Expansion Meeting in Onion Lake, October 2017 (from left): Myself, Dolores Pahtyaken, OLCN Council Member, Dr. Sonja Wicklum, Megan Sampson, University of Calgary Master’s Student.

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).[1]

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:

  1. Colonization – the action or process of settling among, and establishing control over, the indigenous people of an area.
  2. Residential School – Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 mbsampso@ucalgary.ca.

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.


[1] 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.


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Onion Lake Cree Nation’s Women Warriors program, which is also being researched by the University of Calgary, is set to begin late Spring. The main contact person for this program will be Alicia Oliver (third from left), RD Onion Lake Health Centre. Email: alicia.oliver@onionlakehealth.org
Please listen to the Women Warriors podcast to learn more about our program.

 

Self-Care: A How-to Guide to Loving Yourself & Setting Boundaries.

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


Women Warriors Updates
1) Women Warriors – 8 Weeks to Healthy Living is being piloted by the City of Calgary.
Location: Village Square Leisure Centre, 2623 56 Street NE, Calgary.
Dates: April/May
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.
2) Onion Lake Cree Nation has obtained funding to run three sessions of Women Warriors 8 Weeks to Healthy Living on-reserve. Start date is TBA. We had a phone meeting today to discuss data security and hiring/training a facilitator. Please contact Alicia Oliver for details: alicia.oliver@onionlakehealth.org

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.


Part 1 of 2: Plains History – Lloydminster & Area
by Megan Sampson

“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 (. . . )”

If you tune into Lloydminster Tourism Radio, you’re familiar with these words. However, as one of the “four pillars” of Lloydminster’s society, it is suspicious how these “Native North Americans” lacks mention in most of the places one might most expect to find such information. At City Hall, you will find a plethora of tourism resources describing the city and it’s history, yet Indigenous history is not alluded to in these pamphlets and brochures. The official website of the city makes no mention of Indigenous peoples in its “History of Lloydminster”. Although research reveals that the Lloydminster Cultural and Science Centre (formerly the Barr Colony Heritage Cultural Centre) has in the past hosted brief exhibits and displays of Indigenous culture, it lacks consistent access to displays of Indigenous history and tradition on the land. In the Lloydminster Public Library you will find a display modelling Inuit artwork; this display is beautiful, and appropriate for a place of public learning, yet one can’t help but be reminded of the apparent lack of Plains Cree artwork (and representation more broadly) in the city.
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?
In stark contrast to the history of the Indigenous peoples of the territory where Lloydminster now resides, the city’s colonial history is abundantly apparent and even celebrated. Every Lloydminster resident is aware of how the Barr Colonists trekked into this unfavourable terrain, placed their ploughs to the soil, and from their blood, sweat, and tears created industry. Yet, the territory where Lloydminster is now situated has a history, which far outdates the arrival of the colonists in 1903.
Canada’s plains were the site of some of the most poignant and aggressive acts of colonial violence. Pre-contact, plains Nations thrived off of an abundant food supply primarily consisting of buffalo. This was a staple, which they saw decimated by the insatiable demand of French, British, and Scottish traders for furs and pemmican once European commerce engulfed the region. Although the Hudson’s Bay Company did not establish their first inland post until 1774, European penetration of the Canadian plains long preceded this. There is evidence to suggest that the decimation of buffalo herds was a calculated act on the part of colonial governments to quell Indigenous capacity for resistance (Phippen 2016; Foster 2015; Merchant 2007; Croal and Darou 2002).
Widespread starvation and the introduction of European diseases for which they lacked immunity left plains Nations in a compromised position. Yet, in historical documents describing Treaty 6 negotiations, it is evident that they stood their ground in demanding certain necessary provisions to protect their interests. Only reluctantly, and at the insistence of First Nations, were agricultural provisions and famine relief included in the treaty’s text (St. Germain 2001; Daschuk 2013). Furthermore, while plains Nations were promised action to protect buffalo herds, these stipulations were excluded from the text document and never acted upon in any meaningful way (St Germain 2001). There are vast discrepancies between settler and Indigenous accounts of the true spirit and intent of the numbered treaties, and the Indigenous accounts, recorded orally and passed on through generations, are typically disregarded, which is of great consequence to Indigenous peoples. Oral histories passed down by Elders (such as those cited in Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council et al 1995 and Taylor 1999) suggesting that Indigenous signatories believed them to be peace treaties and formal agreements to share the land, rather than land surrenders. These documents are recorded in English, not the Indigenous languages of the First Nations who signed them, and there is evidence to suggest that their content was not adequately translated and conveyed to these signatories, and that certain promised provisions were intentionally left out (Hildebrandt et al 1995; Taylor 1999). It is under such conditions that Treaty 6 was signed by Cree, Chipewyan, and Assiniboine chiefs and headmen in 1876 at Fort Pitt—a mere 65 kilometers from where Lloydminster now exists.
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.

  1. Food Security in Lloydminster – Preliminary Findings 
  2. Reflections From the Tamarack Institutes Evaluating Community Impact Workshop