DISCLAIMER: All of the digital storytelling participants have either attended residential school or their parents and/or grandparents have attended residential school. These stories have the potential to be triggering for IRS survivors and their family members. Please access the Mental Health Resources located here or call the IRS Crisis Helpline (phone number located below).
Our first digital storytelling participant is Maxine Desjarlais. She self-identifies as Metis and was raised on Fishing Lake Metis Settlement (Treaty 6 territory). Her mother was Cree/Scottish and her father was Cree/French. Her mother was registered with Frog Lake First Nations, however, when she married Maxine’s father she lost her treaty rights. Later in life Maxine became a band member of Frog Lake First Nation after her mother regained her status. Maxine is employed at Midwest Family Connections in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan as a program facilitator. Maxine is three courses to completion from graduating Athabasca University with her three year Business Administration degree. She is an ordained Minister, a mother to four adult children, and a grandmother to three.
Maxine created her digital story entitled, Fragmented after visiting the residential school site where her mother, Christina Emma Quinney attended. Her digital story is about the legacy of including intergenerational trauma and the impacts it had on her own life including addictions issues, family suicide, and intimate partner violence. She shares the reasons why Indigenous people may wait too long to seek medical interventions.
Reconciliation in Healthcare: The Role of Empathy
“To health care professionals, I would ask that they would be more empathetic to Aboriginal people. A lot of Aboriginal people came from a shame-based system that was taught to them in the residential schools. A lot of Aboriginal people will not seek medical help unless necessary. Sometimes, it is to late to receive medical treatment because they have waited to long, which has caused Aboriginal people to experience premature death.”
Maxine’s call to action at the end of her digital story is for healthcare providers to be more empathetic towards their Indigenous patients. I will discuss the difference between sympathy and empathy and how empathy is a lifelong skill that requires healthcare providers to challenge their own stereotypes and prejudices. I will explain how the pedagogy of discomfort is essential to reconciliation in healthcare.
Sympathy vs. Empathy
Sympathy is defined as, “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” (Dictionary.com). Sympathy is “something that is done to someone” and suggests “feeling sorry for someone and that in turn suggests some sort of power imbalance, i.e. the person sympathizing is in a greater position of power” (Dykes et. al, 2017, p. 28). Settler sympathy is dangerous because it perpetuates colonial relationships, and releases settlers from examining their own roles in the oppression of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The book, Unsettling the Settler Within by Regan explains why Canadians prefer their identity of “peacemaker” and sympathizer and often refuse to enter the deeper emotional experience of empathy.
“Philosopher Trudy Govier writes about the Canadian propensity to deny by ignoring or minimizing (I would also suggest “sympathizing”) already known truths because they “are incompatible with the favoured picture we have of ourselves” but she reminds us that, “through patterns of colonization, land use, racism, disregard for treaties, and the residential school system, members of the society and as citizens of the state, we share responsibility for these things…We are the beneficiaries of the injustices” (p. 35).
In order to rectify these injustices settlers must build empathy defined as “feeling and experiencing another person’s situation almost as they do” (Adler, et. al, 2018, p. 21). Empathy holds transformative power because, “it is actually sharing someone’s feeling and feeling with them, if only briefly” (Dykes et. al, 2017, p. 29). Reconciliation in healthcarerequires healthcare providers to have empathy for their Indigenous patients which means the “helper needs to enter the helpee’s frame of reference (point of view) to be able to imagine how they are feeling” (Dykes et. al, 2017, p. 29). This requires that healthcare provider be educated on the history and legacy of residential schools and “the devastating cultural, psychological, and emotional harms and traumatic abuses that were inflicted upon small children” and how that intergenerational traumacontinues to manifest in Indigenous peoples lives (Regan, 2010, p. 5).
Maxine’s story is effective in building empathy in the viewer because we can imagine ourselves in her story. I imagine myself as a Mother dropping off my daughters at residential school. My heart aches when the daughter comes back from getting cleaned up and states “I am ready to go now” and her mother is forced to leave without her. Maxine also shares the perspective of the child being left, “What a shock for a young 4-year-old girl to be placed in the hands of strangers. She must of thought what is wrong with me? Why isn’t my mother coming back to get me?”
Maxine also recognizes the legacy of residential school in her own life is a lack of emotional intelligence and empathy, “One of the legacies of residential school is nobody addresses the feelings of the heart. I really struggled with empathy with my own children being able to hug them and identify emotions.” Maxine had to learn empathy on her own through reading books and formal education. Dykes et. al (2017) state that “empathy is a quality that develops over time as a relationship develops and as you work on your own self-awareness and insights” (p. 30). Maxine developed empathy with thoughtful reflection and a willingness to examine her inherited trauma patterns.
What are empathy blocks?
Stereotypes and prejudice act as empathy blocks. When we stand in judgement of someone it blocks us from understanding him/her/them:
“In order to develop the quality of empathy, there is a need to be honest about personal prejudices and stereotypes. Bring them into the light of day so that their origins can be explored and new ways of understanding and challenging them can be found. You need to understand the fears and hurts in your own heart that may cause you to sit in judgement of others” (Dykes et. al, 2017, p. 30)
Stereotypes are defined as, “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing” (Dictionary.com). The ‘Drunken Indian’ stereotype in healthcare settings results in the misdiagnosis and death of Indigenous peoples. For example, the death of Hugh Papik in Aklavik, Northwest Territories can be attributed to ‘Drunken Indian’ stereotype and racism. “The 68-year-old Inuvialuit man died in August 2016 after having a massive stroke. Papik’s niece said his symptoms were dismissed as drunkenness at the health centre in Aklavik and that racism was a factor in the way he was treated” as cited in this online article, Indigenous patients share ‘horror stories’ of health care in Northern Canadian territory, minister says changes coming.
Prejudice is defined as, “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience” (Dictionary.com). When we “pre-judge” people it is usually a negative “judgement based on a stereotype” of people’s ethnicity, religion, or race (Dykes et. al, 2017, p. 35). Discrimination is defined as “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex” (Dykes et. al, 2017, p. 35). Discrimination against Indigenous peoples in healthcare settings are widely documented across Canada such as, “The story of Brian Sinclair, who died in the Emergency Room in 2008. His physician had referred him to the emergency room as he had a blocked catheter. Health care workers assumed that Sinclair was a drunk, poor, and homeless Indigenous man seeking shelter, and therefore, he was never triaged into the system. He waited 34 h in the waiting room and was pronounced dead when a physician finally decided to see him” (Wylie & McConkey, 2019). The academic article, Insiders’ Insight: Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples through the Eyes of Health Care Professionals by Wylie & McConkey (2019) is an excellent resource for understanding “discrimination as a key social determinant of health for Indigenous people” (Sterotyping & Stigma, para. 3).
“Discrimination can be seen as preventing access to health services, which research has shown results in a high number of Indigenous patients receiving late diagnoses. Many times these patients are provided a disease diagnosis at a stage that is untreatable. This is a significant problem that worsens the health status of a population group that is already suffering a considerably higher burden of disease across a range of health conditions. This demonstrates that the Canadian health care system we tout as universally accessible is actually perpetuating access barriers for Indigenous peoples. Attitudes based on stereotypes and stigmatization of Indigenous people are shaping practice in ways that compromise care for this entire population” (Wylie & McConkey, 2019, Discussion, para. 2).
The real issue is that discrimination is often subtle and systemic, as opposed to easily detected and overt. In order to combat discrimination in the health care system we need antiracism education including education on “white fragility” defined by DiAngelo (2018) as the “sociology of dominance: an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy” (p. 113). For further reading on this concept please read, “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism” by Robin DiAngelo.
Pedagogy of Discomfort
I believe these digital stories are effective pedagogical tools to teach cultural safety to healthcare providers because they allow the audience to engage in “empathetic unsettlement” or a working through of “one’s own unsettled responses to another’s unsettlement” (p. 51). Being unsettled in our emotions as we watch this video is engaging in a “pedagogy of discomfort”: a purposeful way of examining uncomfortable emotions we might otherwise resist or deflect, such as “defensive anger, fear of change, fears of losing our personal and cultural identities,” as well as guilt and the discomfort produced when we are forced to question our beliefs and assumptions (Boler, 1999, p. 176).
Regan (2010) states that the using this pedagogy of discomfort was essential to her own work on Indian Residential schools and reconciliation:
“To engage in critical inquire often means asking students to radically alter their worldviews. This process can incur feelings of anger, grief, disappointment and resistance, but the process also offers students new windows on the world…In short, this pedagogy of discomfort require not only cognitive but emotional labour…It emphasizes the need for both educator and student to move outside their comfort zones. By comfort zones we mean the inscribed cultural and emotional terrains we occupy less by choice and more by virtue of hegemony” (p. 52)
These digital stories function as the window for healthcare providers to examine their beliefs and assumptions about Indigenous peoples. Maxine’s story highlights the importance of empathy in understanding Indigenous people’s health. An important aspect of her digital story is forming empathetic connections between the forced removal of Indigenous children to residential schools, and how it negatively manifested in Indigenous peoples’ physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health. Reconciliation in healthcare requires medical professionals to understand their positionality including their own stereotypes and prejudice towards Indigenous peoples. By employing a “pedagogy of discomfort” health care providers can confront their own guilt and discomfort as they question their own behaviour towards their Indigenous patients.
Next Tuesday I’ll be releasing Beatrice’s story, Broken Trust. I’ll discuss the psychological trauma of “touch” as a residential school survivor, and how her routine doctor’s visit became a source of colonial power and oppression.
The participants who contributed their stories to Women Warriors™ Digital Health Stories have consented to their use as an educational and learning resource as part of the research, Digital Storytelling as an Indigenous Women’s Health Advocacy Tool: Empowering Indigenous Women to Frame Their Health Stories. Any other use or modification or editing of the stories without prior written agreement is not acceptable. “Women Warriors” and the Women Warriors logo and educational material and videos are registered trademarks.
Adler, B., Rolls, J., & Proctor, R., II. (2018). Look: Looking out, looking in (3rd Canadian ed.). Toronto: Nelson. (with digital resource MindTap)
Boler, M. (1999). Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Dykes, F., Postings, T., & Kopp, B. (2017). Counselling skills and studies. London, UK: Sage.
Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within : Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver, British Columbia: UBC Press.
Wylie, L. & McConkey, S. J. (2019) Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. 6: 37. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40615-018-0495-9.
Reconciliation in health is recognized in two documents that serve as a framework for reconciliation across Canada and internationally: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) Article 24, and The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action (2015) #18-24.Call to Action #24: We call upon medical and nursing schools in Canada to require all students to take a course dealing with Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, and Indigenous teachings and practices. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism. Defined by Wesley-Esquimaux (2007) as the historical experiences of First Nations people(s), which disrupted the process of Indigenous cultural identity formation, [that] continue to resonate in the present, and the harm in the past that continues to manifest inter-generationally into the present. The psychological affect generated by centuries of cultural dislocation, forced assimilation and the Indian Residential Schools.
Maxine wrote the following paragraph to share her experience of presenting at Orange Shirt Day on September 30th, 2019:
I had the pleasure to be invited to speak at two schools J.F. Dion School, Fishing Lake, Alberta and Chief Napeweaw Comprehensive School, Frog Lake, Alberta. I gave a brief history of the residential school my mother attended, St. Barnabas located in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan. Then I provided information on my digital story including what audience it was created for and where it was first presented. Then I showed my story “Fragmented”, and ended my presentation by showing pictures of where the school used to be. It was a very moving presentation and people commented on how powerful the story was and how it touched their hearts. I ended the presentation by taking questions from the children about residential schools. I felt very honored and humbled to present my story.