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Psychological Services/Therapy in First Nations Populations: A Critical Perspective

Oct 18


My interest in this topic springs from two areas.  The first is the nature of my work as a (police) psychologist; with a specialty in crisis management, I have consulted with the principles involved in conflicts between various police services and Aboriginal groups from Gustafsen Lake, through Apex Alpine, to the Six Nations Stand-offs in Ontario.  As a result of these experiences I have developed an interest in Aboriginal Culture and spirituality.  The second, is my discomfort with mainstream psychology’s focus on individuals and its, almost total, disregard of power differentials, sexual, social, organizational and racial influences on psychopathology.

With regard to terminology, I think it may be more respectful, and inclusive, to use the terms Aboriginal or Indigenous rather than “First Nations”.  The Aboriginal peoples of Canada may all request psychological services, and include First Nations, Inuit and Metis regardless of their status under the Indian Act.  This combined group makes up approximately 4.4 – 5% of the population of the country; it is comprised of 11 major language groups, including 58 dialects; 596 bands; and lives on 2,284 reserves, or in urban and rural communities (Statistics Canada, 2006).  The Aboriginal peoples are richly diverse in their cultures, lifestyles, and languages.  It can be argued that even the terms Aboriginal and Indigenous are inaccurate as the people being described are far from a homogenous group.  They do share however, similar historical experiences that have influenced similar perspectives; and they are welded together through the experience of colonization that has lead to a similar body politic and collective identity.

Aboriginal Mental Health:

There is much historical evidence (e.g. the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) to suggest that the mental health issues of the Aboriginal peoples originate within their being victims of colonization.  Much of what they present in a therapeutic encounter can be viewed as symptomatic of an “historic trauma response” (Yellow Horse Brave Heart and DeBruyn, 1998; Duran and Duran 1995).  When this “soul wound” becomes unbearable an Aboriginal person can experience what appears to be mainstream “mental disorders”.

It is unfortunate that Aboriginal knowledge systems, in the fields of mental health and treatment, have been underestimated.  These systems when recognized and empowered will be able to consider their place in a mainstream that enforces silence and conformity to a single dominant theoretical view of “mental disorders”.  The strength of these knowledge systems is not merely theoretical, but practical, and present in the experiences and lived realities of the Aboriginal peoples.  For example, the genocidal treatment of their ancestors has left many present day Aboriginal people with a kind of “survivor guilt”.  This unresolved guilt remains, as Aboriginal peoples have not been afforded the opportunity to adequately grieve and heal.  Many of the Aboriginal traditions and ceremonies around death have been erased through colonization.

The generations of trauma experienced by their ancestors now lives in the collective consciousness of the present day Aboriginal peoples.  It is this “gut wrenching” emotional response that is passed down from generation to generation that fuels the blaze consuming interactions and relationships within communities, families, and individuals.  Aboriginal/Indigenous health frameworks view the consequences of disenfranchised grief, masquerading as mainstream “mental disorders”, as a shame-like response within the Aboriginal peoples; and this shame of one’s identity, culture, and community has given rise to a destructive introjected racism and hatred.  The end product then, of this unattended grief, may be a community at war within itself as it struggles for a place in Canadian society.

Psychological Services/Therapy:

Psychological interventions into Aboriginal communities are best born from decolonization. Decolonizing means assisting the Aboriginal peoples in questioning the conventional notions of mainstream psychology/psychiatry.  It means assisting in the assertion of Aboriginal/Indigenous healing systems and the confrontation of a single perspective as the definitive way of understanding psychological issues.  It means assisting the Aboriginal peoples in understanding  who they are, gaining confidence in what they know, and deciding for themselves which mainstream ideas they can work with and those they can’t.

Decolonization embraces the politics of identity, and its construction.  In order to rationally challenge the domination of mainstream psychology/psychiatry, Aboriginal people must be in charge of defining their own aboriginality.  Only then will they be able to abandon the role of passive victims and actively participate in the restoration of their own health.  New truths must be established to overcome the “soul wounds” inflicted by governmental policies like “kill the Indian in the child”.  And as mainstream psychological methods have been less than successful, there is little to be lost in the recognition of traditional healing and cultural methods. For example, preliminary steps on the path to healing require mourning and dreaming/visioning (Laenui, 2000).  Aboriginal perspectives expect that in order to break free of paralyzing emotion, people must mourn what has been taken from them.  Moreover, the chances of healing are increased by dreaming/visioning what the Aboriginal people want in their futures, and how to utilize resources toward that end for the entire community.

Finally, and in harmony with decolonization, the mental health of Aboriginal communities seems to lay in their degree of autonomy.  Those communities with more local control and cultural continuity appear to thrive, whereas those with less psychological and spiritual connection with their past, present and future don’t.  Those communities with more control of local government, renewed cultural practices, and successful land claims, boast overall improved mental health for their constituents.  Chandler and Lalonde (1998) demonstrated the benefits of this alternate perspective by discovering a strong relationship between the degree of community autonomy and suicide rates in British Columbia Aboriginal communities.  They found that of the 196 Aboriginal communities, in the province, those with greater independence and cultural continuity were also those with significantly lower suicide rates among their youth.


An alternate perspective on the provision of psychological services to Aboriginal peoples recognizes how power differentials between opposing views on healing and well-being are often ignored; resulting in hegemonies that are oppressive and insensitive to historical and local needs.  By questioning the conventional notion that mainstream psychology is the only “story”, a more critical approach provides the impetus to empower the marginalized to evaluate their participation in health frameworks that do not recognize indigenous knowledge systems, or meet their needs.

Duran E. & Duran B. (1995) Native American Postcolonial Psychology.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Yellow Horse Brave Heart, M & DeBruyn L.M. (1998).  The American Indian holocaust:  Healing historical unresolved grief.  American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research Journal of the National Center, 8, 2, 60-82.

Laenui, P. (2000).  Processes of decolonization.  In M. Battiste (Ed.). Reclaiming Indigenous voice a vision.  Vancouver:  University of British Columbia Press.

Statistics Canada (2006).  Census-Aboriginal People in Canada.  Release No. 5:  January 15, 2008.

Dr. Mike Webster, R.Psych.

  1. Jean Marc Villeneuve permalink

    Good article, being of FN nation descent and having never declared my status to the RCMP while serving in such communities as Shamattawa, Oxford House, Puk, Pik. South Indian Lake etc.. I found your article quite interesting. You may wonder why I never declared my FN ancestry until my retirement simple. My father was of Ojibwa descent and my mother was of German descent. I was raised in a French/Jewish neighborhood so really I did not know anything about my fathers family. I was educated in French and never really spoke English until I joined the RCMP in 1975/76. It was bad enough being of French ancestry without going into my FN ancestry. I was a frog, told to speak white when I was speaking to other French members. PS this was up to 1991 to 1995. I did lay complaints to Human Rights over these personal attacks but found myself attacked by senior managers on my views about the Second Official language of Canada. I was basically told to play the game and English was Canada’s only language period. I served in First Nations communities with FN members and these members were attacked daily by senior managers for being lazy, drunks, typical Indians always on their own clocks. Well sorry they were outstanding members that kept us alive. A lot of the FN members during the years of 1980″s and 1990″s were forced out by senior managers that constantly attacked them for anything and everything, usually invented by senior managers to get rid of these members. It was a sport for them, how many FN they could get to quite the force. I tried to help but these senior managers were ruthless with anybody that did not play the game. On one occasion, that was one of the worst, I had seen was one first nations Cst. wife had just given birth and his wife was still in the hospital extremely ill. The child was released, the officer in charged yell and screamed at the Cst. and told him to take his little fucken pap use inland. This was one of our most dangerous communities. I told the Cst. to stay home and I went inland on my own. The inspector destroyed my reputation after I returned to Thompson Det. because, I had the edacity of not following his order. I received a lot of orders while in Thompson Det. by these Officers, one of which still haunts me today. Terry Anne Brown Murder still lives with me. I was ordered not to follow up information received about this murder. Another civilian members was also ordered not to follow up information she had received about this murder via telephone. It was all about a certain senior gunning for his commission and damn anything else even the truth. The murder is still unsolved and I know that the investigators know the truth but will never tell the truth because of the consequences to senior managers. I really enjoyed your article. Nothing has changed FN memberships are now treated like a totem Poles, to be taken out for special occasion; then be put away and silenced. Even when you don’t receive an order. the senior managers will produced paperwork 8 months, dated 8 months later, after the order was supposedly given as evidence at your service court trial. When you produce a tape and transcript of the conversation with no hint of an order. You are told that you cannot enter the tape or transcripts as evidence. You should know what he was thinking, was always an answer. Another order I received was an agent was released to me on a Provincial recognizance to report to me in person everyday. RCMP advised me that the RCMP act superseded the Criminal Code and Court Order. They did not want the accused reporting every day to any RCMP member?? But the senior managers would not advise crown or courts of changes. The Right Way, the Wrong Way and the RCMP Way. How can any FN survive with all this double talk when they are brought up within a clean and pure thinking process.

  2. I enjoyed this article very much.

    I am looking at it as a story of abuse that has effected the Native Communities of Canada for many years. My perspective on this is that I can only relate this to the way RCMP management treats RCMP members. My comments are by no means meant to minimize the suffering that many Natives in this country have been forced to endure. My comments are meant as an understanding and profound feeling of hopelessness as well.

    The Native communities of Canada were at a time forced to give up there children to the State. These children were then sent to schools for (lack of a better explanation) re-integration into mainstream Canadian Society. It is without a doubt a horrific story of families being torn apart and Native children being abused.

    I am not Aboriginal, however as a member of a tribe (RCMP) the abuse is familiar to me. Race and cultural differences aside, as well as the length in history of abuse, we have something in common.

    We both have no protection or oversight to help us with ongoing abuses.

    In Support

    Rolly Beaulieu


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