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Where the Pavement Ends; Canada’s Aboriginal Recovery Movement and the Urgent Need for Reconciliation

by NationTalk on April 29, 20081202 Views

by Marie Wadden
Prepared by Marlene Brant Castellano

Where the Pavement Ends records the author’s search for answers to the question: Does anyone know what to do about the soul-destroying realities of life in Aboriginal communities that briefly but repeatedly capture the attention of the media? Those realities include poverty, overcrowded and substandard housing, violence, substance abuse and, with devastating frequency, youth suicide.Marie Wadden’s quest took her across Canada, to Inuit communities in the Arctic and to First Nation and Metis communities from Labrador to British Columbia. Her research built on personal contacts established decades earlier with Innu students from Labrador and an extraordinary capacity to gain the confidence of scores of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people that she met in homes and offices, local workshops and international gatherings, people working on the front line of community change.

In the best journalistic tradition Wadden takes the reader behind the scenes that are headlined in news reports, adding depth to the issues talked about and glimpses of the individuals who are spearheading action to make a difference. The colour and ceremony of cultural presentations at the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide gathering outside of Edmonton in 2007 balance the intensity of addressing problems of addiction in Indigenous communities represented by visitors from around the world. The celebration of life and the serious sharing sessions provide a backdrop to interviews with Maggie Hodgson, the dynamo behind this and numerous other initiatives to spark personal and community recovery from addictions.

Recurring crises in the Innu communities that were the subjects of documentary coverage of gas-sniffing children in 2001 give stark evidence of the intergenerational transmission of trauma, while profiles of Katie Rich, Elizabeth Penashue and Peter Penashue demonstrate the resilience of individuals who have lived through the darkest times and are devoting their energies to healing. Less public figures appear in these pages also – Levi Southwind who uses his skills as a businessman and entrepreneur to promote training sessions in community development in his Anishnabe community in central Ontario; Lavinia Piercey, a receptionist at the RCMP detachment in Nain, Labrador who responds as an individual to cries for help, walking into violent domestic situations; Jennifer Chalmers a consultant who wrote an influential report on mental health and addiction services in the Northwest Territories.

The snapshots of events and persons that open each chapter bring Wadden’s research to life, but her report does not stop with descriptions of pain. The question: “What works to make things better?” is the thread tying the chapters together. Recurring themes emerge from the stories.

What works is local initiative, often led by individuals who have experienced deprivation and despair and who choose sobriety and caring as a way of life. They join forces with other family members or like-minded members of the community to create change in their communities. The rallying cry that mobilizes action is often “For the sake of the children!” Given the lack of material and financial resources in many Aboriginal communities these agents of change look outward to sources of assistance which they find in Aboriginal-led organizations such as Pauktuutit, the national Inuit women’s organization or the Aboriginal Healing Foundation which provides seed-money for community healing. Programs of Health Canada or Indian and Northern Affairs are sometimes helpful but the key to effectiveness is the connection between motivated people who are in touch with local reality and external resources that are flexible enough to match local needs. Successful community-wide responses are those that provide adequately staffed services, with appropriate training, on a sustained basis. The Northwest Territories, where addictions and mental health have been identified as a policy priority, was cited as a positive example.

What doesn’t work is crisis intervention that, for example, removes children for treatment and returns them to an environment where the determinants of ill-health are unchanged. Institutional services planned and managed from a distance, imposing heavy demands for reporting to multiple, fragmented programs likewise are criticized. Short-term funding initiatives that end before impacts can become stabilized undermine morale and leave local leaders scrambling just to survive. Such is the case in Alkali Lake, B.C, with Phyllis and Andy Chelsea., who invested their energies and resources over decades in the community.

Marie Wadden concludes her study with a series of recommendations that argue for comprehensive, coordinated policy and programs that improve social and economic conditions in concert with targeted initiatives to reduce substance use and suicide and promote education and intercultural youth exchanges. Her recommendations echo some that have been made before in reports such as that of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and research of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. She maintains that policy change requires the vocal support of concerned citizens in Canada. Her vivid stories of the impressive array of Aboriginal people already working on solutions to complex problems is one way of mobilizing that support.

Her book Where the Pavement Ends; Canada’s Aboriginal Recovery Movement and the Urgent Need for Reconciliation (published by Douglas & McIntyre) will be in bookstores this May.

Source: National Day of Healing and Reconciliation

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