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Addiction, Trauma and Dispossession

Dr-Gabor-Mate.jpg 

Gabor Maté M.D.

In my twelve years of work as a physician in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, I learned a lot from my patients. Many of them, a tragically disproportionate number, were First Nations people. Through the generosity and courage of their sharing, I saw that the sources of addiction do not originate in the substances people use but in the trauma they endured. In fact, the self-medications my patients employed were an understandable response to a set of unnatural circumstances, namely the historical trauma inflicted on First Nations throughout Canadian history, and up to the present. In recognition of National Addictions week, I offer a few points raised in an article of mine published earlier this year in The Globe and Mail.

First Nations history must be taught fully and in unsparing detail in our schools. All Canadians should know, for example, that 50 years ago it was not unheard of for a four-year-old girl to have a pin stuck in her tongue for the crime of speaking her mother language and later endure serial rape by teachers, religious mentors. Such were the antecedents of today's drug use and suicidal anguish. Intergenerational trauma is directly related to addiction realities of today.

The resonant values, brilliant art, stories and wisdom culture of First Nations people should be introduced in Canadian schools. Canadians must be helped to see their First Nations peers in their fullness, which includes their humanity, grandeur, unspeakable suffering and strength.

We must renounce any political, economic or social policy that reinforces the colonial trauma of disempowerment, loss and dispossession. Not another square centimetre of native land must be disturbed, not a blade of grass cut, not one more drop of water diverted, not a millimetre of pipeline laid without First Nations agreement.

Institutions and individuals interacting with First Nations people must become deeply trauma-informed. Judges, teachers, law-enforcement personnel, nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, public employees, policy-makers all must understand what trauma is, its multiple impacts on human mentality and behaviour, and how to address it. Without such information, as I have witnessed repeatedly, the best-meaning people can unwittingly retraumatize those who can least bear further pain and loss. Practices that devastate families must be stopped, such as the frequent apprehension of children without restorative and compassionate family-building support.

Alternative forms of justice must be developed, aligned with native traditions and in consultation with First Nations. The implicit racism in our law-enforcement institutions must be openly acknowledged and cleansed. Powerfully beneficial traditional healing practices must be researched, taught, encouraged. We need to celebrate the First Nations cultural renaissance, a tribute to human resilience, now taking place.

Economic and social conditions that engender despair must be addressed, with the utmost urgency. If we could spend more than $15-billion on our self-declared mission to help the people of Afghanistan, surely we can find the resources in our rich land to help redeem people whom our history continues to victimize.​

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