By Andrea Bodkin, Health Nexus
Recently I had the privilege of attending a training course on Aboriginal Community Development, co-presented by two federal government ministries. It was an incredible experience, full of information, emotion and optimism. While it’s certainly not possible to share all that I learned over the course of the two days, I would like to share some of the themes that emerged and my key learnings.
Health Nexus has, as have so many other organizations, been working with community development frameworks for decades. I think of community development as an approach where the community itself identifies its strengths, its issues or challenges, and determines how they can move forward to solve its problems or build on its progress. It’s the opposite approach to delivering a program or implementing a framework, where the ‘solution’ is imposed by an organization/group external to the community.
The Aboriginal Community Development framework recognizes that our First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities have inherent strengths and capacities, can use them to identify the challenges they face and determine how to move forward. It’s an approach that community partners, funders and organizations working with Aboriginal communities can use to build the capacity of communities. It marks an exciting change from colonialist approaches which separates Aboriginal Canadians from “other” Canadians and assumes that “we” have the answers to “their” problems.
Central to the framework is understanding the history of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, their relationships with government and the impacts and effects of that history. Participants said over and over again that we wish that all Canadians had the opportunity to hear and learn about this four hundred plus year history. The need for this was demonstrated with Tuesday’s release of results from an Ipsos Reid poll, which found that about two-thirds of Canadians believe Canada’s Aboriginal peoples receive too much support from federal taxpayers; that Aboriginal peoples are treated well by the government; and that most of the problems of native peoples are brought on by themselves(*).
Statistics (though unfortunately the latest data is from 2006) shows that 49% of children under the age of 6 living on reserve were in low-income families; the unemployment rate on reserve was four times higher than the general Ontario public, and that funding for Aboriginal education is significantly lower that non-Aboriginal education(**). As a health promoter and public health professional, I am always curious about the determinants – the root causes – of the health and social and societal issues that we face. It’s one of the reasons that I love working at Health Nexus, an organization that has been seeking to address the determinants of poor health for more than 25 years. I understood from my post-graduate studies that many of the challenges faced by the world’s Aboriginal peoples come from colonization, but what I didn’t understand is that what is currently affecting Aboriginal communities today is trauma. Trauma which has resulted from hundreds of years of colonization, residential schools violence and suicide. The symptoms of trauma, which is often generational, are addiction, poverty, mental illness, suicide, issues with governance and financial accountability (to name just a few). The very things that we often see as the “problems” affecting Aboriginal communities are in fact symptom of even deeper challenges.
The good news is that there is an upstream approach in addressing the challenges faced by Aboriginal peoples. And that upstream approach is healing. Aboriginal communities that have had the opportunity and support to heal are actually thriving. They have stable and accountable governments, are functioning better than many Canadian municipalities, and have healthy and well community members. Healthy communities can access the capacities they have (and can access support to build their capacity) and create stable and healthy environments for all.
I left the course with a clear sense of optimism. We live in rapidly changing times and with more and more Canadians becoming aware of the situations and the determinants the underlay them in many Aboriginal communities and with governments using approaches that have proved successful. It’s my hope that healing will take place. In all Canadian communities.
* Fast Fallout: Chief Spence and Idle No More Movement Galvanizes Canadians Around Money Management and Accountability. Ipsos Reid, January 15 2013
** Why am I poor? First Nations Child Poverty in Ontario. 2012, Best Start Resource Centre (PDF)