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  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

Documenting Stories, Indigenous Children, Summer Sweating

Children Swimming, Ivy Smith, 2000

Hello Everyone:

Vancouver, British Columbia recently found itself living under a dome of heat. A socked in sweltering, torching, mauling hot-box of unbearable high-pressure heat.

If Olympic medals were handed out for the ‘sweating’ competition, I’d have a clear path to take home the gold. I suppose I’m doing my part.

The early summer heat is no joke. We’re not talking about ice-cream-cone-melting, trickle down drops of brow sweat kind of hot. No. This is a deadly, smothering, street-buckling hot. During five days this week, the BC Coroners Service received 486 reports of sudden and unexpected deaths.

Yesterday, one of my closest friends flew in to Vancouver from Dublin, Ireland to attend her brother’s funeral. DOA. The cause? Extreme heat.

Sweltering temperatures and tinder-dry conditions brings forth the terrifying risk for wildfires sweeping through the province. Again. Uh oh.

Fire evacuation orders have begun in communities located in the B.C. Interior. And B.C. Wildfire Service state “fire suppression efforts were hindered by the heat, forcing multiple helicopters to shut down because of overheating engines.”

The B.C. government has also issued flood warnings for the Upper Fraser River, saying the unprecedented high temperatures had “triggered an astounding amount of snowmelt.”

Yesterday, I witnessed people in my neighbourhood escaping into their cars for a blast of cool air. Releasing even more Co2 into the already overloaded planet-scape.

Human-caused climate change has made unprecedented heat waves such as this one more probable. I’m not quite certain if we are at the point of no return. But we must keep trying.

- - -

A number of years ago a narrative therapist colleague was invited by the Attorney General of the Northwest Territories to work with an Indigenous community that had suffered a tremendous tragedy. Three social workers with deep relational connections throughout the community died together in a highway traffic accident on their way back from working with the people in the community.

My colleague kindly invited me on to the project. My initial response was to say no, reasoning that other First Nations mental health workers living close by working alongside community Elders might be more effective.

The trouble with my position was that, for this situation, the Band Counsel had specifically requested mental health workers from outside their Indigenous community.

My reply to this was that I’d take up the project if I could first meet with the Bands Elders. My colleague agreed, the Bands Elders and Counsel agreed, so did the Attorney General, and the next thing I know we are flying north 1,483 kilometers and then driving 100 kilometers west through some of the most breathtaking winter landscapes I had ever set eyes on.

I remember it was a bone chilling -52 degrees Celsius when we arrived. I remember sitting with the communities Elders and a few Band Counsel members. I remember asking why they preferred my colleague and I to workers within their surrounding community. I remember one woman Elder saying something to the effect of – yes you white people have helped us to death. I remember that. In the end they let us know exactly what they needed, explained how we could help, and gave us their blessing.

After this first meeting we stayed up most of the night and hatched a simple plan: We would ask sets of narrative questions (which we would first pass by the Elders) across a wide cross section of the community. We would tape record oral accounts of the communities’ response to questions regarding, a) the experience and response to loss from the recent accident, b) unique and traditional ways the community could respond, and c) what a step forward for the community might achieve in the future.

The next day we began interviewing in earnest.

We interviewed Elders, band council members, teachers, school children, people at the post office, medical staff at the clinic, people in the bar, people working at the general store, RCMP officers and on and on the interviews went.

Once we had completed these interviews (each one taking anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes) we travelled to the women’s prison where she did the interviewing and I did the same at the men’s. All we did was ask the same sets of questions and tape-record their stories.

I remember interviewing one of the prisons ‘leaders’ who came from the community we were aligned with. We stepped together into a secure room and I let the Guard know there was no need for him to stay. Raising an eyebrow he left and locked the steel door behind him. I pulled out a pack of smokes, we both lit up, the tape recorder was turned on - and off we went.

The interview was sailing along. At the 15-minute mark the prison experienced a total electrical black out. We sat there in silence until he asked– I guess you’re pretty scared right now? I replied, do I have any reason to be scared?

In the can’t see your hand in front of your face total darkness, and locked inside the steel-toed room, we spoke and smoked for the next 35 minutes. He taught me what the governments plan for residential schools hoped to achieve, the generations of trauma they created, how the recent tragedy in the community would bring back historical losses and trauma, and why in federal corrections, Indigenous males account for 29% of admissions to custody and Indigenous females represent 41% of admissions to custody.

The last time we travelled up to the community was on a beautiful spring day. This would be our fourth, 4-day visit. The entire community gathered together in the school gymnasium. We stood up at the front among the basketballs and floor hockey sticks and nets, with the Elders by our side.

We presented a re-telling of person’s stories from the community we had interviewed. Re-telling individual stories back to all the community members gathered in the gymnasium. Of course we couldn’t read each individual transcript so we instead brought together unaltered highlights of their thoughts and stories. Representational bits – in their own words - they had told us.

That is all we did. That was the plan from the outset. We ourselves had no answers, solutions, and gave no advice. We reported a re-telling of community stories.

I remember it was a long meeting, lasting from early morning until the dinner hour. We were often stopped and asked to re-read certain sections and passages that brought about discussions. During these times my colleague and I sat quiet and listened until we were told to carry on.

At the end of day, after a deliciously prepared community meal, we were presented a pair of moose hide beaded slippers with black bear fur trim. Afterwards we were invited to walk around and converse with all the many community members who had spoken with us and moved us with their stories. There were tears and hugs, high fives, and a lot of laughter. Afterwards we drove back to the airport and returned home.

We were contacted by an Elder several months later. They let us know how they were following the stories collected inside the community document and the ways they had performed the storied document in numerous traditional ways. He said the community was excited. It was wonderful to hear what the community had achieved by following the map of their collective stories and experience.

I’m not at liberty at this time to tell you what these developments were, as the Elders asked us not to discuss or publish the details of their document. Only they would have the story telling rights to this story being told.

- -

Each year Canada celebrates Canada Day on July 1st.

Canadians like to view our collective identity as a “good” country full of “good” people. We experience pride from the immigrant families and refugees we welcome - living off the international reputation as a proudly multicultural, tolerant, peace-loving and polite country. Fair enough.

Except of course for the 5% of the population who were here first. For the Indigenous people, the country’s mere existence has been the cause of centuries of suffering grave suffering that human rights tribunals have correctly labeled ~ genocide.

It is both dangerous and simple minded to believe our “good people” reputation without critical reflection of our colonial past. For example, the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls came to the “inescapable conclusion” that Canada, from its pre-colonial past until today, had aimed to “destroy Indigenous people”.

The 2019 report explained how Canada’s policies clearly qualified as genocide. But what followed the publication was not a countrywide acknowledgment but hairsplitting over what really constituted genocide: Rwanda, Auschwitz – now those were genocides!

There was also talk of how damaging the term genocide would be to Canada’s international reputation. We’re mostly good right (?), so why let our actions over the past 200 years get in the way of our reputation going forward?

In 2015, four years before the report on the missing women and girls, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) finished up. This was a gargantuan undertaking comprised of taking testimony from more than 6,500 survivors of the residential school system – the obligatory, forced assimilation boarding schools often hundreds of kilometers away from their communities the Canadian government paid Christian churches to run.

We are talking about seven generations of indigenous people forced into residential school to specifically (quoting the words of Canada’s first Prime Minister John A Macdonald) – ‘Take the Indian out of the child.’

The stark reality of life for Indigenous children at these residential schools (as recounted in the TRC’s four volumes) included 6,500 child survivor stories that directly spoke to horrors on an unbelievable scale: witnessing death, over 90% had endured physical and sexual abuse, all were separated off from their parents indefinitely, their culture denigrated, their hair cut off, forbidden to speak their own language, given a number instead of a name, been underfed, ill-clothed and called racist names. Indigenous children were shoved into residential schools as young as 4 years old.

The TRC commission came up with 94 calls to action for the Canadian government. Until just a few weeks ago our government had completed only 10 of those. But now Canada’s worst kept secret is left unprotected, because last month, the remains of 215 missing Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves at the site of a residential school in the city of Kamloops, located 4 hours east of Vancouver.

Thousands of Indigenous children have been going missing for almost two centuries. Again last week 751 more unmarked children’s graves were found at another residential school in the province of Saskatchewan (that remained open until 1977.)

We, all of us, need to know these unmarked discoveries of children’s graves will continue. There were a total of 139 residential schools in Canada, and nearly 150,000 children lived in them over the course of 117+ years. Imagine what is coming Canada’s way.

Indigenous people have always known this lived history. They have deep sorrow-full relationships with this history. Indigenous people have been eternally scarred by this history. We, all of us here in Canada, we too have known about all of this for generations, and we allowed it to continue happening until 1997.

As of this writing there are 137 more residential school grounds to investigate the whereabouts of potentially thousands more dead Indigenous children.

Our study of the communities interview transcriptions we recorded was a mixed experience of horror and hope, sadness and love, humour and humiliation. I couldn’t set them down.

As a Canadian I of course also knew about Indigenous people’s stories regarding the cultural and genocidal effects of colonization - but only then did they begin to sink in. And given my tepid follow up response, it appears they only sank in so much.

Yes I co-created Therapeutic Conversations conferences alongside First Nation separatists, offered free trainings and therapy, and participated in a few other minor offerings. But in the end, much like our politicians, clergy and citizens of this country, I have barely lifted a finger. I mean we are all, all of us, aware we are talking genocide, right?

I continue to ask myself how is it that powerfully told Indigenous stories and experience continues to disappear. Just like the women and girls and the children.

Please pass this story on.

Thank you and take care.


Dzunukwa Dreaming of Summer Holidays, Gerry Ambers, 1992

VSNT’s three certificate Narrative Therapy Training courses concluded in June, 2021.

All three sold out.

VSNT offers three Narrative Therapy certificate training courses again in September 2021:

For registration information and descriptions of the new lineup and faculty click the links above.

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