Indigenous

Crises in First Nations communities leave legacy of pain, fear

Oka, Gustafsen Lake, Burnt Church, Ipperwash and Elsipogtog are just a few of the communities where often violent conflicts have taken place between Indigenous people, law enforcement agencies and government.

Post-traumatic stress and its effects linger years after conflict

When clashes unfold today, it's not uncommon for people to compare the situation to Oka and the summer of 1990, says Myrna Gabriel of Kanesatake, Quebec. This iconic picture shows Pte. Patrick Cloutier and Mohawk Warrior Brad Larocque, a University of Saskatchewan economics student, facing off during the Oka Crisis in September 1990. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

Oka, Gustafsen Lake, Burnt Church, Ipperwash and Elsipogtog are just a few of the communities where often violent conflicts have taken place between Indigenous people, law enforcement agencies and government.

Whether over land, water or a livelihood, indigenous people have faced off with Canada, sometimes against hundreds of heavily armed police officers or even military.

But while the police, media and supporters may be long gone, the psychological effects of those conflicts are still felt in those communities today.

And often, the psychological scars are left untreated.

Remembering Oka

Myrna Gabriel, from Kanestake, Quebec, experienced the Oka Crisis as a 15-years-old. She says it takes many years for a community to heal after a conflict. (Myrna Gabriel)
When clashes unfold today, it's not uncommon for people to compare the situation to
Oka and the summer of 1990, according to Myrna Gabriel of Kanesatake, Que.

Gabriel was just 15 years old when gunfire erupted while Mohawks were protecting a graveyard against the expansion of a golf course.

The firefight left one police officer dead and sparked a months long standoff that only ended when thousands of Canadian military intervened.

The aftershock of Burnt Church

Leo Bartibogue is still haunted by the memory of gunshots fired in the water, just inches away from him.

Bartibogue is from the Esgenoopetitj First Nation in New Brunswick, a community formerly known as Burnt Church. The waters in his community became a battleground in a fight over Mi'kmaq fishing rights.

Bartibogue said it is First Nation communities who are left with the full impact of these conflicts, long after they happen.- Martha Troian

During 1999-2001, violent clashes took place between Mi'kmaq fishers, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Coast Guard, RCMP and non-native fishers who feared First Nations would decimate the lobster.

“That's what it's all about to begin with, they [government] control everything, and they control the resources,” said Bartibogue.

But Bartibogue said it is First Nation communities who are left with the full impact of these conflicts, long after they happen.

He said as soon as you begin the healing process within your community, members see it happen all over again in another First Nation community.

“It's like an abusive relationship, 'I'll change honey.' 'Yes, I know you will,' but it never happens, right?” said Bartibogue.

He said it was difficult for him to go and support Elsipogtog when the community was in strife.

He admits he is still healing today from the conflict his community went through 15 years ago.

For instance, if Bartibogue sees a helicopter flying around today, memories are easily triggered.

Fresh psychological wounds for Elsipogtog

“It's dragged out a lot of my past,” said Lorraine Clair from Elsipogtog First Nation. Clair was arrested several times and injured during her arrests.

Members of Elsipogtog First Nation and RCMP face each other at an anti-shale gas protest that closed Hwy 11 near Rexton on Nov. 29, 2013. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

On Nov. 14 she was allegedly thrown to the ground by RCMP officers who started beating on her.

As a sexual abuse survivor from an incident involving two men when she was a child, Clair said the latest arrest left her suffering from severe anxiety.

“I thought that part of my life was already gone, but it basically brought it all back,” she said. 

Today, she has a difficult time watching movies with violence and even limits her time on social media because she says it's too hard to read about Elsipogtog's conflict.

Shortly after that conflict ended in the late fall of 2013, counsellors were flown in to help community members deal with the aftermath. But for Clair, the mental and spiritual wounds were far too fresh.

A long road of healing for Kanesatake

Myrna Gabriel also said the people of Kanesatake were provided with counsellors and workshops shortly after the conflict, but she said many people were not ready and when they were, the service was no longer available.

There is a lack of trust towards 'the uniform' because of what they stand for...- Leo Bartibogue, Esgenoopetitj First Nation (formerly Burnt Church)

For many First Nation people involved in conflict, part of the healing process involves coming to terms with how they now feel about police.

“There is a lack of trust towards 'the uniform' because of what they stand for,” said Bartibogue“I don't trust them, and I never will because of what I saw and what they're capable of.”

He said trust is the biggest scar for him. Gabriel agreed.

Lorraine Clair even asked her lawyer to try dropping the condition of her release that required her to report to the RCMP twice a week.

She said she suffers an anxiety attack the night before.

Community trauma after a conflict 

Leo Bartibogue worries about the effect trauma in adults is having on the children of these communities.

“They are the ones that have to bear this burden,” said Bartibogue.

And Bartibogue said even though the government will extend an olive branch to a community after a conflict is over, the people only see a dysfunctional relationship between First Nations and government.

Gabriel said it may take years for communities to heal. She hopes First Nation people there have the patience and strength to work through the process.

“We have to work on our own and know how to mend our own pain," said Gabriel. 

About the Author

Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige

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