Colonialism’s tragic legacy: It’s still with us

Suicides and collective trauma in Australia and Canada.

A recent government report in Australia has revealed that almost one third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are suffering severe psychological problems. As a result, indigenous men between the ages of 25 and 29 have the highest suicide rate in the world, with 90.8 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The last 10 years have also seen a 56% percent rise in hospitalization rates for self-harm.

These high rates of suicide and self-harm are a result of the marginalization and exclusion of indigenous people, who make up about 3% of Australia’s population. They are less likely to complete high school, they have higher rates of drug and alcohol consumption as well as domestic violence, and on average live ten years less than their non-indigenous counterparts.

The European invasion of Australia in the late 18th century resulted in a massive uprooting of indigenous communities. Up until the 1970s, indigenous children were taken away from their families and forced to assimilate into white Australian culture. The film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) tells the true story of three Aboriginal girls who were forcibly taken from their families in 1931 to be trained as domestic servants under official Australian government policy.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still unable to live on their ancestral land, and are struggling to maintain the languages and cultures of their many different “nations”. And even though Australia has invested considerable resources in large-scale programmes like the Indigenous Health Campaign “Close the Gap”, it seems that communities are not being asked what they need, so much as handed what the state deems necessary.

In Canada, suicide is a major public health issue in the four regions populated primarily by Inuit – First Nations people who inhabit the north. In the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories, the suicide rate is 60 per 100,000 people. In Nunavik, Quebec, the rate is 114. Nunavut’s rate is 117 and Nunatsiavut in Labrador has a rate of 275. In comparison, the Canadian average is 11. Suicide risk factors for Inuit include historical trauma such as residential schools, social inequity such as poverty or overcrowded housing, poor mental-health support and short-term stress such as the breakup of family relationships.

Over more than 150 years, some 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were removed from their homes and sent to federally-funded schools managed by Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches. The film We Were Children (2012) depicts the Canadian government’s residential school system through the eyes of two children forced to face hardships beyond their years. Lyna and Glen were taken from their homes and placed in church-run boarding schools, where they suffered years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, the effects of which persist in their adult lives.

In Canada, indigenous suicide is not just a mental-health problem. Studies have pointed to other key factors such as economic hardship, lack of access to education, unemployment, substandard living conditions and the invisible legacy of colonialism.

It matters little that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (adopted in 2007) says that “Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity.” Racism endures. And wherever it rears its ugly head, the great shame is that not enough people care enough to do something about it.

australia

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