Chief Vern Janvier: Reflection on Containment, Mental Health and the Indian Act

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There is no doubt that the past 16 months have been difficult. COVID-19, the economy, isolation and fear have affected people in multiple ways. The only benefit of suffering, if there is one, is the opportunity it gives to serve as a touchstone for understanding very different experiences. We have all suffered in one way or another. But the world we were born into really dictates the extent of this suffering.

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For example, during the pandemic, news reports highlighted stories of Canadian men and women who usually enjoy good mental health but struggled with anxiety and depression resulting from feelings of isolation, confusion and desperation due to public health restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some members of this same group of people were also using increasing amounts of drugs and alcohol to cope with their confinement-induced anxiety and depression.

At the same time, and perhaps as a result, millions of social media memes were filling our news feeds showing Canadians speaking out against perceived government interference in their lives as a threat to their freedom and independence. . The difficult observation that we all have to acknowledge, and ably pointed out by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, is that these angry few were predominantly white and male. This leaves marginalized people – women, Indigenous peoples and other racialized communities – muttering “the first time? “

This moment provides an incredible lens to highlight the effect of restricted freedoms on the health and well-being of individuals. There is no doubt that the restrictions and uncertainty related to COVID-19 were difficult. But imagine if these restrictions lasted for generations, dehumanizing, arbitrary, and enforced because of your heritage. Let us take advantage of this moment to better understand the impacts of the historical treatment of indigenous peoples.

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Too many Canadians know far too little of the laws that have limited the freedoms of the indigenous peoples of northern Alberta for over a century.

Indigenous peoples have faced a veritable loss of power

The Indian Act once required that First Nations people obtain a pass from the local Indian agent to leave our reserves; being off reserve without such a pass could result in imprisonment. The law prohibited many of our traditional ceremonies, and the law made it illegal to hire a lawyer to challenge these restrictions.

Today, indigenous peoples remain “wards of the state” and our rights – or the lack of them – are facilitated, managed and interpreted within colonial systems that resist the idea that we are able to decide for ourselves. same what may be best for us.

Indigenous peoples have faced a real loss of economic well-being

The transfer of jurisdiction over natural resources from the federal government to the Prairie provinces in 1930 deprived Indigenous peoples of any meaningful ability to protect our ability to hunt, fish, trap and gather food and medicine for decades. essential to the exercise of our constitutionally recognized and affirmed treaty rights.

These impacts are not simply historical. In northern Alberta, our traditional off-reserve territories are managed by a provincial government whose narrow interpretation of our rights and lackluster approach to consultation on the impacts on those rights have allowed these rights to slowly grow. eroded by the cumulative effects of industrial development.

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In essence, our livelihoods and well-being have been “balanced” against the tax and employment benefits that would benefit Canadian society as a whole and have often proved insufficient.

Indigenous peoples have lost their identity

We have been confined to our reservations, our children have been abducted and sent to residential schools (many have never returned home), and our traditional livelihoods have been irreparably reduced, and we are struggling to defend what is left. This assault on our culture and traditions, still largely unrecognized except through symbolic gestures, is enough to depress entire communities.

What Canada has right now is the greatest learning moment in recent history. Over the past 16 months, many Canadians have learned how vulnerable their mental health is when they find themselves in situations where they are not in control of their own lives.

As Canadians become more aware and develop a greater empathy for mental health issues caused by government restrictions, we ask them to reflect on the seven generations of Indigenous people in northern Alberta who have suffered and continue to suffer in under the Indian Act and other laws that deprive a whole people of their rights.

Which vaccine will end our lockdown, and how long will our recovery take? What can Canada do to ensure that the next seven generations are given the agency they deserve? A lot of it depends on you.

-Chef Vern Janvier, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation

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