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The psychiatrization of Indigenous people as a continuation of genocide

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Dr. Roland Chrisjohn delivers keynote address at the conference "The Psychiatrization of Indigenous People as a Continuation of Genocide"The Psychiatrization of Indigenous People as a Continuation of Genocide." Video screenshot.

There are two highly critical contexts as well as focuses for this article -- the first is a historic conference and keynote address held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). The name of both was "The Psychiatrization of Indigenous People as a Continuation of Genocide" and the primary speaker was Indigenous scholar Dr. Roland Chrisjohn, member of the Oneida Nation and professor at St. Thomas University. The second context and focus is the horrific violence done to Indigenous people in the part of Turtle Island known as Canada -- more particularly, Canada's tendency, while seemingly "redressing" the violence, at the same time minimizing, covering up the violence, and even perpetrating new types of violence, duly theorized as "help."

To begin with the second of these, such obfuscations have happened throughout "Canadian history," but to start in "contemporary times," jubilation and enthusiasm abounded when the Royal Commission on Indigenous People was formed. Finally, we were going to see an honest redressing of grievances, some figured. The Commission was to visit a huge number of Indigenous communities. Correspondingly, concepts like "nation-to-nation negotiating" were in the air. Moreover, they even sought out the services of the truly exceptional Indigenous scholar Dr. Roland Chrisjohn to do the residential school part of their study. The problem? The needs and demands of Indigenous women were largely ignored. Colonizing solutions like "loosing" a team of hundreds of social workers on Indigenous communities were among the major recommendations and outcomes. And the report on the prison system was notoriously deficient.

Additionally, while Roland wrote an exceptional piece that was supposed to be published by them -- The Circle Game (in 1994) -- which scrupulously lay bare the actual horror of the residential schools, the Commissioners never published it, despite Roland having been told it was brilliant and being assured it would be fast tracked -- for people in charge were loathe to upset the Catholic Church (for details on the actual Report of the Royal Commission, see here). Instead he read in the newspaper that the Commission had "discovered" that Indigenous people were suffering from "residential school syndrome" and were in need of tons of therapists. How convenient! What an unmitigated cover-up! And what a boon for the legions of social workers who indeed were the only "winners" here. Certainly not the Indigenous people. And certainly not the principle of truth.

Fast-forward several decades, and enter the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Finally, we are going to get redress, many once again felt. And yes, some important measures have been taken. Nonetheless -- and understanding this is absolutely critical -- once again we see a backing away from the totality of what happened, and what is in essence a cover-up. Just look at the name itself -- "Truth and Reconciliation." How in the blazes could it get at "truth" when it was not given the authority to subpoena government documents? To call this "Truth and Reconciliation," that is, to insinuate that this is about the pursuit of truth, is fraudulent. What appears to be operating here is an attempt to create the appearance of truth, while at the same time hiding the truth.

Correspondingly, in what is an unconscionable decision, the Committee described what happened to Indigenous people as "cultural genocide," including the stealing of Indigenous children. To be clear, calling it "cultural genocide" is a way to circumvent the terrible reality that the very existence of the residential school constitutes actual genocide, precisely as defined by the United Nations in its historical convention of genocide. Note in this regard, the Convention spells out five different categories of acts (ranging from "a" to "e"), stating uncategorically that "any of these acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group" is genocide. And what does "e" say? "Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group." This demonstrably happened with the residential schools and even more poignantly in the Sixties Scoop. Three of the other four acts declared to be genocide likewise fit the horror visited on Indigenous people. And note here that the Convention does not call any of this "cultural" genocide but genocide pure and simple. So once again, in the very act of seemingly "owning up," Canada is minimizing and obfuscating (for the full text of the Convention, see this link.)

Which brings us back to Chrisjohn and the historical mini-conference at OISE/UT on September 28.

Not mincing words, just like he had decades earlier, Roland lay bare the truth. He spoke of the burial of his report decades ago. Correspondingly, he proved with a logic that is unassailable that in accordance with the UN convention, what was done and is still being done to Indigenous people is genocide pure and simple. And even beyond that, he implicated the "mental health system," showing how it is being used to cover up, detract attention from, and obfuscate the reality of genocide, thereby assisting in the continuation of genocide. He drew masterfully on the Holocaust to show the absurdity of what is being done and of the claims surrounding this. Critiquing the use of psychiatric drugs currently being lavished on Indigenous communities, for example, and having acknowledged that Indigenous people have three times the suicide rate as non-Indigenous Canadians, he astutely pointed out that in Nazi Germany, Jews had three times the suicide rate as the rest of the population. Does anyone think that the serotonin level of Jews somehow got "out of whack" in 1933, asked Roland sarcastically, poignantly making the point that giving Indigenous people psychiatric drugs because of their high suicide rate -- as if serotonin levels rather than violence and theft is the issue -- is nothing short of absurd. Bravo, Roland!

To zero in on this point more broadly, it is essential to begin looking with a highly critical eye at the current targeting of Indigenous communities for what is euphemistically called "mental health services." We now have medical doctors on Indigenous reserves dispensing psychiatric pills like candy. Brain-damaging Indigenous communities is not "help" but is itself a continuation of genocide. As for therapy, the activity of organizations like Idle no More, as many have pointed out, is far more "therapeutic" than anything that the colonizing mental health industry has to offer. What is needed is the end to violence and the beginning of an honest reckoning. What is needed is Indigenous resurgence. What is needed are traditional healing circles. What is needed are voices like Roland's -- people with real knowledge and with the courage to tell inconvenient truths.

For readers who have not already done so, I urge you to familiarize yourself with Roland's work. A good place to begin is the video of his talk. Also check out his books The Circle Game and Dying to Please You: Indigenous Suicide in Contemporary Canada. Additionally, if you want a historic sense of how the mental system on this continent more generally has been used to silence Indigenous protest, check out the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.

In ending, I would call attention to a modest but promising new development of which I have the "mitzvah" of being a part -- the endowment of a scholarship at OISE/UT for students doing research into violence against Indigenous Women (Burstow's Scholarship for Research into Violence Against Indigenous Women: In Memory of Helen Betty Osborne; see this link). If anyone does not know who Helen is, you surely need to for she is a critical part of Canadian history, albeit one you may well not have come across in school. She was a bright Indigenous high school student in The Pas, Manitoba who was the object of one of the most brutal murders in Canadian history (in 1971, she was stabbed 50 times with a screwdriver; for details, see "What Detectives Hide from You: The Story of Helen Betty Osborne"). Racism and sexism marred the investigation into her murder from the beginning, and despite considerable evidence against four white boys, no one was convicted of her murder for over 20 years. As such, she stands as a symbol of murdered and missing Indigenous women throughout this land and the racism and misogyny underlying the phenomenon -- a horrific situation that has reached epidemic proportions that all of us need to understand.

The scholarship will be awarded annually to an OISE/UT student doing a thesis on violence against Indigenous women or an applicant wanting to work in this area who has applied to a thesis program in OISE's Adult Education and Community Development (AECD) program. Strong priority will be given candidates who are themselves Indigenous women (this includes two-spirited). Part of the beauty of the scholarship is that covers not only "murdered and missing" but also institutional violence against Indigenous women, with the examples used in the gifting agreement being "imprisonment, psychiatrization, and removal of children by child welfare." Which in essence means that included is research into current practices that themselves constitute a "continuation of genocide" even when deceptively called "justice," "help," or "services." As such, it will aid with getting at inconvenient truths and furthering social justice.

For Indigenous women interested in pursuing research of this ilk, consider applying to OISE's AECD program. Who knows? You may find yourself a leader creating groundbreaking knowledge while resolutely standing up for who you are. For people wanting to contribute to the scholarship itself, one thing that you can do is write a cheque to University of Toronto, asking it to be applied to Burstow's Indigenous Scholarship, and mail it to Sim Kapoor, OISE, University of Toronto, 252 Bloor St. West, Toronto, M5S 1V6. More generally and more importantly, everyone, whether Indigenous or settler, whether newcomer or Canadian by birth, let's demand an end to the violence and cover-ups. In whatever way we can, let's insist on real truth, justice, and decency.

For reasons of transparency, I acknowledge that I personally funded the scholarship and moderated the conference.


Dr. Bonnie Burstow is best known as a philosopher, a social theorist, an antipsychiatry activist, a feminist psychotherapist, and a prolific author. She is a faculty member in Adult Education and Community Development in OISE at the University of Toronto.

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