Settler Guilt Syndrome: Awareness is the first step of healing

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Between June 21 and July 1 -- National Aboriginal Day to Canada Day -- we'll be featuring a series of articles examining and critiquing the uses of Canadian identity, the resurgence of Indigenous movements for justice, and the ways in which activists and thinkers across these lands are addressing these fundamental questions. Read Robert Lovelace's earlier reflections on National Aboriginal Day here

 There is quite a stir going on in psychiatric circles these days. SGS was left out of the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used by psychiatrists and psychologists in North America. The pharmaceutical companies are upset because they have had a whole array of prescription drugs ready for retail as soon as the SGS is officially recognized as a disorder. The big question is why wasn't SGS considered a legitimate pathology, when it is clearly affecting so many Canadians?

SGS is the acronym for Settler Guilt Syndrome.

While SGS has been known to exist for several hundred years, it is really in the last 30 years that it has had a devastating impact on individuals. Clinical observations have recorded that even at the societal level it has the potential to affect economic and political life. The most important research has been directed toward prevention, while drug companies are in a race to provide individuals with relief of symptoms. The bad news is that once an individual has contracted SGS they never fully recover.

Dr. Evers White championed inclusion of the syndrome in the most recent edition of the DSM-5. His extensive work with chronic sufferers highlights initial symptoms of increased anxiety, confusion, anger and rejection of previous beliefs. While he encourages mild depression as preferable to acting out, he is hopeful that a medication can be identified that will provide symptom relief and allow patients to return to a productive life. Dr. White and his team have been awarded a substantial Federal research grant to work with a major pharmaceutical company.

Not all psychiatrists support the idea of drug therapy. Dr. Noland Forany has suggested that SGS doesn't really exist. He has developed an acute care model that assures clients of their right to believe what ever they want. Known as entitlement therapy he suggests that clients focus their thoughts on mainstream media. For those who may be easily distracted he suggests a double dose of Sun News. At present he boasts of marginal success rates but does admit there are things that colonial governments could do to improve their own media representation. He concludes his latest journal article with, "It is hard to convince most people of the truth when it is actually a lie."

On the other hand Dr. Santiago de la Cruz, a specialist in communal hypnosis, has promoted the idea that the real cure for SGS is to embrace it. He suggests that acceptance, dialogue and even apology will eventually dilute the senses and reconcile individuals to acceptance of reality. He has labeled his approach "reconciliation therapy," and hopes that current efforts will bring SGS sufferers back into the fold.

The professional organization, which oversees accreditation of psychiatrists and counseling psychologists, is concerned. Without a firm diagnosis and prescriptive treatment they are fearful of a backlash. There have been numerous complaints lodged against therapists who seem confused themselves. A number of professionals who are treating SGS patients have actually contracted the disease while listening to patients. Known as 'counter transference,' SGS appears to have an extraordinary capacity for contagion within the therapeutic relationship.

Both federal and provincial governments believe that contagion is the greatest threat and have committed major expenditures to combat the spread of SGS. Their focus has been on education, economic development and finding an appropriate medication that is affordable under the present health care model.

Initially they felt that the present economic down turn would help create a sort of muting affect but recent studies indicate that economic fears have tended to blur the lines between SGS and other social pathologies that mask themselves as democratic movements.

SGS continues to take a toll on government bureaucrats. While most civil servants above mid-level positions seem immune to SGS, many basic and term employees need to be screened regularly through an ongoing internal interview process.  "The real threat," says Cor Hardlyner, "is the loyal insider who contracts SGS and either leaks sensitive documents or divulges information about politicians that the public really doesn't want to know."

It seems as though anyone is susceptible to SGS. Rumors abound in Ottawa that even high-level personalities may be infected. One rumour that has surfaced and resurfaced is that the PM and the entire PMO are on an unregistered medication for the prevention of SGS. At the end of September 2009, when the PM said in Pittsburg, to an international press conference, that Canada "has no history of colonialism," it is suspected that he had actually overdosed on his medication. His recent speech to the British House of Commons has the rumor mill spinning again. Skeptics, however, dismiss such notions and say that when the PM demands that First Nations Chiefs endorse Israeli settlements in Palestine, he really means it.

No doubt the controversy around SDS will continue for some time. Whether it becomes officially recognized in the next edition of the DSM really depends on whether those who know can convince intelligent people whether it is really a pathology or not.

There is one bright light on the horizon. Will Trustim, an SGS survivor, says that SGS is just the first step to real healing. He says, "It is perfectly natural when one becomes conscious that they are born to or immigrate into a colonial culture that they should be anxious and confused. When one learns that they live well because others suffer, that is a serious existential dilemma. It takes care, patience and a compassionate heart to help people who experience SGS to move beyond the initial stage of despondence to a full appreciation of their role as real human beings."

The whole Trustim family has discovered that following the old 12-step path really helps. The say, "get real, be yourself, then get educated, apologize but don't get bogged down in feeling sorry, spend time with others who support you, make new friends, do some introspection, find your whole self, help others understand wellness, get angry but in the right direction, be intentional, seek the healing spirit -- is that 12? Well, start a new list."


Robert Lovelace is an adjunct lecturer at Queen's University in the Department of Global Development Studies. His academic interests include Indigenous Studies, Sustainable Development and Aboriginal education. Robert is also an activist in anti-colonial struggles. In 2008, Robert spent 3 ½ months as a political prisoner for his part in defending the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation homeland from uranium exploration and mining. Robert is a retired chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. He lives in the Algonquin highlands at Eel Lake in the traditional Ardoch territory.

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