Small steps to mending relationships in First Nations communities

As the hot summer days drew to a close I was happy to end the holidays doing a few workshops for my relatives at a second annual family reunion on my mom’s side of the family.

The reunion took place at Flotten Lake by my home community of Waterhen Lake — where the lake is calm, clear, and serene surrounded by the trees. The two days in late August spent out in the bush, with freezing cold nights and the sunny, warm days, went all too fast. People laughed and ate together: we had the wild mint tea boiled over the fire along with a late supper of deer meat with flour gravy, soup, and fried bannock. Upon waking up in the morning, a full breakfast cooked over the fire was served with hot coffee. Family members came together and had some laughs and good memorable times.

Family is an important part of our First Nations communities and the value of close family relationships to our well-being and personal happiness is worth considering. For most of us in First Nations communities, our fairly large families serve as a viable strength to healing the legacy of colonization perpetuated by the Government of Canada. Namely, building healthy, close family relationships serves to heal the harm brought about by the effects of residential school and the foster care system. One of these healing measures is our ability to form bonds by spending good quality time with our families.

Language barriers today have brought about problems in forming these bonds—one being a difficulty in communicating knowledge between elders and younger people. I thought of this as my non-English speaking grandma delivered a long emotional speech in our family introductions and I couldn’t understand most of what she was saying in fluent Cree. Afterward, when I delivered my workshop she was ready to participate but withdrew when she couldn’t understand the instructions I was giving in English. When she was young, she did not attend residential school and did not learn to speak, read, or write in English. My parents attended residential school and even though they both speak Cree fluently, they didn’t teach us, their children, how to speak it. Now it remains a communication barrier between my grandma and myself through no fault of anyone but the colonization measures that prevented the passing on of the Cree language to children.

When First Nations families existed a long time ago, before European settlers impacted our way of life, family members held very close bonds strengthened by the traditional practices in which children learned important values and teachings from a young age. Elders were not neglected and disregarded but respected, held in high regard and taken care of by younger people. Marital relationships were strengthened by a cohesive family system in which each person understood his or her respective roles to help maintain the family’s well-being. Although it may not have been a perfect system, families were in a way better state than they are in today.

Today a number of factors affect family relationships in our First Nations communities. Residential school effects, racism and our continual struggle to adapt to a white system continue to affect us, including the way our First Nations governments and educational systems function. Money holds a central importance today and oftentimes, is the main controlling aspect of our lives. Abuses — whether emotional, physical, verbal, or sexual abuse—really have had a heavy impact on families and creates a lot of dissension and discord that is not openly dealt with. People struggle to deny and hide the abuses they have perpetuated or the abuse that was done to them, which has no real outlet to be dealt with but personal therapy. Addictions are the norm: drugs, alcohol, gambling, internet… they affect how people interact with others and where their attention is afforded. They also serve to help people forget abuse. While these situations are also the norm in families of different nationalities (especially white people), their existence in our lives seems to keep us down because they do not fit with our Indigenous values and worldviews. Fortunately, underlying strengths still exist in our families and communities. These strengths are different for each family.

Today, as First Nations people, we can really benefit from starting to mend the relationships in our families and communities. We can do this by starting to work first on ourselves to recover from any trauma we may have experienced in our lives that still affects us today. That takes looking at our pain and hurts and being willing to fully work through them so they are resolved and do not weigh us down anymore. While we do this, we have to learn to be self-aware: to know what we ourselves do to impact our own lives and the people around us. To work towards changing our behaviours and actions for the better by choosing healthier and more effective ways to behave and act in difficult life situations: ways that are not destructive to our relationships and our children.

Free the Spirit Consulting Services Inc. is one of the first steps that can help, even in some small ways. Workshops serve, for example, to build the self-esteem of individuals, or to help people deal with their anger that gets in the way of having better relationships with others. We also provide education on important issues such as colonization effects, residential school effects, and a better understanding of human relations. Without a doubt, these are the ways that we can start the work of mending the damage done to the people and most importantly, the family relationships in our First Nations communities.

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