Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux has worked in the local, regional and national Canadian Native political field as a treaty researcher, land claims coordinator, vice chief, government and community advisor and political advocate. She has written and co-negotiated several Ontario land claims, and has presented papers on historic trauma and Native health. In 2004, she completed her PhD dissertation at the University of Toronto in the Department of Anthology. Over the past three decades, she has developed insight, compassion, an enduring optimism and a genuine desire to work with Aboriginal people everywhere.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation – Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Ph.D.
When the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) became a reality in 1998, I was elated, as were many other Aboriginal people in Canada. How long had we fought for recognition and resolution of damages that had been so harshly wrought upon the Indigenous peoples of this country? So many of our people were adversely affected, disabled and degraded by their experiences in residential schools, on the streets of urban centres, and in their own hearts, minds and families through the violence of “special care” they had been recipients of. The attention they received at the hands of the “benevolent” individuals they had been so abruptly handed over to, in reality, had had the effect of robbing them of their spirits and shattering their sense of self.
I understand this thing called “benevolence” to be a form of societal violence, along with this thing called “care” and this thing called “the Indian Act”. It was the visiting of someone else’s notion of “right” that sent families reeling from the loss of everything they held dear. They lost the one thing that men and women the world over seek to achieve and maintain, this thing called “family” and shared joy at the birth of children. Instead, their children were denied the care of a mother, the protection of a father; all gone in the stroke of a “benevolent” pen, held by someone who had the power, but not the knowledge of what they were causing, because they were looking in on something they would not, and therefore could not, see.
I had the honour of sitting in the early AHF circles that were convened to review community based proposals, and what a heavy responsibility that was. I fought hard to ensure that no one was disqualified because their submission was not “technically proficient” because their spelling was poor, it was handwritten, or was missing a few critical elements. The proposals were coming in from the hands and hearts of the community, from those who had not had the wherewithal or sometimes the courage to go back into academic settings after their own residential school experiences, but who knew that those that were broken could be healed, and that the community had the inner wisdom to make it happen.
How hard I fought to allow those communities who had moved past their traditional practices because of external influences to have the kind of healing they chose, no matter how contemporary, no matter how different from ceremonial practices. Healing was healing and who were we to dictate method and modality? I didn’t always win, but I spent considerable time during the early years helping to ensure that as many communities as possible got their funding and could begin the endless work of making lives whole again. Those of us invited to those AHF circles in Ottawa were privileged to review community-healing proposals and later joined dozens of other Aboriginal peoples in Vancouver, where we reviewed proposals for healing centres and larger initiatives. Once again, heady work and emotionally challenging because while every proposal had merit, we knew it would not be possible to fund them all. There were tears, there were debates, and there were heavy hearts, but the work moved forward and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation fulfilled its promise to support community level initiatives for the duration of its mandate. In subsequent years I have had the honour of working with several communities in various stages of their work across Canada; beginning their work, evaluating their work, celebrating their work, and wondering what to do after their work was done. Amazing examples of something done right, something that empowered, challenged, and helped each individual and community find inner strength and healing on its own terms.
The Government of Canada was becoming the recipient of a renewed vigor and social efficacy built from the ground up in Aboriginal communities across the countries. We witnessed reclamation of languages, celebrations of identity, and a reconstitution of pride. So why did the government, in all its’ colonial “wisdom” chose to discontinue the funding of the AHF? Here was an organization that worked hard to “lift up the morale” of so many Aboriginal peoples, and clearly demonstrated that it was not only possible, it was sustainable. Everything the Government of Canada had ever tried to do to solve what its’ Ministers regarded as “the Indian problem” had never worked to anyone’s advantage, including its’ own. Now, a viable, sensible, and self-realized process was unfolding across Canada and they chose to ignore the merits and cut the continuation of work being generated from the grassroots up to provincially based healing centres and committed programs.
Well, I have never been one to accuse the Government of Canada of being sensible when it comes to handling Indigenous matters, but this has been one of the most insensitive and bone-headed decisions they have ever made. Perhaps we were too successful? I know however, that the fight will continue, that we will continue to stand strong, that we will persevere in our bid to resolve historic trauma, residential school syndrome, PTSD in our adult population, and fully reclaim our strengths through the wisdom of our elders, and the grace of our children. I know that the Government of Canada has made many decisions that have undermined and marginalized the Aboriginal peoples of this country. I know equally well that we have great reservoirs of determination and strength, that we will continue, that we will heal, and that we do have a future in this country. I know that we have allies, the support of coming generations, and a vision that embraces spiritual practices and inclusion of the many.
We have come a long way, and we have benefitted from the work that the AHF was able to support during the fourteen years of its operations. I believe that the Foundation’s work should have been continued, and that the communities and centres funded during its tenure should be celebrated for their many contributions. I believe that the “violence of benevolence” must be stopped, and that we as a people must learn to separate “help from hindrance” and move forward with the gifts of our elders, the educations we are gaining, and the rejuvenation and use of traditional knowledge. We can mobilize the power and courage of our coming generations, have heart, and cultivate a new mindfulness generated out of self-reliance and renewed pride.