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Healing journey
by Leslie Vryenhoek
  No group is more vulnerable to interpersonal abuse and violence than Canada's indigenous peoples. A Canadian Red Cross programme is working to stop the cycle of violence by raising awareness and teaching prevention.

Baffin Island in the Arctic Ocean is home to some of Canada's indigenous peoples.

Whether they live on reserves in the eastern and central provinces, along the Pacific coastline or in far northern communities, Canada's indigenous peoples - known collectively as Aboriginals - face a devastating and deadly legacy of abuse and violence.

The statistics, influenced by historical inequities and aggravated by poverty, are shocking. More than one-third of all Canadian Aboriginals die violently. A staggering 70 to 80 per cent of young aboriginals report that they have been sexually abused. In some communities, eight out of ten women are battered by their partners.

The consequences of this violence are far-reaching and long-lasting. Drug and alcohol abuse is epidemic. Aboriginals represent less than 10 per cent of the Canadian population, yet 80 per cent of sexually-exploited youth in Canada are Aboriginals. And the rate of suicide among these peoples is two to ten times higher than that of other groups. In fact, the Inuit in northern Canada are believed to have the highest incidence of suicide in the world.

Among other groups, these facts elicit shock and disbelief. But share these statistics in a room full of Aboriginals, and they just nod knowingly. "The numbers don't surprise them - the statistics just reflect the reality they've experienced," says Shelley Cardinal, aboriginal consultant with the Canadian Red Cross.

Preventive measure

Cardinal is responsible for the creation of a Red Cross programme that is addressing abuse and violence issues in aboriginal communities. Walking the Prevention Circle is one of several programmes offered by RespectED: Violence and Abuse Prevention services.

Developed and expanded over the past 16 years by the Canadian Red Cross, RespectED aims to stop the cycle of interpersonal violence that destroys lives and communities. Last year, RespectED programmes reached more than 127,000 young people and 30,000 adults.

Interactive RespectED presentations tackle issues relating to all forms of abuse - physical, mental, emotional and sexual - as well as relationship violence, bullying and harassment. Delivered by highly-trained volunteers in classrooms and community centres, programmes explore the definitions, examine communication and prevention skills and, above all, stress that abuse is never a young person's fault. And although it is not RespectED's primary intent to elicit disclosures, every year hundreds of youth come forward seeking help after they attend a presentation.

RespectED also offers workshops and training for adults tailored to specific high-risk groups and activities. These help participants overcome the barriers to prevention and learn to foster safer relationships within their organizations.

The Canadian Red Cross is working to break the cycle of interpersonal violence within aboriginal communities through dialogue and organized activities.


Breaking the cycle

Walking the Prevention Circle is one such adult workshop. Launched in 1997, it is the result of years of collaboration with aboriginal communities to identify the specific issues and develop a programme that is relevant to aboriginal experience and culture.

"There are significant factors, common to all Aboriginals in Canada, that explain the 'why' of abuse," Cardinal explains. She points out that while many programmes are involved in counselling the abused or treating the offenders, very few deal with illuminating the root causes and finding positive, community-based prevention strategies.

"Physical and sexual abuse are not traditionally acceptable in our culture, so there's a huge disconnection between what was, traditionally, and what is the reality today," says Cardinal, herself a member of the Cree Nation in northern Alberta. "Understanding how we got to this place is critical to changing that reality."

The workshops are 18 hours long, delivered over three intense days. Each starts with a history lesson, beginning with the arrival of Europeans in North America and moving through centuries of inequity and domination.

Removed from their traditional lifestyle, consigned to reservations and prohibited from practising spiritual ceremonies, Cardinal says Aboriginals watched their way of life unravel over many decades.

In addition to the loss of cultural tradition that left many Aboriginals spiritually bereft, decades of physical, emotional and sexual abuse disrupted aboriginal society. One of the most significant factors in this abuse was the residential school system. Designed as a method of assimilation, the system allowed for the unapologetic removal of children from their families, a practice that continued for a century. Once taken to the schools, children were taught that aboriginal practices were wrong, and were not permitted to speak their language. The declared purpose was "to Christianize and civilize", although in many cases the children were used as a source of labour.

"Today, we know that physical abuse was common in these schools, and an appalling number of children were sexually abused," Cardinal says. Before the last residential school closed in 1984, five generations of children learned harsh lessons in abuse. "Towards the end, the older children were abusing the younger children. A cycle had been born."

While issues of responsibility and restitution remain embroiled in political and legal battles, there is tremendous suffering that must be addressed now.

The next step in the healing journey is to remove the shame and secrecy that surrounds abuse issues through a frank discussion. Here, sensitivity is crucial. Within every group, it is likely that there are both victims and perpetrators of abuse, so a safe and neutral environment must be maintained. "We make sure the discussion focuses on the scenarios and characters in the case studies and the videos. Disclosure (of abuse) is not what we want to happen in a group setting," Cardinal asserts. Still, she hears plenty of disclosures privately after the workshop.

Only after the problem is brought into the light can the focus turn to prevention strategies. "Once we can name and reclaim the past, we can begin to move forward and find solutions that can heal our communities."

This begins with an examination of values. In addition to the Movement's seven Fundamental Principles, Walking the Prevention Circle incorporates 12 aboriginal principles, which include the interconnectedness of all things, the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, the capacity of individuals and the need to develop one's potential. Participants are asked to write down values they cherish. Then, through discussion, they explore ways to incorporate these values, as well as aboriginal principles and teachings, back into their lives and communities. "We talk about how we might re-establish trust, what change might look like, how forgiveness can be achieved," explains Cardinal.

Completing the workshop is just the beginning of a long journey. Participants must take the knowledge and insight they've gained back to their communities, and incorporate it into local programmes. As one participant put it: "It's planting the seeds - and those seeds are going to grow."

Cardinal has been the sole provider of Walking the Prevention Circle for the past six years - a role that has seen her travel great distances to deliver the programme in more than 50 communities. Now, however, she has trained and is mentoring 14 aboriginal volunteers who will facilitate workshops wherever they are requested by communities throughout Canada.

The programme requires an enormous commitment of time and energy from these new Red Cross volunteers. One facilitator-in-training articulates why she believes Walking the Prevention Circle is crucial: "It offers [aboriginal] people their world view. And it's [aboriginal] people who are offering the workshops… This gives us an opportunity to speak from the heart, and to speak from our own experiences."

For more information on RespectED, visit
or e-mail

Leslie Vryenhoek
Leslie Vryenhoek is communications and marketing coordinator, RespectED, Canadian Red Cross.


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