by Leslie Vryenhoek
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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 www.redcross.ca/english/
abuseprevention/index.html or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Leslie Vryenhoek is communications and marketing coordinator,
RespectED, Canadian Red Cross.
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