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Indigenous Mental Health Workers Are Speaking Truth, but Reconciliation Remains Unfunded

Holding hands-Thunderbiird partnership foundation
Sponsored by:
Holding hands-Thunderbiird partnership foundation
Sponsored by:
Carol Hopkins-Thunderbird partnership foundation

Carol Hopkins

Chief Executive Officer, Thunderbird Partnership Foundation

If Reconciliation is the medicine and treatment for Canada’s national hurt, then Truth is the essential diagnosis. When it comes to the malady of Indigenous mental health services, the workers on the ground have provided a definitive diagnosis, but the prognosis remains dire so long as a treatment plan is not adequately funded.

Canada is a wounded country today. The legacy of Indigenous trauma, being revealed in more painful detail every day, is not a new injury. It’s a very old and deep wound that has been left undressed for far too long. And we’ve been losing lives this whole time. As with any wound that’s left untreated, the symptoms and complications this country is experiencing today — including the epidemic of mental health disorders and addictions— have advanced to become distinct ailments of their own, in need of decisive treatment before the underlying injury can even begin to heal.

This is the essential recursive nature of Truth and Reconciliation. To reconcile with Canada’s past, we must first gaze honestly and open-eyed at the fullness of that history. But there’s no way to access the heart of that Truth without first understanding and reconciling the ways in which the wrongs of yesterday continue to echo in the harms of today.

First Nation culture

“The intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities, from residential schools, from unmarked graves, from a host of other issues, remains unresolved,” says Thunderbird Partnership Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer Carol Hopkins. “For First Nations people in Canada, trauma is not an individual burden, it’s endemic to the people. Loss of land, loss of our connection to culture, loss of the connection to our original languages. This trauma carries from generation to generation. And when you go to provincial services for help with the mental health implications of that trauma, you are met with a system that doesn’t understand the harms of colonization, that’s barely even aware of residential school issues. That puts the burden on the individual seeking services to provide training to their service providers. In order for them to be effective in helping you, you first have to educate them.”

The need is clear. The solution is known

The Thunderbird Partnership Foundation is a national organization providing support for youth and adult addiction treatment programs in First Nations communities across Canada. With an Indigenous worldview, Thunderbird promotes the use of culture-based practises in concert with the most modern mainstream treatment frameworks. They conduct research, engage in knowledge translation, provide training and education, and work with policymakers to create an environment that supports the healing of trauma in a context that speaks the same language as the original hurt.

Today, Thunderbird and its allies have diagnosed the full extent of the impacts of addiction and mental health service gaps in Canada’s Indigenous communities, and they have delivered a clear 5-point treatment plan to the federal government. Their recommendation includes strengthening support for the culturally informed interventions that actually work, but the primary focus of the plan is on a much larger problem that prevents even the best approaches from succeeding: capacity, pay, and funding inequity.

Overqualified and underfunded

Indigenous communities across Canada have been hard at work building the infrastructure and training the talent for world-class treatment programs. These programs are highly accredited, deeply rooted in Indigenous Knowledge, and they can boast treatment success rates that would be the envy of most provinces. And yet, due to persistent funding shortfalls and jurisdictional uncertainty, the workers who staff these programs continue to earn up to 45 per cent less than their peers in the provincial systems. As a result, staff turnover rates can be as high as 50 per cent, despite the urgent need for stability of care in these communities. 

“How can we keep our skilled workers when they could make the same salary serving hamburgers as what they earn delivering trauma-informed, culturally based services to First Nations people?” Hopkins asks. “We’ve always been operating with the good faith belief that, if we just do this one more thing, get this one more accreditation, jump through this one last hoop, it will result in more funding. But it hasn’t. Yes, there have been small increments of funding over the years, but there has been nothing to address the fundamental deficit these programs are operating within.”

The work of Reconciliation begins here

The persistent underfunding of critical community care services, such as mental health and addiction treatment is the salt in Canada’s national wound. Even as First Nations communities, with the support of organizations such as Thunderbird, have gone above and beyond in their efforts to support the healing and wellness of the people, Canada has been unwilling to fully respond. “It can’t be the case, especially in this climate of Reconciliation, that our people continue to be told that their only option for mental health services is a provincial system that may be only beginning to understand colonization, racism, or collective trauma,” says Hopkins. “People who need support in our communities are being left without equity. The resource capacity that enables publicly funded addiction and mental health services available to every other Canadian are not available to a First Nations person.”

People who need support in our communities are left without equity. The same addiction and mental health services that are available to every other Canadian are not available to a First Nations person.

This is the Truth. And what happens without Reconciliation is all too clear. No matter how we treat this wound, the country will be left with a nasty scar drawn through deaths due to contaminated drugs, trauma-induced mental illnesses, addictions, and broken promises. The question before us now is how much longer will we ask these communities to struggle without the help they have a right too? Because regardless of what happens next, Indigenous communities will absolutely survive. They will draw on their resilience and their culture and fight for their wellness — as they have always done. But perhaps, reconciliation will bring some perspective and First Nations will not be looked upon as a deficit to Canada but rather with respect for the First Peoples of the land.

First Nation culture
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