Over the past few weeks, there have been distressing stories in the news about the tragic and sobering finding of 215 Indigenous children’s remains in a mass grave in B.C. and the senseless murder of the Afzaal family in Ontario who had gone for a simple walk on a pleasant evening.
News stories like this are difficult to hear, and I know there are some who prefer to change the station when these appear as the details are too upsetting to them. While I understand becoming upset hearing about these occurrences, I do also wonder, who is listening to these stories and have they been falling on deaf ears? Do these painful events feel distant to us because they did not occur in Alberta? Could these tragedies happen here in our home province? Or maybe they already have and still do?
I am writing this between National Indigenous Peoples Day and Canada Day. As I do so, I am also feeling uncertain between wanting to celebrate as I have done countless times before and marking these occasions with solemn reflection this year and perhaps for years to come.
My parents decided to make Canada their home when they immigrated here because it had the reputation of being welcoming, providing opportunity, and allowing for a safe home. This was also the similar impression that I had as I went through our school system. But I did not learn about very different school systems in Canada, namely residential schools and the atrocities that occurred within them. I also did not learn about racism and its harmful manifestations here in Canada. I did not know that some Canadians were actually unsafe here, a place that they considered their home. I now question what I did learn in school. Was it accurate? How much was missing? Do I need to correct my knowledge and learn more? I am just now starting to understand what it means to “unlearn and re-learn” as I have heard so many times recently. There is much learning for me ahead. I am committed to educating myself in these matters and so is ACFP which has always offered a nurturing family medicine learning community. We will extend every learning opportunity to our ACFP membership so that we can make steps together in the right direction as a family medicine community and come to a greater understanding of these significant matters.
A commitment to unlearning and re-learning is one thing, but action is another. There may be many ways to start on a learning journey, but storytelling has power as I recall from my knowledge of narrative reflective practices, where unpacking of traumatic details can be capably and sensitively accomplished. Storytelling has always been a valued tradition among our Indigenous peoples. The stories of our patients and their families are also special to us and critical to our work as family physicians. I cannot even count the number of times I have heard one of our family medicine clinical preceptors ask a learner after assessing a patient, “what is the story?” As a family medicine community in Alberta, which values stories, I believe that we are well-positioned to make compelling differences in the injustices of the past and present.
There are countless stories in our history that are waiting not only to be told, but to be genuinely listened to. Let us go bravely forward as a family medicine community and not change the channel.
Sudha Koppula, BSc, MD, MClSc, CCFP, FCFP
President, Alberta College of Family Physicians
CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION
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Good note, Sudra. Your background reflects the general welcome Canada extends. There is another Canada, which to those of us born here, had some exposure. As a third generation Canadian (Ukrainian), I learned about the lingering discrimination a dominant culture has against those not of the Anglo Saxon heritage. My wife is an Alberta Francophone, and still gets not so subtle digs about her heritage. Is it any wonder that the immigrant children head for the professions? It is the fastest way to gain entrance to the mainstream culture.
This does not absolve any of us from the ingrained, yes systemic racism, embedded in Canadian society. It is a black stain on the dominant culture of this country. The religious orders have a lot to atone for, but they were an instrument of a generally accepted policy to deal with a conquered, subdued people. I believe most of them thought they were justified in the work they did. Unfortunately, human nature rears its’ ugly nature, despite the tenants of faith.
When I first entered practise, greater than half of my patients were from Saddle Lake First Nation. It wasn’t long before I heard of the terrible things about the residential schools. However, my first encounter with residential schools came during a summer job I had after my second year of university-a residential school was being torn down at Joussard, Alberta. It was not an orderly taking down of the building! Down the road was Sucker Creek First Nation. One of their members, Harold Cardinal, had just written his first book, The Unjust Society. This really informed me about the residential schools and the revulsion the involuntary students felt. I better understood the destruction of what for them, was a symbol of their derision.
My next encounter with the memories of the residential schools was when the wife of the chief of Saddle Lake shared some pictures with me, when I visited her home.“Look at all of the sad children”, was her only comment, besides thanking me for being the first white doctor who treated her like a real person.
So yes, Canadians who wanted to listen, were being informed. Perhaps this wasn’t the norm for first generation children. Obviously, there is definitely a place for education about our past.
But there is hope too. The fact that there is such an outpouring of empathy by the people exposed to these stories, gives me hope. Canada is a multicultural land and many of our new residents inherited the history with their citizenship. Perhaps never again will those in a majority position behave in such a disgraceful manner. This is one of the lessons we must learn. We cannot undo history, but we must never repeat it. Perhaps this is a step in reconciliation. This has to be taught to even the most sophisticated of students, namely the resident physicians.
I apologize for this lengthy comment, but it has been a burr under my skin for some time, especially when I heard (frequently) derogatory comments about Aboriginal people.
Dear Dr. Koppula,
Thank you for writing this article. I kind of feel the same way. I would like to know more about how I can contribute to Indigenous health. I do work in rural area and the health of Indigenous population is worrisome.
I would like to know resources on how to obtain CCFP (AM) to address some of their concerns. I feel lack of telephone/ device to communicate is one of the main barriers for follow up with them.