After Years of Forced Assimilation, Canada’s Indigenous People Begin to Heal

A drum circle sings at an Alderville First Nation event. Drumming is a deeply significant part of First Nations culture — the beat is thought to represent the pulse of Mother Nature, and many of the songs tell old folk stories and legends. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Rodney Little Mustache's daily dose of antiretroviral medications. Rodney was an injecting drug user and worked in the sex trade when he lived in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood famous for hard drug use. His HIV diagnosis was a wake up call that he had to drastically change his lifestyle if he wanted to survive. This fall, Rodney began his first semester at the University of British Columbia. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

A photo of Doreen Bellaire's mother, Delina Commana (center), who attended a residential school in Spanish, Ontario for ten years. To protect her own family from ever having to go through the same experience, Delina left her reserve and moved into town to raise her children, never even telling them that they were First Nations. It wasn't until decades later that Doreen found out about her culture and her heritage. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Ellie breaks down and hugs one of her best friends, Janet, thanking her for being one of the few people who doesn't judge her for being HIV positive. Even though Ellie is incredibly conscientious when it comes to safe injection drug use, she's frequently shunned and assaulted because of her status. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Eleanor Kay walks to her dealer's house in North Central, Regina. Ellie is a sex worker and an active injecting drug user, and was diagnosed with HIV in 2008. She probably contracted the virus from an ex-boyfriend who was routinely unfaithful to her and didn't disclose his status — he died in 2010, with Ellie in her aunt's basement, after they used together. Ellie is fiercely responsible about her health — she goes to a free needle exchange almost every day to get clean syringes for herself and her family, and frequently is responsible for looking after her uncles and brother and cousins when they're under the influence. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Archie Weenie runs a sweat lodge on the north end of Regina, where First Nations people gather once a week to take part in the intense spiritual ritual. Participants gather in a dome-shaped hut (the lodge) around rocks that have been heated in a sacred fire (center) and are doused in water to create steam. During the sweat, people will pray, sing, drum, and share their stories. There are a few people struggling with substance addiction who regularly come to Archie's lodge. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Tom Janvier, a two-spirited, HIV positive Dene man, has this flag in his Vancouver apartment. Tom went to residential school for three years before he told his parents he would kill himself if they made him return. While there, he rebelled by speaking his language and practicing his culture, even though he was routinely punished for disobeying the rules. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

John Mattson brings a smudge stick through a group a dancers about to perform at the Alderville First Nation drum social. Alderville, a reserve about an hour east of Toronto, is home to about 300 Ojibwe people. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Dianne Campbell is HIV positive and still fights substance abuse, but is managing her addictions and regularly works as a peer mentor in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where she lives. As a 3 year old, Dianne was adopted by white parents and grew up going to French immersion school and learning piano. By 16, she was placed into foster care and soon after ran away, turning to alcohol and drugs once she began living on the street. She had a son who was taken away from her by Children's Aid, who is now 26 and in jail. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Generations of Canada’s First Nations forgot who they were. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Last autumn, I spent a month documenting Canada’s indigenous population. Originally, the story was supposed to examine HIV in First Nations communities. Canada’s prevalence rates are 5 to 10 times higher than in comparable indigenous populations in Australia, New Zealand, or the United States, and the number of Aboriginal Canadians living with HIV increased by 24% between 2005 and 2010.

In a country that has one of the best healthcare systems in the world and pioneered some of the most progressive harm reduction strategies in existence, these numbers make no sense. To put them into context, a 2012 UNAIDS study shows that the number of new HIV infections in Sub-Saharan Africa decreased by 25 percent between 2001 and 2011.

Once I arrived and began to talk to subjects, a clear pattern emerged. Almost every indigenous person I met had ties to Canada’s Indian Residential School system—a network of federally run, Christian boarding schools that were meant to assimilate young indigenous students into western Canadian culture. Until the last school closed in 1996, Indian Agents from the Department of Indian Affairs would forcibly take children from their reserves as young as two or three years old and send them to these places, where they were punished for speaking their native languages or observing any indigenous traditions. There are countless stories of sexual and physical abuse occurring as well, and in some extreme instances children endured medical experimentation and sterilization.

As a result, generations of Canada’s First Nations forgot who they were. Languages died out, sacred ceremonies were simultaneously criminalized and suppressed by the Canadian government. “‘You stupid Indian’ were the first English words I ever learned,” First Nations member Tom Janvier told me. He was sent to residential school as a three-year-old, where he was bullied, beaten, and sexually molested. “It became self-fulfilling. My identity was held against me.”

As a way to cope, or to forget, or simply because any notion of self-esteem or self worth had been obliterated with their identities, a disproportionate number of First Nations people began to engage in high-risk behavior—which perhaps explains the elevated rates of HIV transmitted through injected drug use and unsafe sex.

And yet, in spite of this system of institutionalized oppression, First Nations communities are finally beginning to recover. For the first time in decades, children are being brought up speaking Ojibwe and Cree and Blackfoot again. Potlatches and sun dances and sweat lodges have returned. As revealed in these images, made possible through a grant through The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, there is a new revitalization of First Nations culture occurring. Undeniably linked to the collective healing process, these people, who have endured so much, are reclaiming their voice in Canada.