Indigenous Peoples’ Psychology
“A fish is the last to discover water.”
Dr. Stryker Calvez is Michif Métis from the Red River Territory, currently living in Treaty 6 Territory in Saskatoon. He was the Manager of Indigenous Education Initiatives at the University of Saskatchewan and is now the Sr. Manager EDI Strategy and Enablement at Nutrien. Dr. Calvez is also Chair of the CPA’s Indigenous Peoples’ Psychology Section and a longstanding member of CPA/PFC Knowledge Sharing Group/Standing Committee on Reconciliation with Dr. David Danto.
Dr. David Danto is a clinical psychologist by training, and the Head of Psychology at the University of Guelph-Humber. He has been involved in a number of efforts toward Indigenizing and decolonizing psychology, institutions and universities. He is the Past Chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Psychology section.
Eric Bollman is the Communications Specialist with the Canadian Psychological Association.
This conversation took place November 24th, 2021. Since then, 93 unmarked graves were discovered at a former residential school in Williams Lake, BC. 12 were found in Kamsack, Saskatchewan, and 42 were found in Fort Perry, Saskatchewan.
Eric: I understand there’s some talk around changing the name of the Indigenous Peoples’ Psychology section to better reflect the collaborative nature of the work – to focus more on working with Indigenous people rather than making it exclusively about Indigenous people. What sparked this discussion?
Dr. Calvez: As a group, when the new executive came together about a year ago, we realized we had a community of people who were mostly non-Indigenous. As a community of people who are interested in supporting Indigenous Peoples in Canada, we might have to change how we operate. This meant we really had to think about the mechanisms within the section. The section was originally developed to support the Indigenous psychologists in Canada, to give them a safe space and a platform to have a voice. While that is still our mandate, we also wanted to recognize that there was this growing group of people who wanted to be of service and to provide support. So in that sense we thought the name should really be reflective of this. Rather than being a section of Indigenous people, what we needed to do was work with Indigenous people, and to bring as many people as were willing to do that work together and to create a safe environment where they have everything they need, and can have courageous conversations about what has happened to them and how do you move past those places. So the name change is supposed to be a reflection of the development of a community who want to work with and for Indigenous people. And I think we’re doing that in a good way. We’ve got lots of allies – like David.
Dr. Danto: A few years ago I worked with Stryker on a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on behalf of the Canadian Psychological Association and Strong Minds Strong Kids (at the time known as the Psychology Foundation of Canada). What was clear from the attendees and participants in that process was that psychology has not been a great friend overall to Indigenous people historically, and even to this day in many cases. A lot of that is as a result of bringing an external Western perspective and approach to psychopathology, health, concept of the family or personality, that kind of thing, to Indigenous communities. And that’s harmful. It’s a way psychology has harmed people. It has happened in the context of education, research, and applied practice. To try to apply our ethical principles in a way that is equal to all people in this land, we have a responsibility to change those harmful practices and to use approaches that are suitable. We have to ask the question – ‘how can psychology be a good friend to Indigenous people in Canada? How can we be supportive?’ In many cases, I think the answer to that is that we can respect and acknowledge that there are already ways of healing, there’s already wisdom and knowledge that is helpful, that promote resilience and strength and well-being within the communities already. As a person who tries to be supportive in this way, I ask myself what I can do within my profession to encourage that profession to have greater respect for, and greater humility when it comes to Indigenous ways of knowing and healing. It’s not that psychology can’t or shouldn’t be involved, but we need to decentralize the approaches we use, and let the local community guide and lead what needs to be done.
Dr. Calvez: There are 1.7 million Indigenous people in Canada, and 38 million Canadians. (Re)conciliation isn’t necessarily all about Indigenous people. Although the impact of colonization has been borne primarily by Indigenous people, Murray Sinclair say that it has also harmed non-Indigenous people too. So if you think about this movement we have in psychology now, where we’re trying to get to a place where we can support the needs of Indigenous communities across Canada, there are not enough Indigenous psychologists, and not enough people with the right training to support them. So we really do need to work with allies – people who are willing to invest time getting to know and understand the needs of Indigenous communities to operate in a way that’s reflective of their expectations.
Eric: David, you mentioned ‘humility’. Is that the number one thing an ally must have when entering into this space?
Dr. Danto: Everything we learn in psychology is about ways of thinking. We talk about ‘empirical’ evidence – and the word ‘empirical’ has its root in the word ‘empeirikós’ which means known by experience. But so much of the methodology within psychology has evolved in a way to focus on what is objective and what is quantifiable objectively. That’s not a bad thing, but when we’re talking about human experience, it is an abstraction from experience. ‘Empirical’ has come to mean ‘quantitative’, and it’s not the same thing. Empirical really means within experience, and when we quantify things we’re really taking it a step away from that description of experience. That’s a very Western way of doing things. We have a respect for certain kinds of research in psychology that may not be a good fit with cultural understandings and experiences of history. So sometimes those Western approaches to knowledge get us stuck in a rut, I think, that makes us think these are the only ways of knowing that are worthwhile, testable, verifiable, and conclusive. And that means that we have lost our humility when it comes to other ways of knowing that seem to be a lower standard of knowledge. That sets us up for wanting to do only certain kinds of research within contexts where that doesn’t fit so well. When we go into communities and make use of these methods that don’t fit so well, we lose the connection with the participants in that research. Then we take our information and make use of it in our esteemed academic way, and it never comes back to the community, the community never has a chance to provide feedback because it’s not in their language. It’s not participatory or collaborative, it’s top down. And you end up with exactly the situation we have. Communities that don’t trust academics and researchers in their community, because they’re taking one more thing from the community. You know, we’ve taken land, we’ve taken rights, and now we’re taking knowledge and for who? For the sake of the university, and the researcher, not for the well-being of the community. I think humility is so important to have the approach that there’s lots of ways knowing things, and if you can take a back seat and acknowledge that your training really limits the possibilities that can be seen, rather than illuminate those possibilities – which is what those methods are supposed to be doing!
Dr. Calvez: The other element of cultural humility is that Western education and knowledge comes from a dominant position. The whole hierarchical structure of the Western world is structured in a way that one dominates another based on their education levels, or their cultural group. And that’s embedded within our paradigm of seeing the world. Cultural humility is a process through which we start to recognize that and counteract it. We need to unpack this as part of decolonization, and cultural humility gives us the tools to do that.
What might be more important than humility is commitment. This process of (re)conciliation is going to take an enormous amount of effort and it’s going to create tensions. Unless you have commitment to see things through to the conclusion of what we’re trying to do, to create a healing for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and to the field of psychology, we can’t do that unless people are committed to go through with those intentions.
Eric: Do you ever try to recruit more people to participate in this (re)conciliation, to become allies, or are you more focused on creating a space where those allies can learn and grow alongside Indigenous people?
Dr. Calvez: An important thing about (re)conciliation is that people need to find it within themselves. The starting point isn’t knowing the issues and how to deal with them, the starting point is knowing yourself. And knowing yourself in relation to Indigenous people and the history that’s been here for thousands and thousands of years. That’s something people need to find on their own terms. Rather than promotion [reaching out to people to recruit them to become allies] it should be about attraction [creating a space where people want to become allies and reach out to you]. What we want to show people is that what we’re doing isn’t necessarily an imperative right, something that has to happen – although I do believe that’s true. What we want to show them is that this is something that’s going to benefit everybody, including our profession. There’s a good way to do this so we all learn from it, we all benefit from it. I think that’s done not by telling people you have to do it but by showing them why they might want to do it. When we get people coming on board because of their own choices, we get people who are much more capable of having the commitment I spoke to earlier, and the cultural humility.
Dr. Danto: Within the post-secondary context, I think the focus needs to be on creating the kind of post-secondary institution that’s welcoming and culturally safe and facilitates an appropriate, reflective and critical education for both non-Indigenous and Indigenous students. Rather than recruitment of Indigenous students. If you focus on asking the right questions and on being self-critical in terms of the processes that are in place, and creating that culturally welcoming safe environment, more people will be inclined to participate in what you’re doing. Indigenous people have had really negative experiences in class in the context of taking psychology courses. There are myths about genetic predispositions, assumptions and prejudices and biases because of the long history of colonization. I always use the expression ‘a fish is the last to discover water’. We are so embedded in this context of colonization, whether it’s psychology or health care or education that even with good intentions it’s very difficult for us to see. We need to do a careful examination of those spaces into which we’re inviting Indigenous people, because they may well be places where they’re exposed to re-traumatizing kinds of experiences as they’re confronted with incorrect, outdated, or unfair kinds of comments. We have a responsibility to be protective.
Dr. Calvez: When your focus is just on recruiting people in because you want more Indigenous people in your program, that’s self-serving. It’s not about Indigenous people, their needs, or what they want. If that’s your approach to supporting Indigenous people it will fail every time. We need to change the environment so Indigenous people see it as an attractive and desirable place to land. Let’s be clear – Indigenous communities have just as much need for people who are professionals in mental health as the rest of society does. We have to put the work in now, without knowing for certain that we’re going to attract those people in – just because it’s the right thing to do as a community and as a profession. I think we are moving in that direction. We’ve seen a lot of change in the last few years. That’s going to have to continue and accelerate in order to increase peoples’ interest in this work. Once they are interested, they’re going to realize that we’re not hampering anything that already exists within the profession – if anything, we’re expanding the possibilities and creating a bigger and more open space for more people to find what they’re looking for in the profession.
Eric: There have been some horrific discoveries in the past two years of mass graves at the sites of former residential schools. I think this has come as much more of a shock to white Canadians than it has to Indigenous communities who have been telling us for years that these existed. Is that true, and has it changed how you go about striving for (re)conciliation?
Dr. Calvez: I think it’s really important to recognize that when these events happen they’re really re-traumatizing to Indigenous Peoples. We’re highly affected because this is a confirmation of what we’ve been advocating for a long time. That Canadian society has not treated us right, and that they’ve actually gone to the point of harming and killing children to prove it true. That is the most horrific experience you can have as a person who comes from these communities, to know that even your children aren’t safe. I have friends who are survivors, and when this happens it sucks the wind out of you, and it takes a long time to come back to feeling like you could be okay. That’s happened multiple times this last summer alone. We knew it was bad, but I don’t thinks we knew the magnitude of it all. I very much appreciate that non-Indigenous people are having a reaction to something they didn’t know about. Having that reaction is the right thing – you probably should. But when you impose that reaction on Indigenous people to help them cope with it, that’s not necessarily the right thing to happen. We need other people to be standing up and speaking out so that we don’t necessarily have to be front and centre while we try to heal. This is where we’re moving as a profession. We should be able to advocate while recognizing you don’t go to the people who have been harmed to get support for your reaction. It’s an emerging process, and we’re new to all of this. That’s what (re)conciliation is, it’s a new idea that we’ve never seen before or had before. We’re going to have to discover it and build it from our experiences and our understanding. I think the outrage you’ve seen from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities shows us that we’re moving in the right direction because now there’s an awareness and an appropriate response where people are extremely upset. We’re moving in the right direction in that we’re now trying to support each other in those processes. I think this is a strong time for us as a community and as a society. There are a lot of tensions we’re going to have to navigate as more revelations come forward and we experience this more and more. Most important are the conversations we’re going to have around these and other issues – and they’re going to get difficult. We need to be prepared to have those conversations both as a profession and as an individual.
Dr. Danto: My personal view is that a genocide has happened against Indigenous people in this country. Not a ‘cultural genocide’. A genocide. We are finding bodies at the sites of these residential schools, and there’s little doubt that many more remains will be found, and that no matter how many are found many more will not. As a person who is not Indigenous, recognizing that this occurred in this country – that the killing of Indigenous people in large numbers because of who they are occurred in this country. If we don’t want to admit that, we have to ask ourselves why we don’t want to. To me it is clear that is what has happened. In order to move forward, that’s part of truth. There’s a responsibility when you name something, to act on it.
Eric: Why is it that people use the term ‘cultural genocide’ when it seems quite obvious that what has happened is an actual genocide? Is it a way of minimizing the damage done, or of using a term that doesn’t require as much soul-searching of themselves, or is it something else?
Dr. Danto: The story of the residential school system in Canada was always about ‘saving’ the child while destroying the Indigenous aspect of them. Severing the cultural ties to their community and family. While that may have been the stated objective of the residential school system, and of forced adoption initiatives, much more than that was done. Many people lost their lives within that system, and within those federal government funded (and in many cases church-run) institutions, many children lost their lives. There’s no doubt about who bears responsibility for that. Calling it merely a ’cultural genocide’ is choosing to define the harms that were done in terms of their intention, rather than the outcome. We wouldn’t do that in a court of law. If your intention was to harass but not kill, and you ended up killing, you wouldn’t just get the harassment charge.
Dr. Calvez: We have to recognize that Canada as a society is just now coming to terms with what it’s done. As a stepping stone, ‘cultural genocide’ was the thing they did. They were still in this belief that residential schools could have possibly been a benefit to Indigenous children. I think that now that we’re seeing how untrue that was, people are going to come to terms with the fact that it was more than just a ‘cultural’ genocide, that it was purely genocidal. That said, I don’t dismiss the malevolence of cultural genocide itself. I am who I am because of my ancestry, my beliefs, my identity, because everything I’ve ever been is tied to the land. So to take away my world views, beliefs, and everything else, is to leave me with nothing. Although I’d physically be there I would be a stranger in my own body. It was a significant step forward to use the term cultural genocide, but we’ve now become more articulate. We’ve understood the truths that surround it, and we can call it what it really was, which is a genocide.
Eric: You’ve said that there is progress being made and that we’re moving in the right direction. Can you give me a concrete example of something that is happening now that demonstrates this?
Dr. Calvez: A large group with David and I came up with Psychology’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Report. Since then, it has not collected dust. What has happened is that we’re seeing this invigorating conversation starting to emerge in different spots in the field of psychology. You’re seeing a change to the ethics standards. The standards are going to change, we’re increasing it and adding a value as well as a practice that will support the Indigenization of psychology and support for (re)conciliation. We’re also seeing CPAP (the Council of Professional Associations of Psychologists) and ACPRO (Association of Canadian Psychology Regulatory Organizations) step up and change the way they want regulatory boards to start addressing these issues. And David will be giving a workshop for the CCPPP (Canadian Council of Professional Psychology Programs) with Ed Sackaney on ‘Allyship, Reconciliation and the Profession of Psychology’. So even within our profession, we are now starting to see an enormous amount of change. It has just begun and the ripples are beginning to be felt across the profession.