Violence and Trauma in First Nations

I’ve been watching with great interest the story unfolding in Ottawa, where Constable Eric Czapnik, a father of four, was the first Ottawa Police officer to have been killed in the line of duty since 1983. His alleged assailant, Kevin Gregson is a First Nations man and a suspended RCMP officer. He has been charged with first-degree murder.

On the surface, this seems to be violent, senseless killing – apparently with a robbery motive. But there are still many questions to be answered like: who would try to rob a cop? Or why would you commit robbery in front of a cop in a police cruiser? None of this makes sense.

The likely defence here is insanity given that Gregson blamed a past criminal incident on pre-operative brain cysts. He allegedly pulled a knife and threatened a Mormon church official in Regina in 2006 and was given a conditional discharge. He hasn’t been on the job with the RCMP since.

Any crime that takes the life of another needs to be punished severely. Especially if such an action take the life of a police officer. If Gregson is guilty, so be it – native or non-native.

But what intrigues me is that Gregson is Anishinaabe. According to media reports, he describes himself as an “urban native”, meaning he is a First Nations person that lives and grow up in the city.

There is no question that being a First Nations person, the odds have been stacked against him all his life.

Trauma is a significant factor in the evolution of violence. No matter where we grew up, the reserve or the city, First Nations people are far more likely to have experienced some form of childhood trauma. Be it emotional, physical or sexual abuse, family violence, racism or the effects of poverty.

Poverty is endemic in First Nations. In Canada, one in four aboriginal children live in poverty. So many of our little ones are living in third-world conditions without adequate housing or healthy food. Children are going to school hungry. Poverty isn’t just isolated to reserves, either. The statistics are similar for aboriginal people living in urban centres.

Just imagine if one in four non-native children in Ottawa or Toronto were found to be living in poverty. I’m sure a state of emergency would be called and resources would be immediately mobilized to alleviate such a crisis.

The multi-generational effects of residential schools must not be underestimated. There are thousands of brown people with status cards, wondering why they are different. Wondering why they are confused, depressed and sick. People with no culture, no values or no hope. That was all beaten out of our parents and grandparents, yardstick by yardstick.

Many residential school survivors and their families have no identity beyond their church and what they learned in school. With no identity and without acceptance, they are banished to the margins of society. Although this generation might be more accepting – with access to more social programs and numerous political, legal and rights-based victories – the damage from the past generations has been done. Parents don’t know how to be parents. Families don’t know how to Love.

First Nations people are introduced to violence at an early age – in the home. Violence against aboriginal women continues to be a significant social issue that must be dealt with in a serious manner. First Nations youth living in cities are even more susceptible, as aboriginal street gangs are more prevalent and much more violent.

Sadly, violence is a way of life for many First Nations people. Even my relatively quiet, urbanized native community has had its share of violent confrontations and tragic endings. It has affected me and many other people on my reserve.

Addictions is another incredible factor. Alcoholism began as an early epidemic in our communities. No one knew how to handle the fire-water. It became a means to an end –to wash away the troubles of Indian life. Today, in much the same way, the youth in First Nations are dealing with their lack of identity, poverty and troubles through prescription drug abuse.

For far too many youth, suicide is the ultimate way out. We’re seeing that more in more in remote, northern communities. This is truly the saddest commentary. I can’t imagine how bad life must be for a twelve year-old Cree boy to hang himself at the recreation centre swing-set. To not have the Love he needs… to not have hope. To know that he hasn’t been the first and he won’t be the last.

This isn’t a defence of Mr. Gregson, but a reality check. There is no excuse for violence. But I think there is a significant cause and effect relationship between trauma and violence. It seems to be an unending cycle for First Nations. Violence and trauma begets violence and trauma. At some point this cycle must end.

In First Nations, something has to be done about it to protect our future generations.
Right now, there is too much emphasis on rights. Healing, wellness and reconciliation need to be the key goals for this generation and the next. If we fail at these objectives, there will be no hope for nation building and economic sustainability.



  1. debra says:

    This is clearly a deplorable situation for the Nations. Education is one way out and you have done an admirable job of articulating the issues in these communities. How do we educate the dominate society to the plight of the reserves? How do you change systemic racism that has been passed down generationaly in the public school system?
    The much touted apology has done nothing for the nations, but further vilify them in the eyes of the public, leading to more hate speak around their issues, and more racism directed towards them. The subtle message sent by the Canadian Government has been that all the survivors want is money. There is a huge disconnect when talking of the issues of the indigenous peoples of Canada, especially since the true ramifications of the dirty dealings and apatite policies of the Indian Act are not widely known.Not even in our own communities. This is a failing of the educational institutes in this country. Until the true history of this country is taught then I see little hope of ending the suffering of the First Nations peoples in the fore see-able future.

  2. Anne Fox says:

    This issue is an issue which reaches far into the depthes of the most commonly used Police force for First nations. Gregson was abused by the RCMP he was followed discredited and he was a tee-toaller trained as an addictions counsellor. He was abused because he spoke out in an irreverent manner and because he was deeply disilussioned with a force that was keeping a private stocked bar in every detachment. He became known as the Humboldt rat among his compatriots and a lot of pressure was plavced on others to act against him in the private connections within his community. They got payback too. The LDS program of Mormons responsible for a generation of the more recent 60s 70s scoop victims of children’s services who were sent all over the United Sates as well as within Canda came back to their origenal homes. Many have what we call a memory in the blood. a need to return and to right the wrongs done by others aginst Aborigenal persons in that time who were sent far from their homes. Kamsack where he was origenally placed is a focus for this return. Many children from there have returned including to the other areas in Sasakatchewan such as Buffy St. Marie. A range of experience was understood by the persons who were sent away as far as Hawaii into the United States. Some loved their adoptive parents but they retained their identity although in many a clear crisis built at adolescence. In his confusion at the time it is strane that he selected Czapnik perhaps a symbol of the issues plaguing Canada a person who he may have connected to the corrupt Police Forces of Poland the USSR and the areas of the former Yugoslavia/Bosnia Hersogovinia as well as to his recent trip to Africa with the tragedy of Rwanda and the Rape propaganda still fresh in the hearts of many. we are having a crisis of our own related to the issues which are international in scope and we are reminded of them by the reports of Richard Fadden of CSIS. Organized crime is becoming a serious issue and it is Global in nature and the money laundering issues have become a chronic problem here and still no effective regulation of our markets. The sure disaster which has already befallen the USSR with corruption reaching the top echelons of their politics and society will surely become an issue for Canda even more than it has already in these days of denial and scape-goating.

    A symbolic sacrifice of a real man? What do we know about it…