Published in Journal Le Devoir, July 10 2020 || Français
Since the events in 1990 and since the most recent indigenous crisis, the Kahnawake reserve has been mentioned by the press hundreds of times for millions of viewers, who now know it without having seen it in the same way that automobile drivers, in their daily migration, travel the roads which run through or border its territory.
This town of 8,000 people developed according to the same model as that of every North American suburb in the 1950s. It retains this model reflecting peacefulness, with hundred-year-old stone buildings along the river, including a church, and a panoramic view of Montreal and its lights at night. The town’s residents, like those of the suburbs around it, go to the same shopping malls, the same universities and the same hospitals. In Montreal, fifteen kilometres away, they have many specialized jobs, well beyond the typical iron workers. As spectators or performers, they also participate in the cultural life of Montreal, in events such as the First Peoples Festival in early August. In July each year a pow-wow is organized, which people in the surrounding district are welcome to attend. Kahnawake is completely integrated into our urban and planetary modernity.
A cultural renaissance
For the past ten years, at the invitation of traditional caregivers with whom I had collaborated at the Châteauguay hospital, Anna l’Abberge I have been working as a psychiatrist in this community. It is generally understood that in my work what people have in common in terms of affects and values provides a sufficiently broad field and possibilities for communication to make therapeutic exchange possible, in a space in which identities intermingle. There, I encounter familiar pathologies: anxiety, depression and mood problems are among the most common conditions addressed by the WHO, and are equitably distributed across the globe.
Behind this shared backdrop, over time the hospital staff, the caregivers and my many patients have introduced me to private life on the reserve. It is the only world that exists for some of my patients, and is a reference point for all; today it is in the process of a renaissance.
After having resisted centuries of ethnocide, the community is taking back its language; an elementary school offers complete immersion in Mohawk culture. It has its own media: its radio and television stations, “Mohawk Girls” TV series and newspapers are broadly open to discussion. Kahnawake’s weekly newspaper, the “Eastern Door,” has been given an award as the best Canadian community newspaper. This renaissance can be seen in traditional and modern creative activities in art, music and dance, in sculpture and painting and even fashion. The fashion designer Tammy Beauvais, who lives in Kahnawake, is internationally renowned. In my therapeutic practice, I feel the beneficial effects of the way the community and individuals are taking back their identity.
It is when this identity is missing that we can measure its importance, whether we are thinking of people suffering breakdowns or poor and isolated communities hit by successive waves of teenage suicides. Because it has benefited from economic opportunities, Kahnawake, like other communities, has been able to escape this tragic destiny by developing a network of mental health care professionals with roots in the community and by building its own space in which cultural identity in harmony with its history and values is recognized.
An identity resistance for equality and environment
No doubt because they were the first victims of territorial dispossession, which today has become widespread under globalizing neo-liberalism, in their heroic resistance the First Nations have developed values in tune with today’s planetary challenges: a re-appropriation of the territory and a cult of the land, something advanced by every ecological movement worldwide. In my own field, these values involve therapies based on harmony between individuals and the environment, and include the sweat house, pipe ceremony and storytelling. In the West these practices have adopted new therapeutic currents such as mindfulness therapies, meditation and nature walks. Kahnawake, in tune with our globalizing present, is a developed democratic society with equality between the sexes, freedom of the press and a civil society which twice has rejected the establishment of a casino in the name of its values of traditional respect. The values sharing and welcoming have accompanied me throughout my practice since my initiation, when I was given friendly support by community and hospital care workers, many of whom became my friends. It is a society which is emerging from its wounds and asserting its indigenous culture. Kahnawake has great influence among the First Nations, who recognize that it represents the hope for harmonious reconciliation.
A reservation totally included in the Canadian society
The reserve is nothing like an isolated camp. It cannot be reduced to a mere barricade the way the media constantly depict it to millions of Canadians who do not know it, like those who travel through it a little more fearfully these past few days. The emergence of a global culture will make possible universal exchange with almost every human community at the same time as it will destabilize and threaten the weakest. Let us learn to know them and protect them. Everyone carries within themselves a piece of our humanity. As a psychiatrist, I have felt the need to give back to this Mohawk community what it has given to me. I hope I have succeeded in making it better known.
Jean Dominique Leccia, MD
Psychiatrist at Kahnawake, Qc
Assistant professor, McGill University