Colonialism (in the Canadian context)

Colonization is when a political power from one territory exerts control in a different territory. Starting in the late 15th century, French and British expeditions explored and fought over parts of Turtle Island, which constitutes present-day Canada. The assimilation and practices that contributed to the marginalization of indigenous peoples in Canada.

Colonialism is a “social determinant of health,” meaning that it’s part of a wider social force that impacts Indigenous people’s health. Mental health is part of a colonial framework due to its adherence to a “western point of view,” and to the interrelation between the “colonial conceptions of mental illness,” and colonialism’s goals.

It is important to note that Indigenous views on health, including mental health, and treatment can be vastly different and are often more holistic.


Some examples of colonial conception of mental illnesses:

  • Peter Menzies argues Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), “ignores the role of culture and intergenerational or community trauma.”
  • Karina Czyzewksi articulates in her article Colonialism is a Broader Social Determinant of Health (2011), Canada has engaged in a politics of erasure, which is reflected in ignorance of residential school trauma and discriminatory practices and laws put in place to prohibit recourse.
  • Sarah Nelson argues “mental health services and values in Canada have been informed by the colonial foundations of the nation,” which has displaced and marginalized Indigenous communities, and perpetuated stereotypes about Indigenous identity.
  • Example of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is particularly salient as it has been constructed as a “public health issue,” which has blamed impoverish Aboriginal women, while simultaneously ignoring broader historical, social and environmental factors that could account for the same outcomes.
    • This has shifted the blame from structural and systemic issues to individual responsibility.

Our history of colonialism has caused intergenerational trauma and has both limited Indigenous access to resources, while also politically disempowering, socially isolating, and repressing self-determination. Northern and remote communities are more vulnerable to higher rates of suicide, where substance misuse, isolation, poverty, and language barriers are more common.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a mental illness. It involves exposure to trauma involving death or the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence.


Intergenerational Trauma

The transmission of historical oppression and its negative consequences across generations. There is evidence the impact of intergenerational trauma on the health and well-being on health and social disparities facing indigenous peoples in Canada.

“Health disparities realized by Indigenous peoples,” according to Czyzewksi, “stem from or are related to colonial disruptors and ongoing erosion of human rights.” This erosion can be seen in the forms of unemployment, poor housing, educational inequality, and subpar healthcare services, which all contribute to an increased probability of substance misuse.

Colonialism can be seen in the “strange indifference” to Indigenous health, which would otherwise be classified as a “national scandal” if the health of another population was impacted in a similar way. As Waldram argues, today’s mental health issues experienced by Indigenous peoples can be traced to “the traumatic effects of colonialism, including geographic and economic marginalization, and attempts at forced assimilation.”

To learn more, please check out “Sharing Our Wisdom: A Holistic Aboriginal Health Initiative" International Journal of Indigenous Health; Victoria Vol. 11, Iss. 1, (2016): 111-132.


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