As an Indigenous girl growing up on the Kehewin Cree Nation, northeast of Edmonton, Amber Dion learned at a young age that racism had profoundly affected
Dion’s father was abruptly taken from his mother’s care at age seven, and forced to spend five tortuous years at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School in St. Paul. After it closed, he endured more abuse at the local “town school,” she learned.
The experience left lasting emotional and psychological scars, she says, and her father tried to drown out the pain by turning to alcohol. Other family members shared similar tales of trauma.
“My auntie tells stories of how she was stoned and had rocks thrown at her when she arrived at school,” says Dion, now an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health and Community Studies at MacEwan University.
Once Dion began attending nearby Elk Point Elementary School, she discovered that the racist attitudes her parents and her aunt endured were still alive.
“I was the only Indigenous kid there for a long time. My math teacher would call me to the board to do a math problem. He knew I struggled in math, so while I was at the board, he’d roll up his sleeves and say ‘Okay Miss Dion, I’m ready when you are.’ And
he’d start doing push-ups while I stood there trying to work out
this math problem.”
While riding the bus, Dion was targeted by boys who hurled racist insults at her, saying she was infected with “squaw germs.”
“It’s because of my parents’ survival, it’s because of their resilience that I can stand here and tell these stories today,” says Dion, the keynote speaker at a forum on Indigenous Mental Health Feb. 26th at Edmonton’s Amiskwaciy Academy.
Dion’s presentation and a follow-up panel discussion were organized as part of CASA’s ongoing Dr. Roger Bland Lecture Series on Improving Children’s Mental Health.
Panelists included Carrie Avveduti, Project Manager for the First Nation Team at CASA; Donald Langford, Executive Director of Edmonton’s Metis Child and Family Services Society; and Elder
Francis Whiskeyjack of Alberta’s Saddle Lake First Nation, who serves as Amkswaciy Academy’s Community Cultural Resource Advisor.
Lesley MacDonald of Edmonton’s New ViewPoint Communications was the moderator.
“So why are these stories important? Because there’s been a long narrative in this country that we’re not quite worth it, that we are not quite there with our settler brothers and sisters,” says Dion. “Me and my children are the children of survivors. As my auntie says,
‘If we believe that intergenerational trauma exists, we must believe that intergenerational resilience exists as well.”
Dion chronicled the long history of discriminatory, even genocidal policies inflicted on Canada’s Indigenous peoples by the federal government, including the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869, which were designed to strip First Nations people of their Indigeneity.
But Dion also offered hope, describing her teenage daughter’s struggles with depression, and her decision to take up the sundance, a ceremonial dance practiced by Indigenous peoples for generations.
“She started practicing in our living room every day and then we started going to Pow Wow practices all over Edmonton,” says Dion. “She danced in front of all of her peers at her school and when I watched her dance she was light, she was graceful and confident. So if you think that our young people don’t have resilience built
into them, you’re wrong. They have it built into their DNA.”