Social Work in Two Cultures

As I get older, I find that one of the tragedies of life is to see how the shortcomings of one generation bear their fruits in the next. Child abuse in one generation leads to abusers in the next: do away with colonialism and slavery, and the oppressed themselves become oppressors when colonialism ends and slavery is abolished. Hence the current welter of dictator states throughout Africa, now that the colonial era is past. Hence the abuse of funding and denial of employment and welfare benefits to those not on the ‘inside’ on First Nations reservations, which happens so often when financial control is transferred from Indian Affairs to elected Band Chiefs and Band Councils.

What set me thinking in this direction was a book produced by our own Grant McEwan Community College in Edmonton, From Strength to Strength, outlining the challenges that the college has faced in putting together a university level course in Social Work, to be taught by visiting teachers mostly to aboriginals in a number of remote locations in Alberta—High Level was one. It was at that point that the immense cultural differences between ‘Western’ and ‘Aboriginal’ ways of living came sharply into focus. The whole course had to be taught twice and in twice the time, and from the viewpoint of two quite separate cultures!

Churches have indeed apologized to the native community for their part in the operation of the residential school system, but even so, it is hard for anyone brought up in the Western culture to understand the devastation caused to the native community when all its values, its language, its customs, its prayers, its ceremonies and spirituality, have been treated as so much trash, and often enough, prohibited by law. Depression, violence, drunkenness, drugs and suicide come naturally from the frustration and meaninglessness of life when this aboriginal culture has been devalued and destroyed. Dealing with this devastation, and giving credit to the value of aboriginal ways, had to be the first order of business in organizing the total course. Fortunately, in spite of all the obstacles, the course itself has proved its worth, and has had some excellent graduates.

One of the worst effects of colonialism is to turn its victims themselves into exploiters. From that angle, when we look back into European history, we can see how the colonization of Europe launched in the time of the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest spawned self-righteous European colonizations that have spread all over the world since the time of Columbus—often enough destroying aboriginal cultures, and monopolizing aboriginal lands, in the name of Christianity and “spreading the Gospel.”

The message of Jesus and the Gospel, surely, is precisely one of liberation from all forms of slavery. Yet the message of churches and governments towards the first nations has far too often been the precise reverse.

It reminds me of the Indian elder who told me: “When the missionaries came, and told us all about Jesus, we said to ourselves: ‘He seems to be a real neat guy.’ Then the Church came, and the Government came, and we said ‘Oh, oh—not so fast!’”

Enough said!

– Gemini, 2001*