you're reading...
Aboriginal, academia, advocacy, de/colonization, Indigeneity, knowledge, love, mentors, Scotland, voice

webs and hierarchies of suffering and trauma: a manifesto of healing

Trauma rips through many lives today, and has ripped through many lives in the past. It may rear its head as domestic violence, as post-traumatic stress from someone who has seen combat. It may be inter-generational trauma from oppression, dispossession, abuse. You may be the ‘survivor of a survivor’ of some traumatic experience.


We may justify the transfer of this pain to others because it lightens the load in our hearts and our heads a little bit. Or maybe we don’t realize we are terrorizing and causing suffering in others as we grapple with pain.

I have spent time working in spaces where people have been traumatized, and I myself have experienced some severe traumas in my life. Though I wish I could erase these experiences, I am learning to articulate what I have learned from living through trauma, because it has brought me to a place of deep understanding of how history has shaped Indigenous and non-Indigenous realities in Canada (and elsewhere) today. I hope that by experiencing these things and sharing what I have learned, I can help contribute to a movement that prevents future generations from suffering through what many of us have experienced as Indigenous peoples in Canada (with diverse, divergent and complex moments or trajectories of suffering in our lives).

This trauma may re-manifest as lateral violence. It may be as simple as gossip or as frightening as death threats. It may be as subtle as denying (or conversely appropriating) someone’s narrative and stories or as blatant as legalizing and codifying discrimination. It may take the form of someone assaulting a neighbour, a family member, a colleague or a community nurse. It may be used to justify genocide or apartheid in places scattered all over the globe.

I have been trying to wrap my head around several things in the last little while. First of all, it is difficult to comprehend how we can perpetuate suffering against other human beings. At the very basic, human level: how do we justify inflicting pain? And then, how do we justify re-visiting or re-creating that pain against others? These are two questions I can’t quite answer. As one small human being trying to make my way through the world and this lifetime, I am at a loss to understand the propensity for humans (all humans) to hurt one another. Call me naive, but when you tear it all down to first principles, it is difficult to understand ever wishing pain, suffering, loss or terror upon another living, breathing, sentient being.

This being said, we can’t escape the fact that many among us are suffering. Canada (the State, the idea, the collection of citizens) has perpetuated a gross, incalculable and inexcusable amount of pain, trauma and suffering against various groups of people — particularly those who have been marginalized and stigmatized in order to justify exploitation and theft. Indigenous people in Canada have endured and survived things that nobody should ever experience. The call to recognize Residential Schools as a genocide cannot come soon enough, in my mind. It is time we begin to admit the very deep and horrific things through which Canada came to be. And we need to do this because the trauma from these policies, ideologies and metaphorical blood-feuds reverberate in every corner of the country today.

We are a nation traumatized.

And what this means is that we are also a nation shaped by webs and hierarchies of suffering. I am a survivor of the suffering of people who came before me, and at thirty years of age I finally understand that I have, inadvertently, re-created that trauma in relationships in my life. And I have experienced trauma at the hands of people who themselves have survived horrific things.

This meshes us in webs of suffering. When we talk about suicide in Indigenous communities, when we try to calculate how many people experience domestic violence — we sometimes isolate these experiences and forget that these are, in many ways, reverberations of the trauma wrought by colonial occupation. These are visceral echoes of distant and not-so-distant sufferings.


At a Trudeau Foundation event in PEI this spring, Maria Campbell reminded those assembled of something that she teaches her students (and I hope that I am characterizing this statement properly):  that everything that happened to Indigenous people in Canada at the hands of the British was first practiced on the Scots and Irish.

I was shocked when I moved to Scotland and learned about the Clearances. How families had their homes burnt down, were told to get off the crofts because it was more profitable for the English landlords to replace them — humans — with sheep.  As I visited a fellow Canuck (my brilliant colleague Koreen Reece) in Edinburgh this summer, she introduced me to Margaret Atwood’s poem “Four Small Elegies: 1838, 1977“. The poem is startling because it illustrates the violence exacted against French victims in Lower Canada at the hands of Scottish volunteers, who themselves had had their homes burnt and sacked by English perpetrators back in Scotland. I hope the incomparable Ms. Atwood will forgive me for sharing a snippet of the poem here, to help illustrate my point:


Those whose houses were burned
burned houses. What else ever happens
once you start?

While the roofs plunged
into the root-filled cellars,
they chased ducks, chickens, anything
they could catch, clubbed their heads
on rock, spitted them, singed off the feathers
in fires of blazing fences,
ate them in handfuls, charred
and bloody.

Sitting in the snow
in those mended plaids, rubbing their numb feet,
eating soot, still hungry,
they watched the houses die like
sunsets, like their own
houses. Again

those who gave the orders
were already somewhere else,
of course on horseback.”

By engaging with this Scottish history and tracing it through the web of Canadian history, I finally understand, on a very concrete level, that many people who fled to Canada as settlers migrated their traumas (and their hubris and prejudices but also their love and passions) with them. This does not justify things like the Indian Act or Residential schools, but as someone who needs to intellectualize things in order to process and heal, the knowledge of suffering and sufferings over here in Scotland allows me to better understand why such horrific things happened to Indigenous people in Canada.

This understanding of the migration of sufferings also enables me to better understand the reverberations and re-creations of sufferings within Indigenous and non-Indigenous spaces at home.

Perhaps we don’t want to admit it, because it is painful and fills us with shame, but for some of us who have endured great violence or trauma, we have dealt with that by re-creating that (physical, emotional, psychological) violence within our families, our workplaces, our communities (however we define our ‘community’ for ourselves). Not everyone who survives trauma is doomed to repeat it. However, at a public Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in Paulatuk in the spring of 2012, Commissioner Marie Wilson quoted someone who had testified at a public hearing in another community — and this quote illustrates the trajectory and meshing of suffering from Residential Schools: “we migrated our dysfunctions home with us”. As painful and shameful as it is to realize that we may be re-creating our own horrors against people we love, the reality is that this is something we need to acknowledge and address. This is not ‘blaming the victim’ — this is admitting that there are still many things to heal, and taking responsibility for any thing we do that is perpetuating suffering amongst those around us. This, to me, is decolonization. By acknowledging our pain and how we are complicit in re-creating it, we can heal and ensure that our children never know that kind of anguish.

This brings me to the notion of ‘hierarchies of suffering’. This is a term that has been applied by others to describe various relationships that place levels, degrees and experiences of suffering on a scale of importance or value. I apply it here to describe trauma in Canada. In the aftermath of colonial oppression, there are those who experience unremitting, incomprehensible pain. However, sometimes this pain — as perverse as this sounds — is used in a hierarchy of suffering in order to justify other forms of oppression or in order to justify silencing others. “I suffered therefore you must suffer”. Or “I suffered x and you only suffered y — therefore you have no voice (or I am allowed to do this to you)”. The question then becomes — who will have the courage to dismantle systems that perpetuate suffering amongst the next generation?

I argue — as a survivor of various forms of violence myself — that although at times a hierarchy of suffering is a useful tool for illustrating just how horrific some state-sanctioned actions have been (ie: to be able to illustrate how deep and impactful particular traumatic experiences have been, and to show that some forms of suffering really are much worse than others), I do not think that we should allow hierarchies of suffering to prevent us from examining the ways in which violence and trauma are being perpetuated amongst survivors (or how sometimes trauma is justified by these ‘hierarchies of suffering’). In other words, it is important to allow space for people to experience their sufferings as unique and distinct (and not to lump all sufferings together as equivalent), but we also need to ensure that we do not use suffering as a way to perpetuate abuse or violence or social exclusion because of how much pain we still carry inside.


I propose that we need to move from hierarchies and webs of suffering to communities of suffering. This brings me to the wonderful article that Andrea Smith wrote recently entitled ‘The Problem with Privilege’. I think what she describes, in terms of how ‘privilege’ is mobilized in many progressive spaces, is essentially the ‘hierarchy’ that emerges from attempts to wrangle with privilege and suffering. She describes the practice of ‘acknowledging privilege’ in communities of action, and how this is fraught with problems (specifically that it tends to focus attention on the acknowledgement of privilege rather than on the dismantling of the systems that bestow privilege). As she notes: “One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.” ” I think an equivalent situation has arisen within many Indigenous spaces in Canada. We are afraid to critique violence occurring within our own workplaces or gathering spaces because there is power and capital in hierarchies of suffering. These relationships and hierarchies can be used to justify lateral violence or even more insidious violences. Having witnessed situations of lateral or direct violence where people’s careers and lives were attacked by someone who decided to displace their pain from past traumas onto other actors, I cannot stand idly by anymore and pretend this is okay.

We cannot expect people alive today to ‘pay’ in blood for things that happened to us or our ancestors. And we cannot perpetuate violence indefinitely or with impunity. Instead, we need to find a way to heal in order to end these webs of suffering and give future generations a fighting chance. But we must also be strong and stand up for our rights, refuse to be exploited by the State or those intent on oppressing us. We can be angry and loving. (And we need to hold politicians and leaders who willfuly ignore these traumas, and the impacts they have on all Canadians, responsible — there is no excuse for pretending suffering is not happening when we have ample evidence that it is. And there is absolutely no excuse for each level of government’s failure to provide comprehensive and well-funded mental health care (be it traditional, biomedical or both) to help foster healing in so many parts of the country).

I think we need to acknowledge — broadly, loudly — the horrific things that people have experienced within our very country. We need to talk openly, honestly, respectfully about how Indigenous peoples were (and in many situations still are) systematically abused. But we also need to be willing to look at what is happening in other spaces in the country. Who else is suffering? What can we gain from sharing our knowledge? By advocating for communities of suffering I am not saying that we lump all experience together and erase our distinct voices and stories. I am instead saying: how do we build strength from our many understandings of suffering? How do we acknowledge that we are sometimes complicit in perpetuating violence and trauma? Where do we find spaces and points of contact to work effectively to end suffering?

It is scary, to me, to listen to rhetoric that excludes the experiences of immigrants or non-Indigenous people because they are ‘settlers’ and thus do not fit on our hierarchy of suffering. Or worse, to listen to rhetoric that advocates pain and violence against others because we ourselves have suffered. This is the discourse of pain, not healing.

I humbly suggest, instead, that we try to acknowledge how and when trauma occurs. And to give space to deal with it honestly, forthrightly. We need to hold the State, and the actors who have deliberately dispossessed, killed and harmed Indigenous peoples (and other marginalized groups of people) accountable. Any healing action that is pursued must also coincide with concrete and unrelenting work to hold the perpetrators of genocide and destruction accountable.

However, as survivors of various traumas, we must also work to support one another, to love one another. And to address violence being perpetuated against those around us. I do not know how to engage in national healing — to move beyond being a nation of trauma to a nation of hope (I am deliberately and perhaps cheekily reclaiming this notion from Obama). However, I know that by acknowledging the ways that I myself have been complicit in re-creating trauma in my own life, I can help create spaces where healthy, love-based approaches can manifest. I owe this much to myself and to the people I love.


Edit — September 23: I’ve been thinking this through further, and I actually wonder if “communities of healing” is a better term for the transformative relationships that can grow from people sharing their experiences of oppression and suffering. Again, I re-iterate that the goal of this approach is not erase people’s unique experiences, nor to flatten all experiences across historical or spatial or cultural realities. But I do think, if we are going to transform Canada from a Nation of Trauma of a Nation of Hope, we need to create the spaces to understand the different sufferings that have contributed to people’s contemporary realities. There is strength in dismantling hierarchies that perpetuate cycles of trauma, and there is hope in dismantling the mechanisms that are employed to entrench social, psychological and physical violence as a form of societal control.



Atwood, Margaret. (1978). Four Small Elegies. Two Headed Poems. Oxford University Press.

Chouliaraki, L. (2008). The Mediation of Suffering and the Vision of a Cosmopolitan Public. Television and New Media 9(5): 371-391.

Fontaine, P. and B. Farber. (2013). A Canadian genocide in search of a name. http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/07/19/a_canadian_genocide_in_search_of_a_name.html

Smith, Andrea. (2013). The Problem With Privilege. Andrea366http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: