7 Decolonization and Mental Health

Nicola Kimber

Title: Duty to Decolonize: Trauma in Canada


Gaining insight into a few of the effects of colonialism faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada is a difficult but necessary task. The Canadian Justice System’s role in not only the initial harms of colonization but also the continuation of harm against Indigenous people in Canada is explored through multiple case studies each focusing on different aspects of negative mental health affects in Indigenous peoples. The case studies help to shed light on how Canada as a country not only should but can do better with respect to the decolonization of mental health.


The field of decolonization is broad, complicated, and oft-misunderstood—yet it is extremely important. Unfortunately, denial and avoidance are the common responses to decolonization approaches. The Canadian justice and criminal justice systems are infamous for causing and perpetuating problems related to colonization and decolonization attempts. While there has been more widespread emphasis on decolonization and reconciliation recently, specifically by the Indigenous peoples of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2012), there is still a long road ahead. Even with the official report of the TRC, it is telling that the TRC recommendations have mainly not been implemented or at least not effectively – such as the revision of history textbooks and materials in public schools. The TRC findings have, however, triggered a large body of Indigenous research and helped inform the public and academia about the legacy of mental illness related to the direct trauma and intergenerational trauma infused into Indigenous cultures in Canada through colonialism, and the need to fathom decolonization.

Many significant issues both broad and specific arising from colonization directly affect Indigenous peoples in Canada. Many programs originate from the mental health side of colonization and contemporary colonialism; likewise, many programs now use a decolonized lens to focus on mental health. Designed with mental health in mind, decolonization practices are practical and becoming more and more accessible. Mental health, decolonization, and the Canadian Justice System are intricately intertwined and influenced by one another. Some of the decolonization practices in Canada center on mental health, such as trauma-informed education for Indigenous children in foster care, culturally relevant addiction treatment centres, and specialized healing lodges for female Indigenous offenders.

Impact of Colonization

While it is easy to see colonization as an historical event, the impacts of colonial history have been sustained and thus perpetuated by society. The influence of colonialism lingers in numerous institutions and structures of society, such as educational institutions, governmental policies, or economic practices. From within these structures, the effects of colonialism ooze into everyday life, having transformational effects on the individual and thus greatly impacts communities. Canada is no exception; the warped value-base of colonialism affects ‘mainstream’ Canadians and Indigenous people differently. It is important to note that privilege can be as simple as a lack of additional obstacles and thus not always easy to identify. While all age groups of Indigenous peoples face unique challenges with respect to their unique situations, mainstream Canadians are unknowingly privileged by the same structures that perpetuate colonialism.

The impact of colonization on the mental health of Indigenous peoples of Canada is immeasurable. Troubling statistics reveal the overrepresentation of incarcerated Indigenous people. While the Indigenous Peoples make up only five percent of the Canadian population, they represent over 30 percent of Canada’s incarcerated population (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2020). In addition, the rates of suicide among the Indigenous populations are three times higher than those of non-Indigenous Canadians (Kumar & Tjepkema, 2019). Such glaring and alarming problems are all profoundly attributed to mental health.

Impact of Colonization on Indigenous Children

The effects of colonialism on Indigenous children are devastating. In Canada, 7.7 percent of all children under the age of 14 are of Indigenous heritage, yet 52.2 percent of them are currently in care, under Canada’s child protection services (Government of Canada, 2020). The connection between colonial practices and the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care may not be obvious but it does exist.

To expose the connection, a historically corrective lens must be applied. While it is not inaccurate to date the colonization of Indigenous people of Canada back to the first settlers landing, colonization must neither be seen as a single act nor be pinned down to a single event In Canada; colonization generally can refer to the formation of permanent settlements established by French and British colonizers upon rightful land of the Indigenous Peoples having previously inhabited it. Colonization, of course, did not end there. One of the major components of colonization is the perpetuation of colonial structures and thus the value systems they support. To achieve this, the Indigenous culture was essentially criminalized (Bartlett, 1978). To ensure a culture is not passed on to subsequent generations, however, one must target the youngest generations. The infamous Residential School System would serve this function from 1834 to 1996. The stated goal of the residential schools was to deprive Indigenous children of their cultural heritage by separating them from their cultural community and families and teaching them their native language and customs were uncivilized and wrong. Most attendees also experienced physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse (Corrado & Cohen, 2003). As a result, residential school survivors have commonly been burdened with unemployment, poverty, familial violence, substance abuse, and incarceration (Stout & Kipling, 2003). Many survivors were not equipped for parenting, carrying traumatic past experiences from their own childhood. This has allowed for intergenerational trauma, a result of the modus operandi of colonization in displacing children from their families.

Impact of Colonization on Indigenous Youth

Colonization also continues to have a significant, life-altering effect on Indigenous youth. In Canada’s youth justice system, Indigenous youth now account for 43 percent of those in the correctional system despite representing only 8.8 percent of Canadian youth (Malakieh, 2020). Offenses committed by Indigenous youth tend to yield more serious repercussions than those of their non-Indigenous counterparts (Latimer & Foss, 2004). Statistically one out of six Indigenous youth in custody are “suspected or confirmed” to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (Malakieh, 2020, p. 11). Perhaps the most distressing findings among researchers is that one in five Indigenous youth is reported to have attempted suicide while in custody (Latimer & Foss, 2004). Although these serious problems may seem unrelated to the colonization of Canada, a closer look reveals patterns linking the two.

To begin with, the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in Canada’s correctional system is a clear indicator of a bigger problem. Tracing backwards through the history of Canada’s residential school system, multiple studies have found that intergenerational residential school attendance is a strong determinant of mental health problems, such as depression, substance abuse disorders, and suicidal ideation (Wilk et al., 2017). These mental health problems have not simply disappeared over the generations. Intergenerational trauma is trauma passed down from one generation to the next, through parental inabilities to cope with trauma caused by the loss of traditional language, culture, familial ties, as well as inadequate education (Kaspar, 2014). Interestingly, children of residential school survivors have more mental health issues such as substance abuse and suicide than the generations who attended the residential schools (Hackett et al., 2016). Given that the schools were a major component of colonization in Canada, the detrimental mental health of Indigenous youth is a direct consequence of colonial practices.

Impact of Colonization on Indigenous Adults

Like Indigenous youth, Indigenous adults face many colonial challenges within the Canadian Justice System and criminal justice system. There are still many living survivors of the Residential School system in Canada. Other Indigenous adults have been affected by the system whether personally or through familial ties, producing similar outcomes including higher rates of mental health issues (Wilk et al., 2017). An analysis study by Grant in 1996 found that some 85 percent of the Indigenous adults engaging in drug and substance abuse treatment programs at the time were survivors of residential schools. While these numbers may not be as high today, it is still indicative of a problem caused by a colonial practice. What is unique to Indigenous adults is the impact colonization perpetuates on rates of Indigenous incarceration and recidivism. Non-Indigenous male offenders in Canada statistically re-offend at rates of 24.2 percent, while for Indigenous male offenders that rate rises to 37.7 percent (Stewart et al., 2019). In other words, 37.7 percent of Indigenous male offenders reoffend. For Canada’s non-Indigenous female offenders, rates of recidivism are 12 percent while the rates are 19.7 percent for Indigenous female offenders (Stewart et al., 2019). Overrepresentation with recidivism for Indigenous adults is also indicative of Canada’s colonial history.

As Canada’s criminal justice system was founded on colonialist settler ideologies, not only are incarceration facilities suited to these ideologies, so too are the ways of reducing reoffending. When rehabilitation programs are created by and for colonial settlers, rates of satisfaction and success are higher. Without offender programs built on Indigenous perspectives, Indigenous offenders face additional challenges benefitting from ideologies they do not traditionally share. Without culturally appropriate structures, Indigenous adults are at a higher risk of both offending and reoffending (Stewart et al., 2019). To claim that Indigenous adults simply offend and re-offend at a higher rate than non-Indigenous adults is to be ignorant of these colonial structures. The effects of residential schools along with a culturally inadequate criminal justice system greatly impacts the psychological, and legal challenges faced by Indigenous adults.

The impact of colonialism affects Indigenous peoples in numerous ways. Breaking down its effects by age group helps organize and more clearly illustrate the unique circumstances of the Indigenous Peoples in Canada today. Colonization began five centuries ago by the British and French starting in the late 15th century, which continued under British rule until 1867. This lengthy history of colonization illustrates how deeply ingrained colonial ideas are, having been entrenched centuries before Canada became a sovereign nation. As long as a country was once colonized, so long will the impact of that colonization exist.

Defining Decolonization

To understand decolonization, one must first understand colonization or colonialism. Colonialism can be largely defined as the stealing of a rightful peoples’ land and the creation of a structure which perpetuates types of genocide and racism against Indigenous peoples (Barkaskas & Buhler, 2017). The colonization of Canada was heavily based upon epistemological racism, which is the idea that one’s belief system and knowledge is “superior to that of others” and the only type of “valid” knowledge (Nadeau, 2020, p. 73). For example, the notion that the British perspective on justice is the only correct perspective makes any other perspective (e.g., Swedish, Australian, or Canadian Indigenous) inferior by contrast. That is colonial thinking. Colonialism is not unique to any country and always involves exclusionary socio-economic values and ideology. Many countries have colonial histories. Some are still in the process of colonizing another country, while many others are recovering from colonization. As elsewhere, the colonial system implemented in Canada was historically justified by the Eurocentric idea that Indigenous culture and knowledge was inherently inferior and thus needed to be replaced (Nadeau, 2020).

Decolonization is the reverse of colonization. Since historical aspects cannot be undone, decolonization refers to the unraveling of structures within a society which create, follow, and uphold colonial ideology. Because the day to day of colonization was unique to the colonizer based on the realities of the target society and location, the process of decolonization must also differ (Asadullah, 2021). A clear definition of decolonization has been widely debated; however, the two main arguments take into account the existence of micro and macro forms of decolonization (Asadullah, 2021). The micro form of decolonization refers to more specific associations with the individual and is known as decolonization of the mind, body, and spirit. Aspects of society such as language and cultural practices are considered micro forms of decolonization (Asadullah, 2021). The macro form of decolonization refers to more structural associations of colonialism such as social, political, and economic structures (Alfred, 2009) and public institutions.

It must be realized that decolonization involves more than the deconstruction and reconstruction of societal problems. By the same token, social justice movements are not inherently decolonial. What makes a movement a decolonization initiative is for the movement to be supporting Indigenous culture and practices and aiming for the “reparation of Indigenous land and life” (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 1). The Canadian justice system requires decolonization because it was part of the colonial system imposed on the Indigenous peoples in North America.

Decolonization is a huge term that is largely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Defining decolonization is challenging because what is considered a decolonial practice is well defined and because the practices can be very different depending on the cultural group targeted. As the impacts of colonization are highly situational, decolonization must be just as diverse, as it is the deconstruction of colonization.

Decolonization and Mental Health

In the context of Canada’s justice system, decolonization delves into the functions of the justice system itself. Since the Canadian Justice System and criminal justice system were first imposed upon Indigenous peoples, its practices, and outcomes amount to colonial residue. This is not to say that every aspect of the Canadian Justice System needs to be replaced in order to decolonize, but it does mean that aspects of the system function specifically to the detriment of Indigenous peoples. For instance, many Indigenous peoples suffer from trauma, whether familial, cultural, or emotional. These negative experiences often manifest into problems with their mental health (Wilk et al., 2017).

While Canada’s criminal justice system claims to accommodate for mental health, there are many problems with service availability, accessibility, and delivery within the system. There are even more problems in the system when considering Indigenous peoples. Considering the impact of mental health within the Canadian Criminal Justice System, it is a necessary area for decolonization. This means bridging the cultural gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous mental health services, practices, and subsequent outcomes. As the mental health of Indigenous peoples is in many cases worsened by colonial structures in Canadian society, decolonization of all mental health services is essential.

Decolonization and Trauma-Informed Practices

Much of Canada’s criminal justice system does not acknowledge the unique challenges and situations surrounding the Indigenous peoples of Canada. As many Indigenous peoples of Canada have experienced trauma whether personally or through familial history as a direct or indirect result of colonization, decolonization of Indigenous mental health is essential. In other words, to decolonize Canada’s mental health system, the lasting negative effects of colonialism need to be overturned. This involves the implementation of trauma-informed practices within Canada’s justice system and mental health system; thus trauma-informed practices are decolonial practices.

In order to decolonize mental health issues, awareness and understanding of trauma are essential. Trauma can be defined as the result of an extremely negative experience. These experiences commonly involve feelings of helplessness, terror, and overall devastation (Hopper et al., 2010). Extreme cases can result in further mental health problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma-informed practices, also known as trauma-informed care (TIC), are specifically constructed around this notion of trauma. TIC strives to recognize and understand the psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual complexities impacted by trauma and utilize appropriate methods of dealing with such issues. This means that trauma-informed practices must recognize that an individual’s behaviour has the potential to be greatly influenced by historical and social factors (Nadeau, 2020). Trauma-informed practices generally involve strengths-based approaches, as well as “culturally specific approaches to healing” (Nadeau, 2020, p. 82; Hooper et al., 2010). Elaborating on this, trauma-informed practices seek to avoid re-traumatization in order to ensure lasting healing and empowerment.

Part of targeted trauma-informed practice includes acknowledging Indigenous perspectives. When considering decolonization, many people unfortunately disregard or neglect the rights of Indigenous peoples to collaborate on programs directly meant to benefit them (Nadeau, 2020). The persistence of this evidences colonialism. As Nadeau (2020) argues, social programs generally are developed by social workers, whose profession is historically rooted in Christian values and ideologies as well as “colonialist views and practices” (Hunt, in Sterritt, 2019). This presents a conflict of interest, as a program aiming to decolonize from a colonial perspective will present clashes in root ideologies. While this is not to say that social workers cannot aid decolonization, without proper education and acknowledgement of this contradiction this can perpetuate the notion of a “Great White Helper” (Nadeau, 2020, p. 86). The Great White Helper label represents a need to “liberate” the “uncivilized”, effectively empowering themselves, not the group they claim to be helping (Nadeau, 2020, p. 86). This is simply another form of colonization. To decolonize this dangerous paradigm, the creation of programs must actively integrate and value Indigenous perspectives with no bias. Trauma-informed practices involving Indigenous perspectives were left out in the creation of the Canadian Justice System as a whole, disempowering Indigenous values.

Indigenous Children

Just as there are many current problems arising among Indigenous children because of colonization, many of these can potentially be alleviated through the implementation of trauma-informed practices. Many Indigenous children face multiple types of abuse. From these traumatic experiences comes the need for trauma-informed practices and approaches to healing.

While the historical roots of colonialism can never be undone, the process of decolonization must ideally begin at birth. It may seem impossible or inapplicable to consider decolonizing practices among infants, toddlers, and children, however, even early on in life there are colonial practices at work. Exemplifying this is the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Canada’s foster care system. Decolonization is not only to undo institutional structures but also to help individuals with problems ensuing from colonization. As children grow into teenagers and young adults, hidden problems may surface, meaning that decolonizing programs and practices should be introduced as young as possible. Sadly, when these societal forces collide, the likelihood of Indigenous adults having run-ins with the Canadian Criminal Justice System increases.

The inclusion of trauma-informed practices within foster care helps stop the cycle of colonial trauma, thus it is an important aspect of decolonization. Traditionally Indigenous ways of child rearing must be respected so long as they do not conflict with Canadian law. Indigenous decolonization of the child protection system can sound daunting, but that is not to say it is impossible.

Indigenous Youth

Many unique challenges faced by Indigenous youth are a result of colonization. Decolonial practices can be implemented through culturally appropriate mental health services and trauma-informed practices.

Trauma-informed practices can be implemented in a variety of methods. Currently the majority of Indigenous youth offenders have committed legal wrongdoings as a way of coping and dealing with trauma or traumatic situations (Oudshoorn, 2015). This is not to justify their wrongdoings, however, to prevent its own offenses, the criminal justice system must acknowledge the root causes of offender behaviour. The recognition that trauma plays a substantial role in the manifestation of mental disorders and substance use disorders is crucial to forming trauma-informed practices (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014). In many cases, alcoholism arises from mental health issues, as abuse of substances introduces a method of coping. The Canadian Indigenous population has long been overrepresented in Canada’s incarceration centres, thus it is imperative for the development of projects and programs aiming at intervening with mental health issues that have triggered the substance abuse, which then becomes a complicating factor to rehabilitation and re-integration. Once causes are identified, solutions can be theorized and implemented. If the majority of Indigenous youth offenders offend as a direct or indirect result of trauma, then culturally relevant, anti-colonial focused trauma-informed practices that take addiction (self-medication) into account is a logical direction to take.

Indigenous Adults

Trauma-informed practices and approaches can help heal these personal traumas experienced by many Indigenous adults. Children who attended residential schools are considered survivors, yet they carry the traumatic experiences with them to this today. Substance use disorders greatly affect Indigenous adults as well as youth. In fact, almost 79 percent of residential school survivors have reportedly struggled with substance use in the province of British Columbia (Corrado & Cohen, 2003). Frequent alcohol abuse is known to dramatically raise an individual’s likelihood of participating in criminal acts, thus putting those suffering from alcoholism at risk of conflict with the law (Oudshoorn, 2015).

Regarding incarcerated Indigenous adults, it is important to emphasize strengths rather than weaknesses when applying a trauma-informed approach. Simply acknowledging the existence of trauma is not sufficient. By acknowledging and highlighting strengths, individuals can hone their strengths to heal from trauma and prevent or reverse negative outcomes. Trauma-informed practices therefore take the acknowledgement of the impact on the individual of trauma further, working to unravel and heal past traumas (Nadeau, 2020).

Methods of healing simply acknowledging the damage of colonization and colonial practices on Indigenous peoples can be implemented. Since many Indigenous peoples suffer from trauma, whether familial, cultural, or spiritual, the need for trauma-informed practices is obvious. As the traumas have been caused by colonization, the implementation of trauma-informed practices is a form of decolonization and must recognize the colonial structures that perpetuate trauma.

Case Study: Knucwénte-kuc re Stsmémelt.s-kuc “We are all helping our children”

Over half of the children in Canada’s foster care system are Indigenous despite only 7.7 percent of children under 14 in Canada being of Indigenous heritage (Government of Canada, 2020). Furthermore, Indigenous children graduate from grade 12 at rates between 9-17 percent lower than non-Indigenous children (Johnson, 2014). A study in British Columbia utilized a trauma-informed practice for Indigenous children to combat these concerning statistics. A Canadian social worker collaborated with the Secwepemc First Nations to create a trauma-informed education system within their foster care system. This research project was named Knucwénte-kuc re Stsmémelt.s-kuc, or in English, “we are all helping our children” (Johnson, 2014, p. 156). While the system was created for academic study, it provides valuable findings and recommendations for a trauma-informed practice aiming at Indigenous children in foster care living on Secwepemc territories. Having operated on unceded traditional Secwepemc First Nations land, the foundation of the program politically recognizes and respects the rights of the Secwepemc peoples. The very recognition of ceded or unceded Indigenous land may seem to be redundant; however, when considered in relation to the colonial history of Canada, it in itself is a form of decolonization. When settlers came to what is now known as Canada, they essentially stole the land from the Indigenous peoples, claiming it as their own (Nadeau, 2020). Acknowledging the ancestral rights of, therefore, is a form of decolonization for the Secwepemc peoples, as it identifies a historical wrongdoing.

The actual creation of the project involved Elders of the Secwepemc peoples, gaining Secwepemc perspectives on programming directly affecting the Secwepemc peoples. The name of the project, Knucwénte-kuc re Stsmémelt.s-kuc came from a Secwepemc Elder. The English translation “we are all helping our children” represents the collaboration of the Secwepemc peoples and researchers united in a common goal (Johnson, 2014, p. 156). Elders also actively aided researchers and ensured that the heart of the project followed traditional Secwepemc cultural practices, which were used to create a program – as opposed to a program being created by the mainstream and imposed upon Indigenous practices (Johnson, 2014). Local First Nations individuals and an Inuit educator as well as a Métis social worker were involved in the planning and construction of Knucwénte-kuc re Stsmémelt.s-kuc (Johnson, 2014).

The project involved talking circles, respecting Indigenous culture, as well as Indigenous methods of knowledge. In many Indigenous cultures, knowledge can be obtained not only through physical research, but also through dreams (Johnson, 2014). Most colonial ideas consider dream interpretation to be trivial, therefore the inclusion of this type of knowledge-gathering is a decolonial practice.

The purpose of the Knucwénte-kuc re Stsmémelt.s-kuc project was to acknowledge the trauma, analyze, and provide potential solutions to the unique educational challenges of Indigenous children particularly in the context of child protection systems. By acknowledging the issues against which many Indigenous children in care struggle, trauma-informed practices are recommended for alleviation and healing (Johnson, 2014).

Case Study: Sunrise Healing Lodge

The Sunrise Healing Lodge is an addiction treatment centre located in Calgary, Alberta and its mission is to “provid[e] a path to recovery through spirituality and culture” (Sunrise Healing Lodge, 2021). The centre’s philosophies specifically revolve around traditional Indigenous cultural and spirituality. The challenge in decolonizing an addiction treatment centre originates largely from colonial ideologies at their foundation.

For instance, one of the most well-known substance abuse programs is the Alcohol Anonymous 12-Step Program. A quick read of the program reveals many colonial elements. For instance, step three is to “[make] a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” (Brande, 2021). This means that “God” in the Christian context is ingrained in this widely known and popular 12-step program, steps five, six, seven, and eleven also name the Christian “God”. This is extremely telling of a Christian-based exclusionary mindset of superiority, which is also an aspect of colonialism. In this case, the lack of identification with the Christian God is deemed a failure that creates a divide between those who are Christian and those who are not. While this alone is not inherently wrong, religion becomes a colonial practice when imposed on societies of another faith. This exclusion can create and strengthen trauma. There are alternatives to the AA program, as well as alternative names and cultural substitutions to modify the program, which cites a Christian God, although these are inherently biased to individuals who are Christian. Decolonization of these steps must involve replacing inherently Christian-based ideologies with ones that are culturally relevant when working with non-Christian individuals.

While as an addiction treatment centre the Sunrise Healing Lodge has been hugely influenced by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the Sunrise Healing Lodge takes AA’s 12-Step program and fuses it with traditional Indigenous, values, spiritual teachings, and practices. Cultural activities include sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, and sharing circles, all of which are derived from various Indigenous traditions in North America. Residents of the Sunrise Healing Lodge are appointed a team of counsellors, including Aboriginal Elders who focus on spiritual teachings (Sunrise Healing Lodge, 2021). This program is not exclusively for Indigenous individuals; however, it uses traditionally Indigenous culture and spirituality as a basis for healing. Each of these traditionally Indigenous practices allow for individuals to express their challenges and traumas in an open, nonjudgmental environment and form a decolonial trauma-informed practice.

Case Study: Four Seasons Horse Teaching program

Established on Nekaneet First Nation territory, the Four Seasons Horse Teaching program is located at the federal Okimaw Ohci healing lodge in Saskatchewan. The Four Seasons Horse Teaching program aims to rehabilitate offenders through physical, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual methods and practices (Martell, 2021). The program is unique because it actively involves interacting with and caring for horses as part of the healing process. Classified as a social rehabilitation program by Corrections Services Canada, the program utilizes decolonial practices in the care and healing of offenders. The Okimaw Ohci healing lodge is in Cypress Hills, an area initially historically named by the Cree as “Thunder Breeding Hills” (Reardon, 2010). In honour of the historical significance and present goals of the healing lodge, the name of the healing lodge itself, Okimaw Ohci, means Thunder Hills (Reardon, 2010).

By including horses in the rehabilitation of offenders, attendees go through a unique form of equine therapy using animals as spiritual teachers in the healing process. Attendees begin their healing journey with a talking circle. Offenders are not referred to as offenders, but “residents of the lodge” (Stefanovich, 2018). The inclusion of horses throughout the healing process is both unique and effective. As explained by Mosquito, an instructor at the Four Seasons Horse Teaching program, horses do not judge people (Martell, 2021). This helps residents to be open and honest, creating a spiritual bond with the animals along traditional Indigenous lines.

Many of the activities offered at Okimaw Ohci healing lodge involve traditional Indigenous practices such as storytelling, circle teachings, and ceremonies. Decolonization means the renewal of practices that came before colonization, thus traditional Indigenous practices are decolonial practices. Historical perspectives are also taught to residents. This is especially important as it allows Indigenous residents to better understand their unique circumstances through decolonial education and validation of their roots. Indigenous residents can then reconnect with the land, which is a traditional aspect of Indigenous identity (Martell, 2021). The acknowledgement of trauma also allows for Indigenous individuals to express themselves through compassionate, culturally appropriate means with the aid of trauma-informed support and practices.

These programs and academic study all move towards the goal of decolonization. Only by acknowledging the harm caused by colonization can healing and reparation be pursued. Decolonization may appear to be more of an intangible concept than a practice, but more and more programs and strategies prove that just as colonization was a system that became the reality, so too can decolonization.

Limitations and Areas for Future Research

Since this paper aims to educate about decolonization, certain limitations must also be acknowledged. This paper is not representative of an actual study, interviews, or physical research involving the author. Given the scope and length of the paper, the data for each case study analyzed is also somewhat limited. This paper was written as an advanced undergraduate project aiming to analyze a select few decolonial practices and inform generally about the need for trauma-informed practices within such a framework. Regarding the limitations of this area of study itself, suffice it to say that the academic study of decolonization is a relatively new area. There is a dearth of resources on the topic of decolonization and even less on the intersection of decolonization and mental health.

Areas for future research include additional scholarly analyses of the case studies looked at in this paper. Moreover, inclusion of these decolonial issues in academic programs would greatly increase the opportunities for future decolonial studies and programs. An overarching reliance on the findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is integrate decolonial practice and the connection between theory and Calls to Action, in this research would help in the move towards decolonization.


With dangerously high numbers of Indigenous peoples suffering from mental health problems, it is imperative to investigate explanations for this overrepresentation. An examination of the various unique situations faced by Indigenous peoples of Canada reveals that the remnants of colonization are still very present and real. The effects of the forced displacement of land, criminalization of Indigenous cultural practices, and the attempted assimilation of the Indigenous peoples of Canada are perpetuated in various ways across generations. Through decolonization, harmful structures of power and ideologies in the Canadian Justice System can be dismantled and replaced with decolonial practices that value and respond to Indigenous cultures and peoples. The effects of colonization on Indigenous children, youth, and adults cannot be overstated. As a common factor of these negative, harmful effects on Indigenous peoples, extensive trauma lived by Indigenous people makes the need for decolonization apparent.

Mental health is largely sidelined within the Canadian Justice System, including the criminal justice system’s failure to take the trauma of Indigenous peoples into account. As many Indigenous peoples suffer from various forms of trauma, the decolonization of mental health through culturally appropriate trauma-informed practices can alleviate these harms and encourage healing and reconciliation. The use of culturally relevant education for Indigenous children in child protection services is a decolonial practice, as it values Indigenous culture and reunites Indigenous children with their ancestral heritage, language, traditions, spirituality, values, and traditional support systems. As these aspects of Indigenous life were either damaged or lost due to colonization. The restoration of culturally relevant education is a decolonial practice, recognizing familial trauma. Creating healing lodges for the treatment of addiction adds a decolonial element to drug rehab, creating a space for traditional Indigenous ways of healing, many of which are already aligned with decolonial trauma-informed practices. As addictions are a mental health issue, this practice decolonizes treatment. Healing lodges are another decolonial practice for mental health in Canada. Equine therapy is another practice carried out in a non-judgmental environment and involves reconnecting with Indigenous spirituality and traditional Indigenous values. These kinds of decolonial practices, valuing Indigenous teachings and philosophies, are needed for the Canadian Criminal Justice System to effectively deal with those afflicted with colonial trauma.

As Canada was established through colonialism, it is Canada’s responsibility to enforce decolonization in areas negatively affecting Indigenous peoples. As many Indigenous peoples have undergone various traumatic events both personally and through familial heritage, trauma-informed practices are necessary if effective solutions are to be obtained. The inclusion of trauma-informed practices in the treatment of Indigenous mental health issues related to the socio-economic exclusion of is a decolonial practice. Colonization largely contributes to the trauma inflicted upon Indigenous peoples today, which then creates various mental health problems. The decolonization of mental health through the use of trauma-informed practices is a real, viable, and ethical solution to the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in Canada who are suffering as a result of colonialism.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does decolonization look like in a post-colonial state such as Canada? Discuss whether it can ever be completely achieved and why or why not.
  2. How does the concept of equity vs equality play a role in the decolonization of mental health?

Recommended Activities

  1. Watch the documentary We Were Children (2002) by Tim Wolochatiuk and consider the challenges residential school survivors continue to go through today both in their own families and within society.
  2. Research the response of both the Canadian government and the Catholic Church regarding residential schools in Canada. Consider whether they are striving to achieve reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples of Canada. What could be done to reconcile the harm done to the Indigenous peoples of Canada?

Recommended Readings

1) United Nations General Assembly. (2007). United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. UN Wash, 12, 1-18.

2) Nadeau, D. M. (2020). Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decolonization. McGill-Queen’s University Press.


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Asadullah, M. (2021). Decolonization and Restorative Justice: A Proposed Theoretical Framework. Decolonization of Criminology and Justice, 3(1), 27-62. https://doi.org/10.24135/dcj.v3i1.25

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Decolonization and Justice: An Introductory Overview Copyright © 2022 by Nicola Kimber is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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