• Lewis Waring

Trauma and Tragedy in Canada’s First Nations - Xiyuan Feng

A tragic case judged by the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench [“the MBQB”] draws our attention to the domestic violence in the First Nation community. In R v Wood [“Wood”], on January 27, 2018, Jonathan Wood beat his wife, Kathleen Wood, intermittently over a span of hours after an alcohol party until she passed away. When this tragedy happened, Mr. Wood was still under two probation orders which required that he have no contact with Mrs. Wood and that he not return to St. Theresa Point until completing an alcohol treatment program.


In Wood, both Kathleen and Jonathan were from St. Theresa Point First Nation, a community impacted by colonialism. Jonathan grew up in a family with domestic violence and substance abuse. He was addicted to alcohol at age 11. While Jonathon accomplished an alcohol treatment program, the sobriety did not last. After marrying Kathleen, Jonathan was convicted of assaulting Kathleen four times in a trend of increasing severity. The assaults of Kathleen always occurred after a verbal argument when Jonathan was intoxicated. He knew that the alcohol was his “demon” and took programs to overcome it when he was in custody. However, none of them were effective.


In Wood, the MBQB eventually sentenced Jonathon to eighteen years’ incarceration for manslaughter. Even though one of the migrating factors under section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code [“the Code”] requires a sentencing judge to pay special attention to the circumstance of Aboriginal offenders, this mitigating factor in Wood was outweighed. The MBQB provided the following reasons:

  • the accused wilfully breached the probation orders and placed his wife in danger because it occurred when he was sober;

  • the accused severely breached the social value of the trust of marriage. He took advantage of the nature of the victim, who stuck with their marriage regardless of the domestic violence. The reliance as such is not uncommon among victims of domestic violence. Specifically, the isolation of an Aboriginal community is a barrier for Aboriginal women to escape or gain the information to heal their husbands and themselves. The sentencing, in this case, may prevent the other potential offenders from domestic violence; and

  • the four kids of the Woods suffered a huge impact; they lost both mom and dad.

Challenging the evil of the accused


The brutality in Wood reflects the fact that the mental health issues in some First Nation communities may be severe. However, in Wood, the MBQB did not sufficiently consider the special difficulties faced by Canada’s First Nations.


Firstly, the MBQB stated that the accused was “wilfully” placing his wife in a situation of grave danger. “Wilfully”, which is another term for intention, requires knowledge and consciousness. It may not be appropriate here. According to research in psychology, people who experienced domestic violence have a lower ability to control impulses and regulate emotions. Victims of domestic violence may lack self-control and long-term planning. Jonathan grew up in a family with domestic violence and substance abuse. Thus, his self-control was significantly impaired. An alcohol party is a lure strong enough to overcome his self-control. Therefore, breaching the orders may not be driven by the lack of ability to control himself, but not by the intention.


Secondly, the MBQB’s decision that the accused had no mental concerns and its attribution of more weight to the severity of the accused’s intermittent beating behavior was questionable. As a victim of domestic violence and a frequent offender, the accused was undoubtedly required to stay alert to threats of danger, impacting his emotion-control system. This system relies on a neurotransmitter, cortisol, in the brain. Frequent use of cortisol can lead to less effectiveness in response to anger, resulting in a longer time and a higher level of anger occurring before a release of cortisol is triggered and the individual becomes calm. This may explain the accused in Wood’s intermittent assault and the remorse he felt in the jail afterward. When he argued with his wife, his anger increased. However, he could not cope or lower his anger internally through cortisol. Beating is a primitive and effective way to express anger. When he calmed down afterward, he felt guilt. In my perspective, it is not appropriate for the MBQB to overlook this psychological factor when dealing with violence.


Societal failure causes ingrained character


The MBQB concluded that “rehabilitation [was] a possibility” but that the accused’s character was heavily ingrained. The judgment seems reasonable, but this result can be avoided. In fact, it reveals systemic discrimination about accessing help from mental health professionals, especially the survivors of trauma. Based on his traumatic experiences, Jonathan required intensive treatment. However, he could not afford the cost as the mental health issues led him to frequent incarceration and thus a lack of a stable job. Jonathan sought help from programs to cope with his substance abuse and anger; neither was effective. With the time-lapse and increased times of failure, he gave up. The failure to provide sufficient assistance resulted in his current ingrained negative character. In my view, the longer sentencing failed “the maintenance of a just . . . society” in section 718 of the Code. Society limited his choices and blamed him for the result of his limitation.

The prevalence of domestic violence in First Nations communities


According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s [“the RCMP”] report in 2014, “nearly 70 per cent of the 1,017 Indigenous women murdered between 1980 and 2012 were killed in their own homes”. In the specific case of the Woods, all women, Jonathan’s mother, his wife, and his sister-in-law, were victims of domestic violence. Since some isolated communities are hard to contact, no knowledge exists about exactly how many women are experiencing domestic violence and who will be the next Kathleen Wood.


However, in the Aboriginal culture, women and men are treated equally. Aboriginal communities are taught that women had equal power. Men and women are responsible for different affairs, and they respect and honor one another. In the legends of creation, women played a crucial part. For example, in an Ojibway and Cree legend, a woman is responsible for caring for the earth. Unfortunately, after the contact with European culture, the value of Aboriginal women was undermined, especially after the residential school system. Aboriginal women were even prevented from voting for a while, which removed some of their decision-making power. In ways such as this, original Aboriginal cultures were broken, and the demeaning image of Aboriginal women resulted in domestic violence.


But why cannot women escape from domestic violence? The disproportionately low amount of shelters and assistance for Aboriginal women is one of the barriers. The lack of societal support for women in vulnerable positions may “encourage” women to stay in their marriage even while suffering domestic violence. In Manitoba, 63 First Nations like St. Theresa Point share only five women’s shelters due to insufficient government funding. Indigenous women were forced to bear domestic violence partially because of the lack of choices and advice about what they can do regarding domestic violence. Offenders are furthermore reinforced by this fact and thus continue the abusive performance. Additionally, even though a wife loves her husband, she, without professional knowledge, cannot help with her own and her husband’s mental issues.


What Is the Influence on Mr. Wood’s Children?


The Woods have four children. However, their children may experience verbal and physical abuse in their family and observe their father’s incarceration for a long time to come. They are suffering similar trauma as Mr. Wood. This inevitability raises questions of whether they will become the next Jonathan or Kathleen. What about their offspring and following generations? How can they heal their trauma? The legal field must put more effort into issues regarding the incarceration of Canada’s First Nations and the psychological field regarding coping with the generational psychological harm.


A need for new government assistance


In Aboriginal communities, mental health issues are unique because of generational trauma. In my view, Jonathan is not evil. He sought help but failed multiple times. The lack of tools to deal with his substance abuse and emotional problems led to severe domestic violence. Techniques to assist with self-control were what he needed the most. Many similar perpetrators in Aboriginal communities require similar help. Introducing knowledge about mental health to Aboriginal communities and accommodating Aboriginal practices into existing mental health paradigms and practices are what the government can provide. Moreover, Aboriginal women require a variety of options beyond staying in their marriage. Training delivered by the government about how and where to seek help and gain knowledge about living outside First Nations communities can guide Aboriginal women to educate themselves and leave their marriage if necessary.


A role for Aboriginal communities


Aboriginal communities created a splendid history and culture which aimed to cherish the value of women and equally treat both genders. However, colonialism led to one or two generations of First Nations without training of their cultural values. Resuming their educational system to teach adults, especially those who missed their learning opportunities previously, is an important step to help realize women’s value and reduce domestic violence. More importantly, incorporating a modern context into old stories ought to be considered. In this post-residential-school era, using traditional stories to cure people and empower them to face and solve trauma can be a helpful, long-term objective.


In addition, cooperating with the Canadian government and accommodating some Western techniques regarding mental health in the Aboriginal context is another suggestion. Such an integration requires more conversations between the government and Aboriginal communities. Therefore, strong leadership in Aboriginal communities may be helpful.