A few generations ago, it would be unthinkable for a Cree person to shout or swear at an Elder, let alone hurt or abuse one.
However, Irene Otter, the Elders’ coordinator for community programs and member of the Elders’ Council in Waswanipi, says that times have changed, and the changes have made things worse. In the week leading up to June 15, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Otter helped coordinate a series of awareness-raising events in Waswanipi, including a snack-and-social, a movie night, a visit-or-help-an-Elder day, and an awareness walk. The goal of all of these events was to start the community addressing the problem of Elder abuse and to start changing the way it looks at its Elders.
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“In the old days, people never raised their voice at an Elder, never swore at an Elder, and watched their language when they were speaking with Elders,” Otter said. “People helped Elders with whatever work they needed done, like sewing, cleaning, smoking fish or drying meat for bashtooyash – they always had someone helping them.”
Today, however, Otter says there is a silent epidemic of Elder abuse occurring in Cree communities, ranging from people verbally abusing Elders, to others stealing from Elders or hurting them. All of it, Otter says, can be traced back to the decline in the position Elders have in the communities. Today, many Elders are thought of as nothing more than someone young people can ask for money.
Even when it comes to day-to-day necessities like food, Otter notes, Elders have lost the privileged position they used to hold in Cree society.
“Before, when someone went hunting,” she explained, “the Elders were given part of whatever was caught. They were given that freely. Now, people sell the meat, because people need to eat.”
While Otter recognizes that necessity, she thinks that communities should recognize the separate role that Elders have from others. “They should just give the meat to the Elders, and sell it to other people,” she argues.
But the change in attitude toward sharing food is a symptom of the general erosion in Cree respect for Elders. The end result is disdain and, finally, abuse.
“Elders come and tell us what’s going on in their lives,” Otter said at the Elders’ Council. “Elders are starting to talk and open up. They tell me their stories, and we try to find solutions. Some of them don’t have to say anything. Under this program I see many different things. People are abusing the money [Elders] have. There’s some who are physically abused. Some of them, it’s their children who are affected.”
All of this, says Otter, is fallout from colonialism.
“When we went to residential school, we lost a lot of our culture, and the teachings from our Elders,” she said. Having traditional culture taken away meant Crees no longer knew how their society worked in the time of their ancestors. The damage caused by Indian residential schools left whole sections of communities that did not understand the importance of Elders in their society. The schools also triggered the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse, which also often lead to Elder abuse.
Otter and the Elders Council have been working on many levels to set Elder abuse awareness and action projects in motion. They are working with different entities, like Niskamoon and the Cree Health Board, to promote multi-level awareness, and they spoke at the General Assembly last September about making Elder abuse a priority issue.
“We presented it at the General Assembly just to open up the can of worms,” she said. “The silence was like a scream, when someone is living in that kind of abusive situation.”
Since then, they’ve been accumulating information, communicating with the federal and provincial governments about Elder abuse, and working on making Elder abuse prevention, detection, and intervention a part of the training criteria for frontline workers ranging from nurses and social workers to teachers. It’s going slowly, but it’s also building steadily.
“You can’t just throw things in people’s face,” Otter said. “We have to go slowly and have people admit things. I remember when I was learning too, an Elder told me, when something’s going on, first you have to name it, then talk about it, then you have to plan how to deal with it. You have to take all these little steps. You have to own it! You can’t do nothing about it if nobody admits it’s going on.”
But the real first step, Otter says, is for Elders to begin to speak about abuse – which not many do.
“Elders need to start getting back the voice that they had before; with chief and council, in the old days, the Elders always sitting there, helping, guiding, telling what’s needed in the community. But they lost their voice. Even at General Assemblies, they’d come up to me and ask, ‘Irene, can you say this for me?’ I would reply, ‘You have to relearn that you have a voice. Use it and talk about the different things that are happening with you.’”
Because so many Elders are unwilling to talk even about day-to-day subjects, difficult issues like abuse are bound to remain buried. But Otter points out that this is equally the fault of people in the communities where problems are taking place. “We help the children when something is going on in the home, we help the youth, but where are we when it’s going on with the Elders?”
That difficulty in discussing important issues isn’t just a problem among Elders, Otter points out. Rather, she has noticed that it is systemic within entire families.
“The communication in some families and couples, even adults with parents, it’s not very good. With my father I always told him what’s going on in my life, and asked what was going on in his. When he got older and got sick, I always told him what was going on in the community and on the trapline.” That sort of communication between generations is less common than before, she stresses, and it is important for Crees to regain what they’ve lost.
“There’s quite a few in the community who are trying to go back and relearning our culture. They’re not just using the words ‘respect and honour’ – I’ve heard that a lot but it’s not really helping.”
In order to help, Otter says, it’s important to provide Elders with opportunities to participate in communities the way they used to.
“We need to have honorariums for different things Elders do in the community – we have to keep them busy too,” she stresses. “We can’t just shove them aside and tell them, ‘Your life is over.’ They still have a lot that we need as a community.”
Above all, what Otter believes most is that Cree communities can change and improve in order to regain the cultures and traditions they’ve lost. As those important values are recovered, the people will become stronger and more united, which will allow them to face problems like Elder abuse more effectively. She also underlines that people who abuse Elders do so because they are in trouble and they need support and healing as well. In order to tackle the problem in a way that truly uplifts society, all of these elements need to come into consideration.
Otter concluded, “One of the Elders said that when you want to talk about something, you have to talk about the negative stuff, about what’s going on, but you also have to give people something positive too, to say there’s a possibility for change. Even for the abuser, sometimes they won’t admit it, but we can give them a positive message – there is help for them too.”