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Editorial: One man's trauma says much about First Nation life in Canada

Katy MacEwan, an elder from Membertou First Nation, performed a smudging ceremony at the start of a recent Overdose Awareness Day event, while one of the Membertou drummers performed the honour song.
Katy MacEwan, an elder from Membertou First Nation, performed a smudging ceremony at the start of a recent Overdose Awareness Day event, while one of the Membertou drummers performed the honour song.

Almost two weeks ago in a Sydney, N.S. courtroom, Gary Christmas was given a suspended sentence and probation for three years. He had pleaded guilty to possession for the purpose of trafficking of Percocet and hydromorphone pills.

The judge in the case wrote that there were clear signs that Christmas was a good candidate for rehabilitation, saying Christmas was in treatment and, “He accepted responsibility. He apologized to the court and importantly, to his community. He showed remorse. He said he was ashamed and explained the extreme impact drugs had on his actions.”

But what should be earthshaking about the case is neither the crime nor the punishment.

Related: Membertou man sentenced for drug offence

It is Mr. Christmas’ life as an Aboriginal male on a reserve in Canada.

“Mr. Christmas advised that he had his first sip of beer at 4-5 years of age and was regularly stealing alcohol and drugs from his parents at age 12. There was a lot of drinking and partying in the house, leaving the children unsupervised. … The lack of supervision also left Mr. Christmas vulnerable to victimization from others in the community, which he experienced.”

Also part of the judge’s verdict? What Christmas has seen.

The judge wrote, “Christmas has suffered loss and experienced trauma from a young age:

“• When Mr. Christmas was 10 years old, he and friends went to a small fort they built near the Membertou ballfield. Upon arriving, they discovered the body of Mr. Christmas’ cousin, who hung himself.

“• When Mr. Christmas was 11 years old, that cousin’s brother shot himself in the family home on the reserve. Mr. Christmas again saw the body.

“• When Mr. Christmas was 12 years old, his uncle was charged and convicted of beating a man to death in his home, again on the reserve.

“• When Mr. Christmas was 22 years of age, Mr. Christmas’ best friend was stabbed to death on the reserve.

“• When Mr. Christmas was 23 years old, another cousin hung himself in his home on the reserve. They were described as like brothers and Mr. Christmas named his child after this cousin.

“• Later that same year, in 2005, that cousin’s father killed himself in the same spot.

“• Mr. Christmas attempted suicide in 2012. 

“• And Mr. Christmas’ partner has children with a former partner. In 2014, that former partner hung himself. Mr. Christmas found him and cut him down.”

Gary Christmas is 35 years old.

The judge wrote: “It is hard to imagine another Canadian community in which this timeline would exist, other than within a First Nation.”

How does anyone survive that sort of experience unscathed?

You cannot even imagine walking in his shoes. You cannot imagine your children walking in his shoes.

But you could stop for a moment and think about it, and think about what this country has to do for all of its citizens to move forward.

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