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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It is really hard if you don’t feel like you belong in this world

Rosie Dransfeld - Gemini award-winning Edmonton-based independent documentary filmmaker

In the past five years I’ve been working on various documentaries about Aboriginal people who live in urban settings. The first film, which won a Gemini in 2010, was Broke: a portrait of a pawnshop, the bank of the poor. Available on DVD at

This year I completed Who Cares, which features the dangerous and gritty world of street prostitution. The video is available at

At the end of next year, Antisocial Limited will be released. It is the story of an Aboriginal man, an ex-convict, who is struggling to start an all-Native construction company to beautify his down and out neighbourhood.

The levels of poverty, dysfunction and despair in the communities I visited are alarmingly high. On a daily basis they face racism and contempt. In the medical system they are often treated as second-class citizens, turned away too easily or have to endure longer waiting times. Distrust and alienation are consequential. “You cannot trust the white man.”

“It is really hard if you don’t feel like you belong in this world.”
This was the response from Shelly, a 40-year-old Aboriginal woman from Edmonton, when I asked her why she never tried to escape the vicious cycle of drug abuse and prostitution.

Shelly is one of the main characters in the documentary Who Cares. The film features the plight of street prostitutes. About 70 percent of the women in the sex trade are Aboriginal. They experience abuse from all sides: johns, drug dealers, pimps, and the other girls. The police harass and arrest them. The fines for soliciting and communicating for the purpose of prostitution are high. The only way for the women to pay them off so they don’t end up in jail is to go back on the streets to sell their bodies.  Every day is a struggle for survival. Impoverished and homeless, they are living in a war zone, with nowhere to go.

Most of the women and teenagers I interviewed during research and production of the documentary have been sexually abused as children. They often suffer from posttraumatic stress order, addictions, diabetes, STIs, TB and hepatitis, to name a few. 

Not only do these women feel ostracized within their communities but also by the medical system. I’ve heard many stories of doctors and nurses making racist comments, and morally condemning the women. Hence the levels of distrust and alienation towards the medical profession are very high.

Most likely the women will only see a doctor if they are gravely ill. Being homeless and disconnected from family and friends, it is impossible for them to follow up with treatment plans and make lifestyle changes. There are some efficient programs available to get women off the streets for the first 72 hours, but not much is there to guide them through the drastic adjustments they need to make to get out of their high-risk lifestyle. In addition, treatment for mental illnesses, e.g. FASD and posttraumatic stress disorder, is barely available and often hopelessly underfunded.

It seems that Western Medicine often fails to reach the Aboriginal patient. There is a total disconnect between the Western and the Native culture. Whereas Western Medicine focuses on directly related obvious causes of a disease, Native Medicine has a far more holistic approach. Despite the desperate damage to their communities and family bonds, most urban Aboriginals are still connected with their culture and the knowledge that you can only heal a body if you heal the soul.

If we want to reach out to the Aboriginal community, we need to respect their culture, treat them as responsible and knowledgeable human beings. We need to be humble, listen and take time.  Ideally we have to aim for synergy. We learn from them and they learn from us. Our Western medicine has a lot of flaws and in the long run I am convinced that we will benefit more from the Aboriginal community and its approach to healing than the other way around.

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