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Kindness, consent, healing: Therapeutic touch and First Nations

May 24, 2021  By Damian John

Photo: @ jeanClaude / Adobe Stock

As a First Nations man, this opinion is mine and is not representative of what all First Nations in this country think about touch, or how they relate to it. It’s important for me to say this, because all too often, a person of a particular ethnicity is seen as the mouthpiece of the whole.

I was once a full-time Registered Massage Therapist in British Columbia and practised for a decade all over the province. Therapeutic touch was my way of living and I genuinely enjoyed helping people through creating a quality therapeutic space. It was well through my career –about five years – when something just “clicked” into place and the profound nature of touch sparked my interest enough to look into the studies, reflect, read and converse.

I was deeply moved by articles that spoke to addiction issues and how early attachment to our caregivers was incredibly influential in the development of our health and well-being as adults. We’re far likelier to be happy, healthy, content and well-adjusted when we have family units that treat us well and include kind, consenting, loving touch, and avoid punitive touch. Severe addiction issues are very commonly linked to childhoods that lack care, kindness, and access to the environments of healthy touch. I have a significant percentage of my family on my First Nations side dealing with addiction. It’s so normal to me, that for a long time I didn’t even realize its impact on individuals and the community, not to the extent where I got curious about its origin…not to the extent that I could see the numbers as higher than the national average.

With all the diversity, the vast span of miles and geography that separate us, the variety of cultural differences that exist, First Nations in this country we call “Canada” deal with very similar issues when it relates to health. Emotional, physical, and spiritual health issues plague the various First Nations in this country. And I do not use the word plague lightly: Across the board, First Nations face all the health issues the average Canadian faces, but compounded. We also face the unique impacts of cultural genocide.


Yes, you can argue that most of what I say next is conjecture and extrapolation, but it’s informed by lengthy research sessions, discussions, and talks with elders. I think the healthy, kind, consensual touch that optimizes us as humans, that provides us a baseline of trust in which we can thrive, that inoculates us to the stresses of the world around us, was profoundly damaged in most First Nations communities.

Through colonization and the systems of oppression that arose, such as residential school, the delivery system through which healthy, kind, and consensual touch is learned, primarily family and community, was devastated. Children were systematically removed from their communities, put into militaristic style residential schools, punished for their very identities, and categorically denied a healthy form of touch. We rely on touch for physical growth, emotional stability, an optimally functioning brain, and so much more.

Outside of family, it’s likely that touch existed as a function of Indigenous health care. Within these health care methods, there seems to always be some somatic component: whether it be movement, touch, vocalizations and the like. Although there is little data that relates specifically to touch as health care within First Nations communities, it’s easy to imagine massage of some variety being practiced to help individuals within the community. Those suffering from aches and pains at the very least and perhaps more imaginative uses to help with some of the more esoteric problems of the mind and spirit. Colonization included arrogance and racism that wore down cultural practices, sending them underground at best, killing them outright at worst. All aspects of culture were devastated, traditional healing practices like massage included.

There are a few places to go with this information. I’ve had my fair share of grief, anxiety, anger and despair, outrage, empathy. But what do we as massage therapists do when we realize there are deep and lasting impacts on our patients and our communities?

We can educate ourselves better on how to work with people who have experienced deep and lasting trauma. This will make our work more accessible, more comfortable, more thoughtful, and safer for all involved. It will improve our therapeutic environments and outcomes, and it addresses reconciliation in a way that is unique to our profession because we can acknowledge the recent damage done to First Nations peoples from a touch-based perspective.

We have an opportunity as a profession that works with kindness, consent, and healing as it baselines. Any individual, from any cultural background has the possibility of having had the experience of the trauma that comes from a lack of touch or from violent touch. With thought and caring, we can provide therapeutic spaces that invite people into the experience of touch that is healing. In order to do this right, we must consistently work to better our presence with a patient and become better listeners. We must work at becoming trauma informed and then focus on healing centred engagement.

Cultural genocide, genocide, trauma, violence – these are the complex realities we encounter as individuals and as professionals. This is not a problem we can “fix” as massage therapists. What massage therapists can do is engage with empathy, curiosity, and kindness, and realize that we are uniquely situated to address those places in our bodies and our broader collective that respond to the deep power of touch. When massage therapy does its best work, it has the power to help heal trauma and pain, to help people engage with the joy that is being alive, and to make this world ultimately, better.

Damian lives in British Columbia where he grows food, creates art, and wanders the wilds. He was a massage therapist for over a decade and now works with the Registered Massage Therapists Association of B.C. as a podcaster and First Nations health advocate. He wants his life to be one engaged with beauty and creativity and hopes that for others, always. 

This story was originally published in the Fall 2020 edition of Massage Therapy Canada, and published online 11/2020.

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