Counsellor Robert Hong stresses culture and identity in Indigenous healing
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Sometimes people will say racist things about Chinese people in front of Robert Hong. That’s because they perceive him as First Nations (correct) or Latino (incorrect). He calls them out, not just because of racism but also because he’s part Chinese—in addition to being of Métis, Blackfoot, Assiniboine, and French-Canadian descent.
Hong, who views his mixed heritage as a “bonus”, tells the Straight by phone that he grew up in Victoria with a Chinese-Canadian father, eating Chinese food and celebrating Chinese New Year. However, due to internalized racism, his mother kept his Indigenous heritage a secret until he was around 11 years old. In the 1980s, as he sought out health resources to recover from childhood abuse issues, he began to learn about and turn to traditional Indigenous practices.
Now a counsellor at the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C. who runs a trauma and addictions day program, he says his experiences working in health fields have taught him how culture and identity play vital roles in healing and breaking free from self-damaging cycles. In dealing with issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder, Hong says he teaches people to view trauma in different ways and see how it has influenced their lives as well as their nervous systems. But in consideration of factors such as residential-school experiences, assimilation, intergenerational trauma, and ongoing oppression, Hong espouses the importance of teaching Indigenous clients about rights, culture, and identity to mend the psychological and spiritual damage that colonization wrought upon First Nations people.
“Aboriginal people need the opportunity to learn about their culture and to practise it as part of the repair,” he says. “Because on some level, we have been brainwashed to see that our culture and who we were before colonization was inferior and that somehow we’re inferior.”
But he also extends his healing practices to non-Indigenous people, such as through his Gay Warriors talking circle, which incorporates First Nations traditions but is open to all two-spirit and queer men of all ethnic backgrounds.
Healing, he points out, does not discriminate.
“When you’re working with spirit, there is no race,” he says. As someone who has taken 12-step programs and gone through recovery, his message to anyone facing struggles is simple and strong: “You can make it.”
He says ongoing efforts are needed to undo the homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia that European colonists imposed upon First Nations societies, which had previously accepted and integrated gender and sexual diversity.
“Even though we’ve gotten back some of our culture, it’s still a fight to get the Christian point of view about homosexuality and transgenderism out of our culture,” he says.
Although he may currently be working in health fields, he says he still draws upon his fine-arts training as a graduate of Emily Carr University of Art + Design in everything from critical thinking and database creation to making posters.
In fact, Hong is also the founder of Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival, which celebrated its 20th edition and opened the Sum Gallery in Chinatown this year. Despite not being with the organization any longer, he’s “really happy” seeing how the festival has flourished.
“When you put something in a show amongst other people for other people to see and if you’re of a different ethnic group or whatnot, then our perspectives and our issues get a voice,” he says.More