This research paper is going to discuss the long and lasting effects of residential schools on Indigenous communities in Canada. It is now a common knowledge that Indigenous people in Canada were subjected to decades of discrimination and segregation. However, Indigenous people who remember the residential school system are still alive and continue to experience negative side effects. Understanding what was behind the residential schools is essential in ascertaining their effect on Indigenous communities.
Origins and Conditions
In order to comprehend the full extent of damage done to the indigenious communities, it is essential to understand what residential school system really means. According to Hanson et al. (2020) “the term residential schools refers to an extensive school system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches that had the nominal objective of educating Indigenous children” (para. 1). However, there was an ulterior motif, as this education system “had damaging and explicit objectives to indoctrinate them [Indigenous children] into mainstream white Canadian society” (Hanson et al. (2020, para. 1). As such, children conversion was the original intent behind the formation of residential school.
The origins of residential school system are traced back to the nineteenth century. Specifically, contemporary Canadian government implemented policies “to assimilate Aboriginal peoples based on the assumption that Whites were inherently superior to the “Indians” they considered to be savage and uncivilized” (Bombay et al., 2014, p. 322). The government drew inspiration from the mission system implemented by European colonizers in the seventeenth century (Hanson et al., 2020). The prevailing belief was that European civilization was the example that should be followed by all cultures. Subsequently, all Indigenous traditions and practices different from European ones were deemed uncivilized. The nineteenth century’s US treatment of indigenous communities also provided a more immediate guidance for Canadian education (Hanson et al., 2020). Subsequently, Canadian treatment of Indigenous children was a direct continuation of the racist policies started by European colonizers.
Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was the person responsible for the implementation of the residential school system in Canada specifically. Hanson et al. (2020) note that it was his decision to send a journalist Nicholas Flood Davin to the US to understand how the US educated its Indigenous population. He returned with the idea that Indigenous people should be educated from early years in order to prevent the development of Indigenous mindset in them.
This premise underscored the way residential schools would be managed. Bombay et al. (2014) write that “children as young as 3 were forced, by law, to leave their families and communities to live at schools” (p. 322). Specifically, the Indian Act forbade Indigenous children to attend any institutions that were not part of the residential system (Hanson et al., 2020). All days were strictly regimented, as were clothing and haircuts. Among other restrictions imposed on indigenous students was the prohibition to speak native languages (Hanson et al., 2020). Student lived in residential schools until the age of 18, after which they were sent away.
At the same time, the living conditions in residential schools were not adequate. For example, “one of the most consistent themes in testimony provided to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was the common experience of hunger at residential schools” (Mosby & Galloway, 2017, p. 1043). Not only were children not supplied with enough food, but the quality of nutrition was also low causing health problems.
The Effects of Residential Schools
Attendance of residential schools had a primarily negative effect on Indigenous people. First, thousands of families were separated from their children, who were taken to residential schools. Even if siblings were in the same school, they did not have an opportunity to properly communicate with each other (Hanson et al., 2020). This implies that people spent their formative years without families, which would inevitably compromise their future families as dysfunctional.
Second, the prohibition to speak the native language led to the reduction of people who knew it and used it. Many Indigenous people learned “to be ashamed of their languages, cultural beliefs and traditions” (Bombay et al., 2014, p. 322). Although studies have also found that “RS Survivors were more likely to speak a First Nations language compared to non-IRS adults living on-reserve” (Bombay et al., 2014, p. 328). A possible explanation is that Indigenous people continued to use their native languages in secret or relearned them in later life.
Inadequate living conditions have caused many IRS survivors to experience physical and emotional abuse. Hanson et al. (2020) write about physical abuse being used as punishment. Survivors’ testimonies depict scenes of beating, shackling students to beds and piercing tongues with needles for speaking native languages (Hanson et al., 2020). It should not be surprising that faced with aggressive discrimination and physical violence, emotional distress was rampant.
A more immediate effect is seen in such areas as addiction issues, anger management, and suicide ideation. Many IRS survivors are noted for having developed addicting behaviours (Wilk et al., 2017). A possible explanation is that drugs, alcohol, and other substances became an effective coping mechanism for them. Another coping mechanism was anger that “manifested in self-destructive behaviors” (Bombay et al., 2014, p. 330). When people could not overcome the obstacles posed by living conditions, many had suicidal thoughts. However, suicidal ideations are also expressed by descendants of IRS survivors. Statistics show that “37.2% of adults who had at least one parent who attended IRS thought about committing suicide in their lifetime, compared to 25.7% of those whose parents did not attend” (Bombay et al., 2014, p. 324). This does not imply that all who had such ideation committed suicide.
It was common for Indigenous people who lived in residential schools to have health issues. Bombay et al. (2014) note that “IRS Survivors have been more likely to suffer a variety of mental and physical health problems compared to Aboriginal adults who did not attend” (p. 323). In particular, families of IRS survivors have “poorer general health, higher risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, as well as infectious diseases such as STIs” (Wilk et al., 2017, p. 20). In essence, subjecting generations of Indigenous people to residential schools have determined numerous mental and physical problems for their offsprings and descendants.
How the Effects of Residential Schools Resulted into Intergenerational Trauma
Altogether, it should be evident that the way Indigenous people were treated were a result of the historic discrimination of Native Americans. However, Indigenous people also carry the memory of unjust treatment with them as anger and hurt were passed down to generations. As LaBoucane-Benson (2015) writes: “as children we are influenced by our family members and their patterns” (p. 100). One such influence is described as an intergenerational or historic trauma, which implies that past events continue to exert negative influence on the descendands of survivors of those events. As it has already been mentioned, children and grandchildren of IRS survivors experience depression, more frequent suicidal ideation, and higher likelihood of substance abuse. The same trauma leads to unconscious feelings of animosity of contemporary Indigenous generations. Bombay et al. (2014) note the presence of “low levels of intergroup trust and forgiveness, particularly in relation to the Canadian government” (p. 329). Even though the government did apologize, it is unlikely that it will soon regain trust of the children of the IRS survivors.
Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2014). The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the concept of historical trauma. Transcultural Psychiatry, 51(3), 320-338. Web.
Hanson, E., Gamez, D., & Manuel, A. (2020). The Residential School System. Indigenous Foundations. Web.
LaBoucane-Benson, P. (2015). The Outside Circle. House of Anansi Press.
Mosby, & Galloway, T. (2017). “Hunger was never absent”: How residential school diets shaped current patterns of diabetes among Indigenous peoples in Canada. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 189(32), 1043–1045. Web.
Wilk, P., Maltby, A., & Cooke, M. (2017). Residential schools and the effects on Indigenous health and well-being in Canada—A scoping review. Public Health Reviews, 38(1), 1-23. Web.