Residential schools have left a catastrophic imprint on the lives of thousands of Aboriginal students in addition to the subsequent generations. The comprehensive effects of colonization are clearly seen today in all aspects of Indigenous peoples’ health and overall well-being (Gracey & King, 2009). Consequently, this has continued to affect their physical health, as well as their mental and emotional wellness. The lasting intergenerational implications of residential schooling and the channels through which it operates have proven to be of substantial significance. Ultimately, health discrepancies that Indigenous peoples are enduring have been an ongoing consequence of government policies, which were aimed towards assimilating them into the Euro-Canadian customs and lifestyle. This has resulted in the physical and emotional abuse of children, decreased educational attainment, cultural and language deprivation, and the destruction of family structures (Reading, & Elias, 1999). According to Wilson, individuals who were removed as children from their parents and experienced abuse at the hands of the authorities or their delegates have perpetually scarred their lives. The damaging effect continues in later generations, affecting their children and grandchildren (1997, p.4). With this evidence, many postulates that the effects of residential schools are still negatively impacting Indigenous peoples in the form of the numerous disadvantages they face today.
The Indian Residential School (IRS) system was one of the key tools used by the government to achieve their goals of abolishing their “Indian problem” (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples [RCAP], 1996). Residential schools were funded by the federal government, but were ran by multiple religious institutions. Unfortunately, the IRS started in the 1880s and persisted until the last school closed in the mid-1990s. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples states that even children as young as three years old were forced, by law, to leave their families and communities to live at schools designed to “kill the Indian in the child” (RCAP, 1996). These schools indoctrinated Aboriginal children to be ashamed of their native languages, cultural beliefs, and traditions, and were largely ineffective at providing the student’s sufficient education (Deiter, 1999; Friesen & Friesen, 2002). Despite the fact that not all Aboriginal children at residential schools experienced abuse, many children experienced severe, relentless bullying and physical and sexual abuse. In addition, several children witnessed their peers being seriously maltreated, which in turn created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the school (Claes & Clifton, 1998; Royal Commission, 1996). The children often did not understand why they were being punished; in many cases, they had not yet learned English and thus were unable to comprehend explanations spoken in English (Royal Commission, 1996). Beginning in 1920, the Indian Act mandated that Aboriginal children must be enrolled in residential schools. If the law were enforced to its full extent, children could be forcefully removed from their homes, and if their parents resisted, they would be subject to fines or imprisonment (Government of Canada 1920). Some academics have concluded that terms like cultural genocide and ethnocide are appropriate for this inhumane treatment of the Indigenous peoples (Assembly of First Nations (AFN) 2002). Hudson and MacDonald state that the very essence of the residential schooling system was “the attempted destruction of Indigenous languages, religions, and cultures in Canada” (2012, p.4).
In Canada, it is estimated that 150",000 Indigenous children attended residential schools, with 80",000 former students currently alive as of 2012 (Wilson 1997; Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), 2012). As of 2001, nearly 50 percent of self-identified North American Indians in Canada reported that at least one family member attended residential school (Statistics Canada, 2003). Furthermore, the impact of the residential schools has been transmitted from grandparents to parents to children. This legacy from one generation to the next has attributed to social problems, poor health, and low educational success rates in Indigenous communities today” (TRC, 2012, p. 1). There are various processes by which the experience of trauma in one generation can influence subsequent generations, and these processes have been noted in literature related to Aboriginal health, and have been seen among Aboriginal peoples living with the historical, collective traumas experienced by their ancestors (Evans- Campbell, 2008; Gone, 2009; Whitbeck, Adams, Hoyt, & Chen, 2004). In regards to historical trauma, the build-up of collective stressors and trauma that began in the past may contribute to an increased risk for negative health and social outcomes among contemporary Aboriginal peoples (Walters et al., 2011). This research goes to show the lasting intergenerational effects that the residential school system had on the Indigenous community’s well-being.
The lasting impact of Indian Residential Schools has been exacerbated by many factors, one of which is parental roles. It has often been implied is that the lack of traditional parental role models among IRS survivors has hindered the passing down of positive child-rearing practices and has actually instilled negative parenting practices (Evans-Campbell, 2008). The sexual abuse endured by generations of children while attending these schools was implicated as a key factor that contributed to high rates of sexual abuse in many of today’s communities. This is a result of the alteration of social norms generated by the IRS, including the tendency of many individuals to choose not to report many of these abusive incidents (Bombay, Matheson, & Anisman, in press). This refusal to report abusive incidents was likely influenced by the modelling of negative care-taking practices observed in IRS. In conjunction with the negative experiences endured by individuals and families who were directly affected by IRS, the consequences of this enduring cycle of poor parenting may have exacted a toll on whole communities. The reconstructed cultural and behavioural norms related to parenting have been sustained by factors that promoted these deficiencies; these factors include high rates of trauma exposure and low educational achievement ( Bombay et al., in press). Interestingly enough, the Manitoba RHS revealed that in Aboriginal children or adults, a history of abuse or victimization has been correlated with having a parent or grandparent who attended IRS (Elias et al., 2012). Corresponding to the intergenerational links to substance abuse and pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome and other alcohol-related birth defects, it is clear that the Residential School System contributed not only to the central risk factors involved and substance abuse, but also to factors shown to be linked to alcohol abuse, such as child and adult physical, emotional and sexual abuse, mental health problems, and family dysfunction (Tait, 2003).
It is well reported that Indigenous peoples in Canada suffer from a disproportionate burden of illness in contrary to the non-Indigenous population (Adelson, 2005). Parental IRS attendance also seems to be linked with a number of negative health behaviours, which might contribute to decreased well-being among descendants of IRS survivors. For example, according to the 2002-2003 RHS, having at least one parent who attended IRS was associated with smoking among adults and youth (First Nations Centre, 2005).
As a result of the horrific atrocities that the aboriginal peoples had to endure, they are currently faced with a complex, multifaceted health problem; this is an accumulation from environmental dispossession and constant overt and covert forms of racism, all of which played a role in cultural genocide. Consequently, this has resulted in grief, anger, and hopelessness in the Indigenous population. High levels of diabetes and end-stage renal disease, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer in addition to pneumonia have been recognized as more common in Aboriginal populations than the general Canadian population. Mental health issues or issues of imbalance are emulated in substantial levels of depression, addiction, and suicide rates (Waldram, 1997). However, it is not plausible to link their current physical health entirely to their traumatic past experiences associated with the residential schools.
Aboriginal children who were exposed to neglect, abuse, and bullying at residential schools had a tremendously increased risk for serious, negative effects on language development, academic success, school participation, cognitive development, and future aspirations. In addition, they were also vulnerable to other psychological difficulties that created obstacles in regards to education and employment prospects, which included low self-concept and poor relationships with peers and adult authorities. Childhood maltreatment—that is, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect— has various effects on children’s academic functioning (Shonk & Cichetti, 2001; Trickett & McBride-Chang, 1995). Victimized children are at a considerably increased risk for declining school performance as measured by grade point average, absenteeism, retention in grade, behaviour problems, and special program involvement (Leiter & Johnsen, 1997). The greater the maltreatment, the greater the chance of developing serious and prolonged disorders (Green et al., 2000; Rogosch & Cicchetti, 2004). Anxiety and depressive disorders disturb higher order processes of attention, memory, and problem solving (Blair, 2002; Matthews & Wells, 1999; Mogg & Brandley, 1999). Consequently, the interruption of higher order processing skills hinders academic performance, which includes the ability to learn a new language, to acquire new knowledge, or to develop new cognitive skills (Blair, 2002). Regrettably, this cognitive impairment is associated with the intergenerational trauma resulting from residential schools.
Constant negative associations with the education system based on the past will persistently have an effect on the difficulty for Aboriginal youth to succeed in their academic ambitions, furthermore, the ability to believe in oneself to even set those goals. The exposure to abuse or trauma brought upon by adult caregivers also frequently coincides with difficulties such as mistrust of adults and authority in general as well as social disengagement that may inhibit the children’s ability to engage in school (Law Commission, 2000; Leiter & Johnsen, 1997). Unfortunately, the aversive conditions often undermined residential schools’ ability to achieve their initial goals. When hardships faced by students at the residential school contributed to aboriginals leaving school early, making little or inadequate academic progress, and experiencing impaired cognitive development, such factors also played a significant role to the students’ risk of a future decline in educational achievement, less profitable employment, poorer health, and diminished income in adult life (Lerner & Galambos, 1998). It is plausible to presume that horrific conditions at residential schools contributed to the difficulties that aboriginal children, as a group, continue to have in education (Barsh, 1994). Former residential school students with low self-esteem, negative attitudes toward school or studying, poor educational background, or underdeveloped cognitive abilities are less likely to engage in subsequent educational commitments. It is probable that these former students have and will continue to transfer negative attitudes and expectations to their siblings, spouses, children, or grandchildren. As a result, the negative residential school experiences faced by an enormous amount of aboriginal children will have influences continuing well after the immediate lives of past students.
Evidence suggests that the children of those who attended residential schools are also at greater risk for poor well-being. It is devastating to note that several Aboriginal communities suffer incomes that are well below the poverty line, high levels of unemployment, low rates of high school completion, and inadequate housing. In addition, 20% of Aboriginal communities in Canada still have limited or no access to clean water (Statistics Canada, 1996). This is extremely unjust; one cannot simply blame the Aboriginal communities for their current socioeconomic status once understanding the longevity and severity of the negative impacts they are faced with as a result of their experience in the residential schools. They had no control over what was being done to them as the ever-so-powerful government of Canada was trying to eradicate them.
The persisting impact of colonization and loss of the culture caused by the residential schools are identified as critical health issues for Aboriginal populations today. The present health status of the Canadian Indigenous population is undoubtedly to a certain extent a consequence of the damage done by colonialism and cultural loss defined by efficient attempts of domination and cultural genocide. Our society must implement changes in order to restore these inequalities which are evidently seen today resulting from past historical trauma. This can begin with allocating health care professionals to reach their children, not by disrupting or upsetting the current balance but rather working alongside families. Perhaps these psychosocial imbalances can be reversed through the backing of support by the communities around them. Educational systems can do a greater job in teaching students about the atrocities that aboriginal groups endured; therefore, hopefully reframing the current stereotypes and racist views. It is happening, but it needs to happen on a much wider scale. There needs to be an increase in dialogue around these current issues. The children and grandchildren of residential school survivors are continuously paying the price for what our government has done to them; they are entangled in this trauma and they need help finding a way out. They have been oppressed, abused, neglected, and beaten down for so long— it is time for them to be encouraged, empowered, and built up. It is not too late to attempt to take steps in moving forward from our horrific past; what was done can certainly never be erased, yet there is hope for Canada’s Indigenous population.
What people didn’t understand is that those boarding (residential) school terrorists thought that it (culture) could disappear in a generation, and they would have white thinking children. They couldn’t erase it, and therein lies the hope. Right there. And when that spirit is reawakened it is more powerful than anything that I have ever met in my whole life. I am impressed with the strength of culture. Even though the missionaries tried, the boarding (residential) schools tried, all the well-intentioned little white people tried . . . But something hasn’t died (Cleary & Peacock, 1998, p.102).