Ursula Carus is an aboriginal woman from the Siksika First Nation in Alberta. She is currently a Counselor and Mental Health Team Lead at the Pqusnalhcw Health Centre in Mount Currie. We asked her to share insight into the impact of Indian Residential Schools as part of a special awareness raising effort for Reconciliation Week.
What is your position at Pqusnalhcw, and your connection to residential schools?
I’m a Counselor and Mental Health Team Lead at Pqusnalhcw Health Centre. I do individual and group counseling. Given that I live and work in an aboriginal community, obviously then I’m connected to the impacts of residential school.
You have a Masters in Counseling. Did your program of study address Residential Schools?
In my formal education, they didn’t broach Residential Schools directly. I sought out a program that was flexible and would allow me to learn about the impact of residential schools but the program didn’t incorporate any of this directly except in a “diversity” course I took. But I took every opportunity to bring it into the discussion in all my classes.
Do you know how many children from Mount Currie attended residential schools?
I don’t know actually. Part of the difficulty of getting an accurate number is that it’s incredibly sensitive and private matter for people. It is highly confidential. We can’t just go around asking people directly. The only way you can tell for sure is to go to the government archives and seek those numbers by looking at the Indian Residential School registration lists. This is something that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada may be looking at.
In general, what do you think the impact of residential schools is on aboriginal communities?
I would like to answer this question as an aboriginal person and relate it to my own lived experience. I believe that it impacts those who have past, those that are still living, and it will impact future generations as well. In my opinion, it affects all generations because there is a memory of trauma that our ancestors have lived and this is a presence and connection to that trauma even if a certain individual never attended a residential school. We call this ‘intergenerational trauma’ and the effects can be very severe.
There are effects of not addressing this intergenerational trauma that include a disconnect of family, challenges in relationship and communication, and the perpetration of abuse. I’ve seen it affect the whole person – all four aspects of being – the spiritual, the physical, emotional, and mental. In the wider community context it affects relationships to family, relationships to community, and relationships with the land and spirit. There is impact for sure.
Do you see examples of this in your work at Pqusnalhcw?
Yes, of course. I guess from personal and professional experience I see the effects in all people in our communities. I can’t tell who is a student of a residential school or not but the effects are visible all around.
What are some of the sensitivities or challenges for addressing the trauma of residential schools?
Given their experiences surviving the abuse of Residential Schools, they find it difficult to approach services like counseling and are very wary of the institutional nature of the services. They are also wary of the role the counselor plays – it is like a figure of authority which creates fear and apprehension. I try to address this by using a more collaborating counseling approach where I create a safe space where we can explore their issues and I can be as supportive to them as I can. Also confidentiality and trust in confidentiality can be a real challenge in some communities.
Talking about Indian Residential Schools is an incredibly sensitive and incredibly private thing for many people. Often it goes unknown in families if someone went to an Indian Residential School and what their particular experience was like. It’s just not discussed.
Another challenge is what we call ‘triggers’. You can never anticipate who is affected or how they might be affected when the residential school experience is made public by a presentation at a gathering, films, or articles, etc. Any of these can trigger a person’s connection to the experience and be overwhelming. It’s very unpredictable. So we are always sensitive to that. We try to create safe ways and safe spaces to have these dialogues.
Why don’t people discuss their experiences at Indian Residential Schools more openly?
My belief, as I’ve been taught by the Elders, is that children are our treasures and our gifts. We want to protect our young ones. I think people want to protect the next generation by not speaking of these negative experiences. I think they are trying to protect the children’s innocence, their strength, and the future generations.
This is understandable but it is also a barrier to healing. We need to openly acknowledging the trauma and address it.
What opportunities are there for residential school survivors to receive support on their healing journey?
One of the gifts I’ve received in Mount Currie is the reconnection to culture. For example I’ve had the opportunity to learn to drum and sing Lil’wat songs. This is amazingly powerful to me personally and professionally. It creates a connection to community – past and present. So I think that culture and ceremony are incredibly important in supporting people’s healing journey.
There are also a variety of supports that people have. Our team at Pqusnalhcw includes me as a counselor, 2 NNADAP workers that deal with addictions, an Indian Residential Schools Support Worker, and Elders Coordinator, and a Healthy Lifestyles Coordinator. We are going to publish a “survivor bulletin” which will provide local information to survivors and intergenerational family members. There is also a new curriculum package that is being delivered in the classroom here in Mount Currie to raise awareness and understanding. People can also access the Indian Residential School Survivors Society based in Vancouver that provides legal services and counseling services fee of charge. Nationally, an Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of his or her residential school experience.
How long do you think it will take for aboriginal communities to recover from the residential school experience?
People do what they can wherever they are. There is always healing and recovery happening. No one is waiting around for the healing and recovery to “begin”. We are actively pursuing it as we speak. But not everyone is on the same path. WE all need to recognize that this is a deep and pervasive impact.
Why do you think it’s important for non-aboriginal Canadians to know about and understand the impact of residential schools?
This is important because from a personal and professional point of view there are decisions that impact First Nation communities that are made without awareness of these effects. Greater general awareness in the Canadian mind would bring greater sensitivity and a deeper understanding and hopefully empathy. It would help us move away from stereotypes and racism to a deeper sensitivity and they might shift their understanding of Indian Residential Schools and its impacts.
I really hope that people can open their minds and hearts and become aware to the trauma of Residential Schools but also to the strengths in aboriginal communities. One way to do that is by educating themselves and sharing in our collective community. There is not enough natural connection between us. There is still too much division between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.
Talking about Residential Schools is so negative that it can be overwhelming. How do you deal with this?
The perspective I work from is that there’s a lot of resiliency, strength and healing in our communities. Too often we focus on the trauma, and the degree of trauma, and the numbers impacted by trauma and we fail to recognize the strength of our communities and the recovery that is already well underway.