“Where are the Children? Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools” is an online exhibit of photographs largely from public and church archival collections, compiled in the hope that it will bring healing and restore balance in Aboriginal communities by encouraging children to ask, and parents to answer, important questions about their family histories.
How many of us can understand what it must have been like to have been taken away from your families and placed in institutions where we didn’t understand the language and were made feel ashamed of our culture?
The exhibit attempts to provide a context for understanding the intergenerational effects of trauma.
The Aboriginal children who attended and lived through the residential school system are now known as Survivors, a term that tragically acknowledges the many children who did not survive the school experience. Approximately 85,000 Survivors are still alive today… In the early 1990s, an estimated 287,350 intergenerational survivors were living across Canada, both on- and off-reserves. Intergenerational survivors have been indirectly affected by the residential schools because they were raised by people who had been so badly abused – physically and emotionally – and these people were, at times, unable to parent their own children. In fact, the lack of parenting skills is one of the most profound outcomes of the residential school system. It is perhaps one of the most inevitable outcomes, too, because of the extremely negative social conditioning of residential school students.
The unresolved trauma of Aboriginal people who experienced or witnessed physical or sexual abuse in the residential school system is passed on from generation to generation. The ongoing cycle of intergenerational abuse in Aboriginal communities is the legacy of physical and sexual abuse in residential schools.
The definition of intergenerational impacts and the legacy of residential schools abuse follows:
“Intergenerational Impacts” refer to “the effects of physical and sexual abuse that were passed on to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Aboriginal people who attended the residential school system.”
Please see the list below of impacts that intergenerational Survivors face on a day-to-day basis:
- Alcohol and drug abuse;
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol effect (FAE);
- Sexual abuse (past and ongoing);
- Physical abuse (past and ongoing; especially, but not exclusively, of women and children);
- Psychological/emotional abuse;
- Low self-esteem;
- Dysfunctional families and interpersonal relationships;
- Parenting issues such as emotional coldness, rigidity, neglect, poor communications and abandonment;
- Suicide (and the threat of suicide);
- Teen pregnancy;
- Chronic, widespread depression;
- Chronic, widespread rage and anger;
- Eating disorders;
- Sleeping disorders;
- Chronic physical illness related to spiritual and emotional states;
- Layer upon layer of unresolved grief and loss;
- Fear of personal growth, transformation and healing;
- Unconscious internalization of residential school behaviours such as false politeness, not speaking out, passive compliance, excessive neatness, obedience without thought, etc.;
- Post-residential school community environment, seen in patterns of paternalistic authority linked to passive dependency; patterns of misuse of power to control others, and community social patterns that foster whispering in the dark, but refusing to support and stand with those who speak out or challenge the status quo;
- The breakdown of the social glue that holds families and communities together, such as trust, common ground, shared purpose and direction, a vibrant ceremonial and civic life, co-operative networks and associations working for the common good, etc.;
- Disunity and conflict between individuals, families and factions within the community;
- Flashbacks and associative trauma; i.e., certain smells, foods, sounds, sights and people trigger flashbacks memories, anxiety attacks, physical symptoms or fear; e.g. the sight of a certain type of boat or vehicle (especially containing a social worker or RCMP), the sight of an old residential school building, etc;
- Educational blocks – aversions to formal learning programs that seem “too much like school,” fear of failure, self-sabotage, psychologically-based learning disabilities;
- Spiritual confusion; involving alienation from one’s own spiritual life and growth process, as well as conflicts and confusion over religion;
- Internalized sense of inferiority or aversion in relation to whites and especially whites in power;
- Toxic communication – backbiting, gossip, criticism, put downs, personal attacks, sarcasm, secrets, etc.;
- Becoming oppressors and abusers of others as a result of what was done to one in residential schools;
- Dysfunctional family co-dependent behaviours replicated in the workplace;
- Cultural identity issues – missionization and the loss of language and cultural foundations has led to denial (by some) of the validity of one’s own cultural identity (assimilation), a resulting cultural confusion and dislocation;
- Destruction of social support networks (the cultural safety net) that individuals and families in trouble could rely upon;
- Disconnection from the natural world (i.e. the sea, the forest, the earth, living things) as an important dimension of daily life and hence spiritual dislocation;
- Voicelessness – entailing a passive acceptance of powerlessness within community life and a loss of traditional governance processes that enabled individuals to have a significant influence in shaping community affairs (related to the psychological need of a sense of agency, i.e. of being able to influence and shape the world one lives in, as opposed to passively accepting whatever comes and feeling powerless to change it.
Many generations of Inuit, Métis and First Nation children spent the greater part of their childhood in residential schools. The abuse and neglect they suffered while there left its mark on their adult lives, as well as the lives of their descendants whose families have been characterized by further abuse and neglect.
As adults, many Survivors of residential school abuse found themselves struggling alone with the pain, rage and grief of unresolved trauma. Those who sought escape through marriage or domestic partnerships were often overwhelmed by the complex demands of intimacy, parenting and family life, without previous experience of it or preparation for its demands. Some were also re-victimized by domestic violence or became, themselves, the abusers of their partners, children or parents.
Unresolved trauma from residential school abuse continues to impact individuals, families, communities and nations and will do so until it can be expressed, validated and released in healthy, creative ways.
“Intergenerational or multi-generational trauma happens when the effects of trauma are not resolved in one generation. When trauma is ignored and there is no support for dealing with it, the trauma will be passed from one generation to the next. What we learn to see as “normal” when we are children, we pass on to our own children. Children who learn that … or [sic] sexual abuse is “normal”, and who have never dealt with the feelings that come from this, may inflict physical and sexual abuse on their own children. The unhealthy ways of behaving that people use to protect themselves can be passed on to children, without them even knowing they are doing so. This is the legacy of physical and sexual abuse in residential schools.”
(Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 1999:A5)