A reflection on Canadian Residential School Social Policy and the Impact on Aboriginal People

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A Reflection on Canadian Residential School Social Policy and the Impact on Aboriginal People
SOWK 651- Fall 2011
Janine Thompson, 205755
Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary

A Reflection on Canadian Residential School Social Policy and the Impact on

Aboriginal People

Canadian social policies have deeply affected the current social configuration and culture of Aboriginal peoples. Considerable history regarding the attempted assimilation of First Nations people that occurred in Canada has had dire consequences. The impact of social policies surrounding these attempts and the legacy of the Indian Residential School systems has caused much suffering to date. The recent attempts to address the implications of past policies on Aboriginal people have proven multifaceted and intensively complicated. Current government strategies and approaches have ranged from an apology, attempts at decolonization, community development, strengthening of relationships framework, to Kinship care initiatives. An overarching theme of the social inclusion of Aboriginal people in the creation of supportive social policy suggests the most effective method of healing and reconciliation.

Historical Overview of Colonization

Prior to European infiltration, North America was alive with well-developed and mostly matriarchal societies of Aboriginal peoples. These established organized and structured peoples spoke several languages, were clan based and celebrated ceremonies specific to events like births, naming, puberty, marriages and funerals. They had a highly evolved concept of spirit and spirituality (Frideres & Gadacz, 2008). With the onset of European settlers a clash of two dramatically different world views resulted. The Aboriginal people were hunters and gatherers who lived sustainably within the natural world. Europeans were continually developing their technology to achieve greater efficiency in resource extraction and attempted management of nature (Frieres & Gadacz, 2008). The Europeans assumed they possessed qualities that would enhance social structure, culture and behaviours. These assumptions led to the infliction of dramatically different ideas on the Aboriginal peoples which included the expectations of social conduct, ownership of land, religions and superior technology (Frieres & Gadacz, 2008). The opposing viewpoints did not easily merge. As European populations grew, the government pushed for greater cultural and social control. The European perspective eventually gained dominance at the expense of the Native lifestyle and continues to dominate the government of Canada (Frieres & Gadacz, 2008).

The Beothuks of Newfoundland chose to exist without contact with the European Settlers. Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Archaeology Unit and History Department shares an historic account of its First Nation’s People. In this historic rendition it states:

While the Beothuks were able to coexist with, and probably to benefit from, a migratory fishery, the beginning of year-round settlement in the 17th century meant the onset of drastic change. As the French established a base at Placentia, and English settlement extended from Conception Bay to Trinity Bay and then Bonavista Bay, the Beothuks withdrew from European contact. Lacking the contacts with traders, missionaries and Indian agents that were characteristic of the mainland experience, the Beothuk became increasingly isolated. After the middle of the 18th century, as the growth of English settlement increased, the Beothuk were increasingly denied access to the vital resources of the sea. Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, died in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1829. (Pastore, 1997)

The Beothuks were unique from the Aboriginal peoples on the mainland as those groups had extensive contact with the European settlers. Isolation from the Europeans did not lead to the demise of the Beothuks but rather the interruption of access to essential life sustaining resources.

Assimilation into mainstream culture was happening rapidly in Eastern Canada however the majority of Aboriginals continued to live their traditional ways of life in the West rejecting the European viewpoint.

The Legacy of Hope Foundation virtual exhibition sites two historical Acts and the implications of these two Acts upon the Aboriginal people of Canada. The two Acts which were passed in 1869 and 1876 were:

The Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian (1869), which called for "All

Indians to be civilized," and the Indian Act (1876), which legally established the

Federal government's right to create laws that would apply to Aboriginal peoples.

With such legislative groundwork established, a case was soon after made to

develop an educational strategy that would completely assimilate Aboriginal

children. (2009)

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, in searching for solutions to the problem of Indian assimilation into mainstream culture, initiated an investigation into American policy. Nicholas Flood Davin was recruited to investigate the American policy and to write a report. The Davin Report written in 1879 spoke about the virtues of the Industry Schools in The United States of America. The policy of “aggressive civilization” inaugurated by President Grant introduced industrial schools as its feature principle. With the loss of the buffalo Aboriginals on the western continent were no longer able to sustain themselves and the need for an education to learn new skills became increasingly necessary. Treaty negotiations promised education for Aboriginal children. These early promises became more desirable to First Nations People as living conditions deteriorated (Frideres & Gadacz, 2008).

The creation of Indian Residential Schools was an attempt to convert First Nations People of Canada to the European worldview and mainstream culture. Although the civilized culture of Canada was interested in the implementation of the schools in order to fulfill Treaty promises, they were actually designed to annihilate the Aboriginal cultures of Canada. The report stated that the only way to remove the culture was to remove the children completely from their homes and have them live at the school. The Davin report (1879) stated “It was found that the day-school did not work because the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school. Industrial Boarding Schools were therefore established” (p. 10). The Davin report created a strong argument for the implementation of the Indian Residential School System in Canada.

Aboriginals of Canada eventually became refugees in their own land. The buffalo were gone leaving them unable to sustain themselves. Small parcels of land were being designated as Reserves and the First Nations People of Canada, previously nomadic, were now being forced to live on them (Frideres & Gadacz, 2008). Left in despair the need for new skills became apparent. The Reserves could not sustain the population and therefore to have a more practical education was needed for their children. Davin (1879) postured that these industrial schools would include scholastic learning and other life skills. “In addition to the elements of an English education, the boys are instructed in cattle- raising and agriculture; the girls in sewing, bread making, and other employments suitable for a farmer’s wife” (p. 8).

The schools were plagued with complications from their inception. The number of children needing education far exceeded the number and capacity of schools created. Funding was not made available to build decent schools resulting in overcrowding, under-qualified staff, malnourishment and disease. The Legacy of Hope Foundation states:

Despite an aggressive campaign to increase the number of students, the government was determined to keep the operating costs of the schools at

a minimum. The lack of sufficient funds resulted in poorly constructed

buildings, insufficient food and clothing for the students, and inadequate

programming. (2009)

At these Residential Schools the children were suffering from poorly constructed buildings, over-crowding, malnourishment and disease. The government began to receive complaints pertaining to the quality of teaching and forceful religious instruction. Additionally within the Indian Residential School System allegations of physical and sexual abuse emerged. The problem was so predominant that as The Legacy of Hope Foundation (2009) states “School administrators, teachers, Indian agents, and even some government bureaucrats started to express their concerns. All of them called for major reforms to the system”.

Even though these allegations were ignored the thousands of children dying from disease could not be disregarded. The medical inspector for the department of Indian Affairs, Dr Bryce, launched an investigation into the schools. The state of the schools was a “national crime” according to Bryce (Milloy, 1999). In his report he found the mortality rate of the children to be between 35% and 60%. Bryce described the conditions at the school based upon what he felt was a result of insufficient funding by saying: “the consequence of inadequate government funding, [resulted in] poorly constructed schools, sanitary and ventilation problems, inadequate diet, clothing and medical care" (Milloy, 1999, p. 75). Unfortunately, the solution for this problem was the termination of Dr Bryce from his position as medical inspector for the department of Indian Affairs.

Over time several new policies were developed pertaining to the Residential School System. By 1933 Aboriginal parents were required by law to send all children who had reached the age of seven to a Residential School. Aboriginal parents were required to hand their children over to “Residential School principals [who] are made the legal guardians of all Native students, under the oversight of the federal Department of Mines and Resources. Every Native parent is forced by law to surrender legal custody of their children to the principal or face imprisonment” (The Legacy of Hope Foundation, 2009).
During the Second World War the First Nations People proved to be invaluable as code talkers. Their language skills were used for top secret coding and were never broken by enemy forces. During Remembrance Day Ceremonies First Nations people are still remembered today for their valuable contributions. Although research reveals little information about the earlier code talkers the veteran’s website refers to a Cree code talker. It states that “sending out radio messages about aircraft movements…would have been devastating to the Allied war effort if the Nazis had been able to understand what Mr. Tomkins [the Cree code talker] and his colleagues were saying” (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2001). While Mr. Tomkins and other Native war heroes were saving the world from Nazi invasion, their wives were being forced to hand over their children to the same government they volunteered to fight for and protect.

Children often traveled great distances to get to Residential School. Many times they were physically forced to go against their will. Parents who knew what was in store for their children at Residential School were helpless to do anything to protect them (The Legacy of Hope Foundation, 2009). Upon arrival the children were stripped of their traditional clothing and their hair was cut. They were forbidden to speak their own language or conduct ceremonies. Even their names were removed and replaced by Christian names or numbers. According to The Legacy of Hope Foundation (2009) this experience was very traumatic for the children. The situation at the schools only grew worse over time. As these students grew up and became parents they were ill equipped to successfully raise their children. They often transferred the ill treatment they had received as children onto their own families. “By the late 1940’s four or five generations had returned from Residential Schools as poorly educated, angry, abused strangers who had no experience in parenting” (Fournier & Crey, 1997, p.82). The First Nation’s People had not received the education they were promised. Instead they had been stripped of pride in their culture and of their ability to parent.

It became apparent that the Residential School System had not achieved its goals of assimilation of the Aboriginal people and the dismantling of their culture. In the 1950’s the schools slowly started to close down. However the legacy of the schools and the devastation it had created would be handed down from generation to generation. The last Indian Residential School did not close until 1996 (The Legacy of Hope Foundation, 2009).
The Legacy of the Indian Residential School System

The First Nations people of Canada have suffered severely as a result of the Indian Residential School System and the pain suffered at the schools has been passed down through the generations. The First Nations people were often not provided with appropriate education as they were promised (Frideres & Gadacz, 2008). Instead the boys were often sent out to work on farms and the girls were often sent out to work as domestics. Many of the children died from disease, malnourishment, neglect and abuse. The survivors had been stripped of their identity, culture, land and the ability to parent (Frideres & Gadacz, 2008). The survivors’ experiences and outcomes are remarkably similar and the devastating effects are recognizable. Though there is no unique diagnosis associated with these individuals, a general classification has been developed and referred to as Residential School Syndrome. The symptoms closely resemble Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but they are directly related to an individual’s experiences within the Residential School setting. According to Dr Charles Brasfield, in his article entitled Residential

School Syndrome the symptoms include:

…recurrent intrusive memories, nightmares, occasional flashbacks, and quite striking avoidance of anything that might be reminiscent of the Indian Residential School experience, detachment from others, relationship difficulties, markedly deficient knowledge of traditional culture and skills, increased arousal including sleep difficulties, anger management difficulties, impaired concentration, parenting skills are often deficient, a persistent tendency to abuse alcohol or sedative medication drugs, often starting at a young age (2001, p.80).

This article suggested that the current generation and future generations could heal from the impact of this Syndrome if compensation and accommodations could be set in place for the wrongs that had been inflicted. Without appropriate measures set in place “Residential School Syndrome will continue to reverberate through yet more generations” (Brasfield, 2001, p. 80). Brasfield questioned the rational of the government for implementing the Residential School System and the unacknowledged “festering wound” that continues to impact generations (p. 79). The author challenged the fact that Canada has only recently accepted its responsibility for the damage these social policies have caused and recognized the need for retribution.

Currently many of Canada’s Aboriginal people suffer from poverty, inadequate housing, substance abuse, unemployment and under-employment, over-representation in the criminal justice system, over-representation in child welfare, homelessness, mental illness, loss of direction, loss of identity and loss of culture (Frideres & Gadacz, 2008; White, Maxim & Beavon, 2003). Poverty continues to plague First Nation’s people of Canada. The issue of poverty was discussed in a CBC radio interview of The Current with Cindy Blackstock and Susan Ormiston. Cindy Blackstock is the Executive Director of The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. Ms. Blackstock helped “launch a human rights complaint to address the fact that Aboriginal children in child service’s care receive far less support than their non-native counterpoints” (Monsebraaten, 2009). In the interview Ms. Blackstock stated “one in ten Canadian children live in poverty” and many of these children are found on Reserves. She further revealed “It’s being alleged that these kids do not have the same access to health care, education and other services as children living off reserve” (CBC Radio, 2009).

Cindy Blackstock (2004) in an article called Child Maltreatment Investigations Among Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Families in Canada stated:

the average annual income for an Aboriginal worker was $21,485 versus $31,757 for non-Aboriginal workers in Canada…are more likely to live in overcrowded and inadequate housing…[experience] high rates of parent-functioning problems…62% of First Nations people , aged 15 years and older, report that alcohol abuse is a problem in their community, while 48% report drug abuse as a concern…the overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples in the corrections system…[and] separating children from parental and community systems of parenting, residential schools have had a negative impact on traditions of caring and knowledge of parenting (p. 913).

According to Ms. Blackstock Aboriginal children are eight times more likely to go into care than non-aboriginal children. She also stated “the number of Aboriginal children entering the Canadian child welfare system continues to climb” (p. 914). Though much attention has been brought to this situation, Aboriginal children continue to be over-represented in the child welfare system. The Prairie Forum Policy Summary also identified “High rates of poverty, substance abuse, and other social and economic problems have led to the social fabric of some Aboriginal communities having been damaged” (Prairie Forum Policy Summary, 2006). It further recognized the issue of overrepresentation of aboriginal children in the child welfare system. The report stated “69% of the 5664 children in the Manitoba child welfare system were of First Nations descent” (Prairie Forum Policy Summary, 2006).

In 1985 provincial legislation recognized the importance of culture, heritage and extended family. Today most Reserves have their own Child and Family Services. This however does not make them fully autonomous; the provincial government continues to be involved in all matters on Reserves. An article from the Toronto Star, concerning a lawsuit by a First Nations resident against the Federal Government, entitled Nation of Lost Souls, refers to “cultural genocide” when the province steps in and places aboriginal children in non-native homes. The province takes children without the consultation of community leaders. The article described, “It’s such a mess in the north, five Treaty 9 chiefs have banned provincial child welfare officers from their Reserves” (Diebel, 2009).

The legacy of the Residential Schools has had a multi-generational impact. The disconnection of Aboriginal peoples from their culture and their clans has been passed down from generation to generation. In an article entitled Homeless Aboriginal Men: Effects of Intergeneration Trauma, the author refers to social anomie as meaning “a feeling of being disconnected from any particular cultural group… [and that it has] contributed to poor mental health in many Aboriginal communities” (Menzies, 2009). Dependence on Social Services for survival has created isolated, dysfunctional communities plagued with substance abuse, homelessness and mental health issues. Aboriginal people have had social policies inflicted on them since European infiltration. Some of these policies have torn families apart and as a result, created a homeless nation that “has left a legacy of traumatized individuals who may be unable to function in mainstream society” (Menzies, 2009, p. 603).

The following is an illustration of this phenomenon. Harry Wilson a survivor of the Canadian Residential School System told his story in the documentary “Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada’s Genocide (Annette & Lawless, 2007). Harry was taken from his mom at the age of five and “incarcerated in the Alberni Residential School…held there for twelve years…routinely beaten and sodomized by a network of staff and fellow students” (Annett & Lawless, 2007). While attempting to escape, at the age of thirteen, he stumbled across a young girl whose body was naked and covered in blood. When Harry informed the principal of his discovery, he was told to keep quiet and shipped off to the Indian hospital in Nanaimo. There he was placed in a padded room, strapped down and injected with needles. Held for months, he was continuously told that he did not see the body (Annett & Lawless, 2007). Wilson’s life has improved very little since receiving a financial settlement. He was among the first to sue the United Church and consequently received a settlement for over $100,000. This money was gone within a year. He currently resides in Vancouver’s downtown eastside and is rarely sober (Annett, 2010).

Strategies and Approaches

The Canadian government has officially recognized the great injustice that was inflicted on Aboriginal people since Europeans arrived in North America. The process of moving Native people onto reserves and removing their access to needed resources has left them dependent on non-native society and the welfare system. Through the cultural eradication of the First Nations People we have created this dependency. The implementation of the Residential School System has further destroyed the cultural identities and independence of Aboriginal peoples. With this policy cultural dignity and pride of the First Nations People was demolished. The government of Canada has begun to acknowledge the wrongs of past policies. The Prime Minister of Canada has delivered a formal apology and implemented the Residential School Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered an apology. The apology included the following statements:

Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools System to ever again prevail. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey.

The Aboriginal community of Canada has awaited these words for a very long time. The apology was very powerful and promised to bring great healing with the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that began in September of 2007.
Current Government Initiatives

To further address the impact of the past Residential School policies a commission has been appointed to document the atrocities that occurred at the schools and to give the survivors a voice. The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as a part of the settlement agreement. According to the settlement agreement the purpose of this commission was to “tell Canadians what happened at the Indian Residential Schools, honouring the lives of former students and their families, and creating a permanent record of the Indian Residential School legacy” (Walker, 2009). Any survivor wishing to share his or her story will be given the opportunity to do so by a qualified statement gatherer. Precautions have been set in place to protect the statement of the survivor. Support services are available before, during and after a statement has been provided to the TRC. These supports include emotional, cultural and professional support services. The services are available on an individual, family or group therapy basis (Walker, 2009).

The Common Experience Process (CEP) will include a payment of $10 000 for the first year attended at an Indian Residential School plus $3000 for each additional year at the school. An Independent Assessment Process (IAP) has been established to deal with those who come forward with more serious claims of physical and/or sexual abuse (Walker, 2009). In an article from The Lawyers Weekly, Deana Driver talks about the huge costs allocated for legal fees. The Federal Government has

agreed to make a large payout in legal fees. Driver states the following.

The Federal Government will pay 40 million in legal fees to the national consortium of 19 law firms after the settlement is approved, a further 40 million to Saskatchewan’s Merchant Law Group and up to 4,000 per file to independent counsel, with additional compensation, if involved in the IAP.
There is a dispute over the fees and the verification measures contained in the agreement between the government of Canada and the Merchant Law Group. Legal fees issues are holding up the process for settlement while survivors are dying on a daily basis (Driver, 2006). The financial settlement which involves extensive legal costs could be redirected to address current needs such as poverty, over-crowded housing and overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples in child welfare and in the penal system. The existing solutions are the initial attempts to address the complexities of the past injustices. The long term effects of the extreme trauma inflicted on many of the children from the Residential Schools and the intergenerational affects are only starting to be understood. The recounting of these historical events may lead to the retraumatization of many of these people.
Community Based Policies

The ideas of decolonization and community development have been thoroughly explored over the past several years in relation to Aboriginal based communities. “There is a need to revitalize the Aboriginal community, rather than to integrate Aboriginal society into mainstream society or to further intensify its dependency” (Frideres & Gadacz, 2008, p. 339). A multitude of research has been conducted on First Nations People and further research conducted in a similar manner without concrete affects would be unwarranted. The current research indicates culturally relevant and community based initiatives are necessary to support the healing process (White et al., 2003; Turner, 2011). “Mental health promotion with Aboriginal peoples must go beyond the focus on individuals to engage and empower communities” (Kirmayer, Simpson & Cargo, 2003, p. s17). Aboriginal identity itself could be used as a unique resource for mental health promotion and intervention. Resiliency is fostered from community connectedness, historical consciousness and the knowledge of living in balance with nature (Turner, 2011).

The ACSW Social Policy Framework from the Parkland Institute discusses possible Aboriginal community development ideas. In this report the recommendations include to “work with Aboriginal groups to increase funding for and expand a comprehensive, community-based, culturally appropriate policy agenda with targets for improving quality of life and reducing disparities” (Gibson & Hudson, 2010). The report also suggests the expansion of community-based public health services for Aboriginal communities and the establishment of “an independent body with representation from Aboriginal, newcomers and women’s

groups” (p. 2).

Within the Government of Alberta’s Aboriginal Policy Framework: Strengthening Relationships, the government has proposed the implementation of a new initiative. This policy framework has laid out two goals. One goal pertains to “improving socio-economic opportunities for Aboriginal peoples and communities” (Government of Alberta, 2000). The second identifies the need to clarify the roles of the Federal, Provincial and Aboriginal governments and communities. Each goal has specific principles and commitments to action. The report states that the Federal Government restrictions on funding for service provision means that First Nations people must look for provincial and municipal support for service provision. Self-government could alleviate this dilemma but it is an intertwined and complicated process that has yet to be actualized. The policy framework stated “As self-government moves from theory to practice, the question of roles and responsibilities grows increasingly complex” (Government of Alberta, 2000). Where the responsibilities and authorities begin and end between governments needs to be clearly defined for First Nations people and in the development of Aboriginal self-governance.
The Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Report identified a new initiative of family enhancement. The Federal Government has engaged action to move away from removing children out of the home to one of enhanced prevention within family services. Referred to as the Enhanced Prevention Model, this approach encourages assistance to families as opposed to removal of children and also maintains a cultural component. This approach “ensure[s] best practices in prevention based services…broadening the tool kit of culturally appropriate services such as kinship care” (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2010). Kinship care means that a child needing placement within First Nations Child Services will be placed with a relative of the child if an appropriate family member is found. This approach attempts to prevent further segregation of children from their community and culture by supporting the existing familial structures. However the practicality of searching for relatives and assessing suitability can overload an already laden social worker. When a child comes to family services minimal information is known about the child’s family unless there is a recent, well documented, long-term history with family services. Once a family member has been located, the social worker has to assess the suitability of the environment and provide support for the relative caring for the child. There are also difficulties finding appropriate extended family members as intergenerational trauma often negatively affects numerous members of the family. An additional barrier for family members is that kinship care parents receive less money than foster care parents when caring for a child (Legacy of Hope, 2010).

Every member of society including children need to be valued and respected. Understanding the dynamics within a community can provide insight into where inclusion and exclusion originate. An article written by Terry Wotherspoon (2002) looks at the dynamics of social inclusion with Canadian Aboriginal people. The author states “It is about closing physical, social and economic distances separating people, rather than only about eliminating boundaries or barriers between us and them” (Wotherspoon, 2002, p. 40). The article suggests that social policy must understand and incorporate the lived experiences of children and family not only in the development of programs but also “in terms of the actual process for arriving at those policies and programs” (Wotherspoon, 2002, p. 103). Social inclusion is “a proactive, human development approach to social well-being” (Wotherspoon, 2002p. 54). This approach suggests social inclusion must encompass more than just the removal of risks and barriers that separate Native and non-Native societies.


Historic social policy supporting the implementation of Residential Schools and the impact on the Aboriginal peoples of Canada has been devastating. The intended or unintended repercussions of the government to assimilate and/or annihilate Aboriginal culture continue to influence social policy. The important conceptual and theoretical basis for change identified the measures implemented to support these policies and the problems and losses resulting from such policies. The strategies and approaches adopted by today’s government to rectify the damage done have only begun to materialize. The current emphasis on community based initiatives with movement toward recognition of the strengths of the Native culture and the benefits of policies that incorporate those strengths are influencing social policy. Social policy must reflect history, culture and unique community development strategies to be effective.


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