Confronting the hidden legacy of residential schools

| February 18, 2011

In an attempt to discuss the impact of residential schools on the families of survivors and strategies for the future, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is opening a national intergenerational conference next week in Winnipeg. It is the first intergenerational event on the issue that is First Nations-led.

Speakers and attendees are expected from across the country to attend workshops from Feb. 22 to 24 on the state of living for First Nations, looking at subjects including prison populations, school dropout rates, gang membership and substance addiction, and how these problems have the single thread of residential schools running through them. The importance of healing and the opportunities for justice are also to be discussed.

The fallout left by the schools has scarred generations of First Nations peoples, and Joanne Henry, executive director of the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools (CAIRS) in Whitehorse, Yukon, has witnessed this firsthand in her work with survivors.

"The legacy of the schools is over 50 years, we've got generations upon generations of residential school history that we have to heal from. Our parents weren't given the opportunity to learn how to be parents. Therefore, we weren't given the opportunity to learn how to be parents either," said Ms. Henry, in an interview with rabble.ca.

Dedicated to helping the healing incurred this type of historical trauma, Dr. Eduardo Duran, a clinical psychologist and author of The Soul Wound explains that he has found a clear relationship between residential schools and trauma. He is a keynote speaker at the conference.

"It is well known that the boarding school model was developed in order to extricate culture from Native people. The manner in which this was done was violent and thus traumatic... If trauma is not grieved and healed, this is passed on to the children and their children. This transmission can be through behavior patterns, spiritually and genetically."

Ms. Henry reports seeing increased addiction issues with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement because survivors have been recounting their school experiences more frequently in recent years.

"There is a lot of alcohol and drug addiction and it seems to have come out a lot more with the CEP [common experience payment] and more with the IAP [independent assessment process] where you actually talk about your experience in residential school," she said.

"I know one lady, in particular, she did not drink for over 30 years and when she did her IAP she started. So it has a devastating effect. It's not a simple thing to go through. For support afterwards, you can go for counseling, but to actually have a support system in place -- there is nothing like that."

Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, is another speaker at the conference. In conversation, he explains how addiction works. "Addiction is always a response to deep emotional pain, to trauma. It's an attempt to soothe the pain of trauma. The residential school traumatized not only individuals but several consecutive generations; in fact, it traumatized an entire people. When that happens, abuse becomes endemic and is passed on from one generation to the next. As abuse is passed on, so is addiction."

When facing an addiction, Dr. Maté, explains that the first action a person must take actually consists of three steps that must be taken together, a message he wants to discuss at the conference.

"Addicted people must have the courage to accept that they are addicted, that their lives are out of control and that their addiction has multiple negative consequences for themselves and for people close to them. But they also need to recognize at the same time that it's not their fault, it's nothing they chose deliberately but was their way of coping with stress and deep emotional pain," he said.

"And finally, they need to own the problem -- while it's not their fault, it is their responsibility. That is, no matter what the cause of the addiction, only the addicted human being can take responsibility for liberating themselves from its chains."

Western medicine has not widely acknowledged the role of historical trauma, such as the residential school legacy, in relation to illness, and healing from historical trauma has been slow.

Dr. Duran said that without understanding, there is no validation for the pain that people feel.

"In most Western diagnostic procedures the patient is pathologized and their historical context is ignored for the most part. What this tells the person is that they are sick and defective, which can then become a form of identity that takes over their lives."

This points to why The Hidden Legacy conference can have such a positive impact.

"There is strength in numbers, there is power is recognizing that one is not alone, in seeing that the problem is a historical one whose consequences need to be confronted by mutual support and by a common struggle to gain justice. And there is relief in hearing the experience of other people, in telling one's own story, and in learning from one another's strengths and successes," says Dr. Maté.

Joanne Henry also sees the strength in such a gathering. "Anything that deals with residential schools, if we're given the time and the courtesy to look into it and get learning tools from it, will help residential school survivors and be beneficial."

CAIRS, a community resource for residential school survivors in Whitehorse, can be reached at 1-867-667-2247.

Noreen Mae Ritsema is an intern with rabble.ca.

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