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How Residential School Fuelled Inter-generational Trauma

Updated on December 16, 2017


The impacts of colonization are evident across all aspects of the indigenous people’s wellbeing and health. This includes the spiritual, emotional, mental and mental health (Dickason, and Long, 2016). To a large extent, the conditions and disparities affecting Aboriginals have been as a result of government policies to assimilate this group of people into the Euro-Canadian culture. This has subsequently lead to poor health, crowded living conditions, inadequate housing, unemployment and lower income levels, higher death rates among their groups, and high rate of suicide, loss of language and, family disconnect and psychological problems.

Residential school system for the aboriginal people has been perceived to have an intergenerational and lasting impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of the Aboriginal people in Canada (Gracey, King, 2009). The objective of this paper is to identify the range and extent on the effect of the residential school system on the intergenerational trauma among the Aboriginal people.

Overview of the Aboriginal People in Canada

The word Aboriginal people is a collective name used in reference to the Canadian inhabitants to elude the confusion aroused after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Upon landing the territory, Columbia referred to the inhabitants as “Indians” after believing that where he had landed was India. However, this connotation is currently diminishing owing to its incorrect connection and origin on colonizer policies. Nonetheless, there are still some communities that are still utilizing the name “Indians” in reference to this community though on an individual basis, rather than a collective one. The term “native” is also sometimes used though it is regarded as uncivil (Burnett and Read, 2016).

“Aboriginal People” has been popularly used as a collective name for the Metis, Inuit, and the First Nations (Indians). Moreover, it has been widely adopted by various national groups and the government in categorizing these groups of people. Furthermore, these people have been officially recognized by the government which has also recognized their international legal rights (Dickason, and Long, 2016).

Both historical and contemporary aboriginals in Canada can further be divided into ten cultural areas. Arctic, subarctic, Northwest Coast, Plateau, Plains, Northeast, Southwest, Southeast, Great basin, and California. However, it should be noted that only the first six areas are found within Canadian borders. The basis of these areas is on linguistic divisions that were defined in 1910 by a renown linguist and ethnologist while heading the anthropology department at the Geological Survey of Canada (Burnett and Read, 2016).

The Impact of Residential School System on the Inter-generational Trauma

Residential school is an education system that was deployed by the Canadian government from 1880s to 1980s where children from the native communities were sent to boarding schools run by churches such the Roman Catholic, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian churches and Canada church of Unity. Although the core goal of this initiative was to ensure that children of the Native population received the necessary education, the system also served to eliminate the culture of the indigenous people from Canada by alienating children from their families and by extension on their tradition. According to the government and religious players, the Indians were perceived to be people who lacked proper religion. They also lacked a civilized spirit, though and thus needed to be turned into responsible adults in the society (Partridge, 2010).

The idea was to break the chain of transmission and hence; boarding schools for natives were kept away from their parents and families. Parents of the affected children were not allowed to visit while these children were not given time or break to visit their families. The government also instituted laws for every native child belonging to the Indian, Inuit and Metis to attend these schools. This forceful separation of children from their families caused a lifelong psychological distress. Furthermore, the kind of education they were subjected to did not include the subjects of philosophy, biology or Latin. Rather, they were limited to shoemaking, blacksmith, carpentry, and knitting, cooking and ironing. This subsequently contributed to social-economic deprivation and is the reason for the poor economic conditions experienced by these people up-to-date. In addition, the Native children were subjected into very poor conditions in these boarding schools, which subsequently affected their health and menthols wellbeing for a long time purpose. (Bombay, Matheson, Anisman, 2014). The subsequent part discusses some of the issue facing the First Nations populations and how they can be linked with the residential school system.

Key issues facing the aboriginal people in the contemporary Canada include poor health, crowded living conditions, inadequate housing, unemployment and lower income levels, higher death rates among their groups, and high rate of suicide. Concerning their health, despite a significant level of improvement made by these communities in improving their wellbeing, they still remain a vulnerable lot in terms of health as compared with the non-aboriginals. On this perspective, chronic diseases such heart conditions and diabetes have continue to increase on a tremendous level. What is more, the community is further affected by a higher rate of respiratory and other infectious disorders among their children as compared to the non-aboriginals. Contributing factors for this phenomenon include congestion and insufficient housing. In fact, the crowded living conditions by this community have attracted the attention of global bodies including the United Nations (Dickason, and Long, 2016). Furthermore, there are finite connections between social factors, income and health since the low social economic status as a result of unemployment or low paying jobs.

Aboriginal people are also known for lower level of education. A survey carried out by Canada on 2011 with the title Aboriginal Survey, only 23% of Aboriginals had undergone higher education form of schooling including high school and post-secondary. Among the key contributing factors for this include demoralizing legacies, colonialist policies, and national policy of assimilating Indians (Government of Canada, 2017).

The issue of unemployment among the aboriginal people has been a historical one, spanning over many years. The rate of unemployment for this group of people is 15% which is twice the number of their non-aboriginal counterparts. Additionally, higher incidents of child deaths and unintentional injuries have been reported among aboriginal population than any other in the region (Partridge, 2010).

Children in Aboriginal families also have high rates of unintentional injuries, drowning and early deaths from drowning and other causes. According to Health Canada statistics, Aboriginal children are three to four times more likely to die from unintentional injury than non-Aboriginal children of the same age. Similarly, suicide incidences are higher among this population than other groups of people (Partridge, 2010). Health Canada (2014) report that the rate of suicide among the aboriginal people are approximately seven times compared to their non-aboriginal counterparts. This rate is even higher for the Inuit youth which is considered as the highest globally.


The aboriginal people are a unique class of people and as it has been attested above they have contributed much in shaping the history, economy, social, and even political landscape of Canada. Nonetheless, it is apparent that some of the policies espoused by the government such as residential school system has had an adverse effect on the current indigenous population. The impact of the colonial practices and policies on housing, health, employment, income has been noted and an in-depth survey indicates that these collective factors has led to existence of intergenerational trauma among Aboriginal people.

Despite the government enacting laws to protect their rights and improve their standards, these people are still subject to various and immense deprivations including but not limited to poor health, low education, and low social-economic conditions. All these have collectively lead to inter-generational trauma that is currently evidence among these people. The fact that these indigenous people have been vulnerable to various conditions indicates that something is amiss whether it is the existing policies, government relationships or attitude of the people, more investigations is needed to unravel the underlying problem. This creates a need for the government to institute more intervention strategies especially for the aboriginal people in order to improve their standard and also assimilate them into the society.


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