The Intergenerational Trauma of Canada’s Residential Schools

by Scott Wagner

Kent Monkman’s The Scream, 2017, acrylic on canvas 84” x 126”, collection of the Denver Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist

In 1879, the Canadian government sent a little-known politician named Nicholas Flood Davin on a fact-finding mission to the United States. Davin was deployed to investigate the cost and effectiveness of the nascent Indian Boarding School system, and to determine whether such a system could be utilized in Canada. 

Made (in)famous by the Carlisle Indian School—opened a few months after Davin’s mission—the boarding school system was intended to assimilate and “civilize” Native Americans resistant to further white encroachment on their lands. Years later, the founder of the Carlisle School, Richard Pratt, stated that the goal of the school was to “kill the Indian…and save the man.” 

Davin’s report was not quite so pithy as Pratt’s remark, but the Canadian was supportive of Pratt’s idea. “If anything is to be done with the Indian,” Davin wrote, “we must catch him very young.” He recommended expanding the existing church-operated residential school system to keep the First Nations peoples “constantly within the circle of civilized conditions.” 

Classroom at the Indian Industrial School, Brandon, Manitoba, 1946

In the years that followed, the Canadian residential school system grew in size and sophistication. From 1883 to 1997, over 150,000 First Nations children were forced to endure physical trauma, sexual abuse, and cultural genocide in the institutions. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized for the schools, but the scars—and the graves—remain. This summer, 750 unmarked graves were found at Marieval Indian residential school; another 215 were uncovered at the Kamloops residential school in British Columbia. Even more graves likely remain undiscovered at other residential schools across the country.

To discuss the residential schools and how Canadians and First Nations peoples can address the painful history of these institutions, we spoke with Brad Marsden, a residential school counselor and facilitator, and a member of the Gitksan Nation.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

SW: Brad, thank you so much for joining us today. I know a number of our readers are unfamiliar with the history of the residential schools, both in the United States and in Canada. What was the purpose of these schools, and more importantly, what were the experiences of the First Nations children who were taken to these schools?

BM: The purpose was to assimilate the First Nations children into the dominant society. It was made mandatory in 1920 through an amendment to the Indian Act. That act made it mandatory that every child between the ages of 5 and 16 had to go to the residential school. It was punishable by law to interfere with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the Indian agent, who came to the communities to apprehend the children. 

Can you just imagine it as a 5-year-old? Your only connection is with your mother and your father, and all of a sudden into the community comes the Royal Canadian Mounted Police along with the Indian agent, and they start gathering up all of the 5-year-olds. I can also imagine the mothers who bore these children. They’ve spent nine months with them and raised them for the last 1,800 days and then have them ripped away from them rather horrifically. 

Then the children go to the residential schools, and they’re dehumanized. They’re told that they’re savages and told that their parents don’t love them, that that’s why they’re there. They were severely punished for not being able to communicate in English—they were punished for speaking their own language. You can imagine the trauma that went on in the beatings, the shaming, the humiliating experiences these children had to endure for ten years of their lives, and at a time when a lot of these behaviors become normalized.

Those normalized behaviors find their way back to the community. In order for these children to survive, emotionally and psychologically, they have to disconnect from their emotions at all costs. Can you imagine if these children allowed themselves to identify with every experience, every incident of abuse, every day, every week, every month, every year for the next ten years? What would happen to the child’s mind? That emotional disconnect is a self-preservation mechanism that they created for themselves in order to survive their time in the schools. 

Unfortunately, that emotional disconnect found its way back to the community. We have generations of children growing up and saying, “Nobody hugged me. Nobody said they loved me.” That was my experience as well. I had no idea about the residential schools—nobody ever talked about it. There wasn’t an educational resource—traumatized communities, they’re not going to scare their children, they’re going to keep that part of the history to themselves. 

I call myself an intergenerational survivor because I never went to the residential schools, but I was raised by my grandparents who did. Everyone was affected by the residential schools—my grandmother, my grandfather, aunties, uncles—but no one ever talked about it. Those behaviors found their way back to the community, and I internalized those behaviors too. That’s just the way it is, that’s who we are. 

Two girls in the dormitory at All Saints Indian Residential School, (Anglican Mission School), Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, March 1945

SW: What impact has the discovery of these mass graves had on the way Canadians look at their history as a nation, and at the residential school system in particular?

BM: Well, we all knew about the mass graves, we’d heard stories from residential school survivors. So we knew about this, but the uncovering of it is pretty new to Canadian society. 

I do workshops with City Hall, lawyers, law societies. I’ll ask them, “What was your knowledge of Aboriginal people growing up?” And the answers will be, “Oh, there’s one paragraph in our university textbooks that says we [white Canadians] taught them how to farm, we taught them how to speak English.” [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper apologized in 2008 for the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the schools, but where was the information in 1940? Where was it in 1962? The residential schools have been going on since the late 1800s! Where was this information? Would it have helped alleviate some of the frustration that Canadian society had towards my people, frustrations that have led to racism? So it’s pretty new to the collective consciousness of Canadians today; they just started to learn about residential schools in 2008, and then 13 years later, they learned about one of the horrific parts of it, which was the mass graves. 

Cree students and teacher in class at All Saints Indian Residential School, (Anglican Mission School), Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, March 1945

The way I see the impact is that everyone started on a deep level; they started to believe and acknowledge the experience of Canadian history, and as a result, I feel a shift. It’s balancing out. In Canada, especially in small-town Canada, there’s a huge division between the non-Native population and the First Nations population. There’s a lot of tension between the two groups. And so I see it as opening a door into better relationships among those communities. It can’t be denied that this happened—we’re starting to see the mass graves. Empathy and compassion have started to creep into the equation.

SW: What’s one question that more people should be asking about the residential schools?

BM: Why? Why was this information kept from my grandparents, my parents, and myself? That is a great question. 

I really want to look at systematic change. In order to create balance and equality amongst different races, I believe that you have to look at the system and how to cure it. I’m in the middle of reading this book, The New Jim Crow, where the author is talking about systemic inequality and how that shows itself. When we look at Canadian history, I think the one question here is why: why was this information practically erased from our consciousness over 200 years?

As a Residential School Counselor and Facilitator, Brad Marsden hosts workshops to educate communities about the history of the residential school system and its lasting impact

SW: You have a blog where you post documentaries and information about your work and the workshops you conduct, and there’s one quote on your profile that really caught my eye. It’s a quote from John F. Kennedy that reads, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” How does that quote relate to your work and your views on how First Nations peoples and Canadians should address the residential schools moving forward?

BM: I believe that a huge barrier is when people automatically go to feeling guilt or shame. I noticed that idea stopped progress in my workshops. As soon as you bring up any sort of experiences or what happened in the past, people try to internalize it in a way that relates to them personally. As a result, they think, “My grandfather was a part of that generation,” and they assume some sort of blame. When I think about that quote, I think, “Let’s be accountable in the present.” In the workshops, I always say that this workshop is not about guilt or blame. It’s about understanding. In order for us to bridge this gap between our two nationalities—our two races, if you will—we need to understand the truth. And the truth isn’t pretty. 

You can read more about Brad Marsden and his work at fireacrosstheland.blogspot.com

Categories: US & Canada