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More work is still needed to understand the legacy of the Indian Residential School system

Wednesday September 3, 2014
More work is still needed to understand the legacy of the Indian Residential School system

I quite understand why you might pass on taking the time to read our recently released report exploring the abuse that occurred between students at Indian Residential Schools in Canada (even though it is freely available at

Yes, it is lengthy owing to the complexity of the issue, and so you may not have the time. Some may also find it too difficult to read about the traumatic and disturbing experiences that were endured by children as young as three as a result of the government and churches goals of “saving the souls of the Indians” while also “killing the Indian in the child”. This may particularly be the case if you or loved ones have been personally affected by residential schools or childhood adversity, in which case, it may be better for you to skip the disturbing details.

However, even for those who may not read the report, it is beneficial for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada to be aware of the factors that contributed to peer abuse in residential schools, particularly when it has been referred to in media coverage as “unanticipated”, “unexpected”, and “abnormal”. Not only is this suggestion entirely inaccurate, but it also reinforces the notion that Indigenous peoples are “abnormal”, and promotes the stereotype of Indigenous peoples being violent and over-sexualized. It is also important to be aware how such messages, which are not uncommon in the media, can influence unconscious perceptions and promote prejudicial attitudes, even if one consciously and sincerely believes that they are not one of “those racists”.

In contrast to the suggestion that this is a surprising phenomenon, peer abuse is common within boarding schools attended by all types of children, frequently being preceded by the high rates staff abuse that are also more prevalent in these types of institutions. In many cases, peer abuse in boarding schools is the result of young children processing their own trauma, by playing out and re-enacting their negative experiences. We suggested that several additional factors specific to the Indian Residential School context seemed to have further heightened the risk for abusive behaviours between peers. Perhaps most appalling were reports that priests and nuns not only let abuse between students continue with their full knowledge, but some actually encouraged and forced certain students to abuse others, threatening them with punishment if they did not comply. As well, the explicit attack on family ties and on cultural identity appeared to have resulted in widespread feelings of shame and internalized racism, which is also known to elicit acting out behaviours in children from stigmatized and oppressed groups.

The fact that the residential school system spanned several generations (mid-1880s to 1990s) prevented the ability to heal from these traumatic experiences, and promoted the deterioration of collective traditional social norms regarding how people should treat each other.

As described in the report’s title, “Origins of Lateral Violence in Aboriginal Communities: A Preliminary Study of Student-to-student Abuse in Indian Residential Schools,” the study also explored how residential schools appear to have contributed to lateral violence among Indigenous peoples today. Lateral violence comprises a cluster of behaviours, including bullying, gossiping, feuding, shaming, and blaming other members of one’s own cultural or social group, as well as having a lack of trust toward other ‘in-group’ members. Although very little formal research has been conducted on this topic among Indigenous peoples, it has anecdotally been identified as a serious issue facing Indigenous communities in North America.
However, based on research conducted among other cultural and social groups who have experienced and continue to face oppression, lateral violence is also a recognized consequence of these experiences that can serve to be a major impediment to collective and individual healing. Once again, although some may be tempted to use lateral violence as an excuse to say that “they are doing it to themselves”, the data indicate that these are normative responses to extremely abnormal and inhumane experiences.

Of course, residential schools were not the only contributing force to the development lateral violence, as there are a number of other likely factors involved. For example, Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in Australia, has also acknowledged the insidious effects of lateral violence among the Indigenous population there, which he linked to the ‘native title process’ in which Aboriginal people are required to prove their indigenous identity over and over again. Similar processes exist in Canada in which Indigenous people are required to prove they are “Status” or “Treaty”. Indeed, notions of who is a ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ Aboriginal person are thought to be common and powerful weapons in lateral violence. For example, in some of our other research it appeared that where people live (reserve vs. urban), their indigenous blood quantum, and/or their perceived degree of ‘traditionalism’ have all been described as common issues in relation to lateral violence experiences reported by indigenous participants. These distinctions have become important to Indigenous people because of certain government policies that have either inadvertently or deliberately pitted certain subgroups of a community against the other.

In our report, we indicated that residential schools were among one of the likely numerous factors that contributed to student-to-student abuse, lateral violence, and other contemporary effects of historical trauma. It is clear that we still have much to learn about the long-term effects of residential schools and other collective traumas. It is very unfortunate and untimely that the Aboriginal Healing Foundation is closing its doors and will no longer be able to provide support for healing activities, when it is clear that there are still many layers of this complex deep rooted trauma that needs to be understood and addressed.

In any case, as Canadians, it is everyone’s job to be aware of our unconscious prejudices, try to better understand the past and current circumstances of the Indigenous peoples in our country and encourage others to do so as well, and to do our part to help reduce ignorant attitudes that are all too common and pervasive in our society.

Amy Bombay is an Ojibway researcher from Rainy River First Nation, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and School of Nursing at Dalhousie University. Her work explores how historical trauma and contemporary discrimination faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada is associated with health and social outcomes. Dr. Bombay was the lead investigator in the Aboriginal Healing Foundation study.

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