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Justice and Healing for Residential School Survivors

by Nicola on 2013-05-14


Justice and Healing for Residential School Survivors 

By Dr Nicola Davies


As many readers of these articles will know, Inuit society was deeply affected by the advent of residential schools. Some people had positive experiences in these schools and felt that the school made a valuable contribution to their success and their lives. However, the reports of abuse and trauma have been steadily increasing in recent years. Although there are no residential schools left open today, the ramifications of the schools on the individuals who attended them, on the families, and on the community are still felt today. Fortunately, the government and the community continue to work together for a future in which the impact of the residential schools on Inuit society will be minimal.


Traditional Education

Before residential schools were imposed on Inuit, traditional education and the community were inextricably connected. Children would learn about traditions and cultures through watching and asking questions. Every person in the community was a teacher in one way or another, teaching through participation. They spoke their home language of Inuktitut and every moment of their lives was a teaching opportunity. Hunting; fishing; food gathering; food preparation; ceremonies; games; building homes, transport and equipment; and, making clothes were all aspects of traditional Inuit education. The values of respecting each other, sharing with others, and taking responsibility for the well-being of those in the community were essential for the survival of everyone.

Photo courtesy of David Ho.


Gradual Changes

The introduction of residential schools was a gradual process, starting in the south and only later being introduced into the northern regions such as Nunavut. In both cases it followed closely on the heels of the Canadian government’s growing interest in economic concerns further north such as mining, whaling, trading in fur, and exploring for oil and gas. Working closely with the government, the churches ensured the operation of the schools. The teachers were not local and so the only language they could teach in was English. Very often they were understaffed and paid very little. Tension and frustration rose and in many cases the children bore the brunt of those negative emotions. Very often the schools were far away, requiring days or weeks of travelling, and neither the parents nor the children knew where they were being sent. This meant that children could go for months or years without seeing their families.

Life in a residential schools was vastly different for the children who were forced to attend them. These children were removed far from their families and their communities in order to attend the residential schools, many of which were overcrowded. Indeed, they were so overcrowded that it was not possible for the children to be treated as individuals, and instead they were managed in groups.


Traumatic Conditions

Alarmingly, the children were led to believe that their culture and the values they had been taught were wrong and evil. They were made to feel ashamed of their cultural and spiritual beliefs. Boys and girls had to remain separate and even brothers and sisters could not talk to each other without being reprimanded or punished for it. In addition, children were made to work for half of the day. The boys did manual labour such as repairs and collecting wood and the girls did domestic work like cooking, laundry and sewing.


Punishment was varied and often harsh. Beatings were common, as was withholding food. In some cases the children were shackled or put in solitary confinement. In addition to physical abuse, many of the children suffered from sexual abuse at the hands of their teachers, principals or older students. This abuse included anything from sexual indecency to rape. It is only recently that people have started coming forward with their experiences – see ‘Empowering Families and Communities to address Rape and Incest.’


The lack of adequate funding for residential schools meant that the living conditions were inadequate, the food was scarce and of poor quality, and there was very poor health care. Many Inuit children sent to residential schools died from an illness either in the school or shortly after being sent home. The most prevalent cause was tuberculosis, but influenza, meningitis, small pox, measles and dysentery were commonly fatal.



Over the 113 years that the residential schools were operating, generations of Inuit were affected; those who attended them are known as ‘survivors,’ which further illustrates the trauma of attending these schools. In many cases the experience of the residential schools resulted in enduring post-traumatic stress, as well as the adoption of unhealthy behaviours used to cope (i.e. alcoholism or drug addiction). Sometimes, mental, physical and sexual abuse is experienced by the children of these survivors, who then become known as intergenerational survivors. Other families have had to contend with suicide or attempted suicide due to the difficulties of the survivor in terms of coping with the trauma. Deprived of the example and love of their parents, and emotionally neglected, the affected survivors have found it difficult to parent their own children.


Seeking Justice

A lot of progress has been made in recent years to attempt to heal the wounds caused by the residential school system. In the 1990’s, past students of the residential schools began uniting for support and to obtain justice from the system that forced them into the schools. Since then, a number of formal apologies have been made to the survivors by the Canadian Government, the Roman Catholic Oblate Conference of Canada, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Presbyterian Church in Canada. After a series of lawsuits were opened, The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was introduced, which compensated the former students of residential schools for any harm endured. Apologies and compensation can only go part of the way, however, hence the need for The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was established to further aid Inuit, First Nations and Métis affected either directly or indirectly by the residential schools.


Communities such as those in Kugluktuk have established societies dedicated to healing, which includes counselling and workshops. Some support programs also provide counselling and support, as well as transport and accommodation for those who live far from the available support. Exhibitions to expose the truth behind the residential school system have been opened to the public. Former students are encouraged to share their experiences in order to educate others on the truth of what happened and begin the process of healing, as well as to open the way for others to share their experiences. With the support that is now available, survivors and generational survivors can acknowledge the past, heal the present and look towards a better future for themselves and their children. The Society for Building a Healthier Kugluktuk is testament to the huge progress being made in empowering Inuit to live in the present and take part in building a happier and healthier life for individuals and communities.

 Photo courtesy of David Ho.




Author Bio:

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being.  Her publications can be viewed at Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog:





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