Intergenerational Legacies of Saskatchewan Residential Schools
Updated: Aug 11, 2022
Intergenerational Legacies of Saskatchewan Residential Schools: Social Workers, and the Medicine Wheel
November 7, 2010
First Nations University of Canada
Indian Social Work
Prof. Jason Albert
Please note that using the term 'Indian' is not socially acceptable when describing Indigenous peoples today. Original context has been kept however while quoting from other sources from the past.
During the 1870s families from all over the world were drawn to the new Canadian dream. Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, provided incentives for Canadian settlers in hope of building a great European Nation. Settlement expansion was rapid and conflict with the land's original peoples took precedent. A systematic plan was devised between Sir John A. Macdonald, Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney, and other high-ranking European men. Macdonald commissioned Nicolas Davin Flood, the original owner of Regina’s Leader-Post, to write a report on the benefits of Residential Schools in the United States. This report was central in bringing aggressive assimilation to Canada as it supported the common assumption of his era. The common assumption was that “Indian culture was a contradiction in terms, Indians were uncivilized, and the aim of education must be to destroy the Indian” (Legacy of Hope, 2010).
In 1883, Saskatchewan government officials, along with the Roman Catholic Church, opened the first Residential School. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of Saskatchewan Residential Schools. Indigenous children were removed from their homes, and forced to give up their language and culture while living in an environment where they were subjected to verbal, physical, spiritual and sexual abuse. The removal of Indigenous children from their homes in Saskatchewan resulted in a 40% death rate. Some were subjected to fatal diseases, some were murdered, and some committed suicide. All children were emotionally scared; most scares lasted indefinitely. This information is not surprising when one learns that the system was designed “to kill the Indian in the child” (Legacy of Hope, 2010).
The aggressive assimilation of Indigenous peoples through compulsory attendance at Residential Schools has left behind a legacy of destructive lifestyles. The experiences of the individuals who attended these schools “disrupted the transmission of culture from one generation to the next and undermined parenting skills and the capacity to provide a healthy environment for their children” (Bombay, 2009, p. 20). “Many Survivors returned home with inappropriate behaviour patterns, including abusive or neglectful parenting behaviours modelled after the caregiving behaviours witnessed at IRS” (Haig-Brown, 1988).
Up until the early 2000s the social work profession had not appropriately addressed dysfunctions within the urban Indigenous population from an Indigenous perspective. The dominant authoritarian method was prevalent as children were removed from homes at alarming rates. It has only been in recent years that social workers have started to learn to come beside Indigenous communities, families, and individuals as healers and helpers in the spirit of decolonization.
One of the more relevant approaches to Indian Social Work has been the use of the Medicine Wheel. This paper will address intergenerational legacies left behind by the Canadian government's aggressive assimilation policies and practices using the Medicine wheel approach. This approach is unique to Indigenous cultures around the world and will be the focus of this paper along with my deep desire for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. This approach addresses reconciliation between Indigenous individuals (reconciliation with self), families, community and Nations. “Reconnecting with culture provides an empowering focus in life. People who have a strong sense of their culture have a strong sense of self” (Legacy of Hope Foundation, 2010).
So many Indigenous cultures, communities, families, and individuals have lost their “identities and place in the world which is often expressed through substance abuse, violence, involvement with the child welfare system and criminalization of behaviours associated with internalized oppression and poverty” (Baskin, 2006). Indigenous cultures in relation to the general population are also “more likely to encounter stressful experiences in adulthood, including poverty and unemployment, and witnessing traumatic events such as violence, homicide, and assault” (Bohn, 1998).
Traumatic events witnessed in childhood can mould an individual for life. Some adverse experiences of Indigenous children are emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, household violence, household substance abuse, household mental illness, and household criminal behaviour. This list is by no means exhaustive but suggests deficient parenting skills that are being passed down from generation to generation. Bombay (2009) describes the reasons for dysfunctional parenting:
“Deficient parenting skills could have come about owing either to the absence of appropriate role models for good parenting, poor mental health among Survivors [of Residential School] that affected their parenting abilities, or permanent biological (epigenetic) changes associated with adverse early life experiences that impaired their subsequent ability to contend with psychosocial stressors, including the delivery of adequate parenting.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a major concern in relation to new generations of Indigenous children. “According to the Canadian Pediatric Society, individuals with FASD have poor organizational skills, make poor choices and are unable to foresee the consequences of their actions” (Wadden, 2008, p. 26). “If alcohol during pregnancy is not stopped, the next generation will not have the brain capacity to appreciate their own culture as something they should be proud of” (Wadden, 2008, p. 24).
Social Work and Social Workers
Up until several years ago, interactions between social workers and the Indigenous population were not positive. Baskin (2006) describes the relationship as intrusive, judgmental, controlling and harmful. The past social workers' hostility towards Indigenous peoples reinforced the European authoritarian model of leadership. Some argue that this attitude is still prevalent today. This attitude towards colonialism drove and still is driving, Indigenous oppression further into its downward spiral. “In recent years social work educational and professional institutions have, although still to a limited degree, accepted Indigenous perspectives and approaches as legitimate social work theories and practices” (Sinclair, 2009, p. 42).
Some of the key areas of change must be addressed through the education of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Baskin (2006) lists such areas as awareness of the history of colonization, insight into the assumptions, values and biases of the profession of social work in the understanding of the client’s cultural context, and the emphasis on decolonization. In addressing resistance to teaching about the past one could only argue that we cannot move forward with a common understanding and respect without first understanding the roots of present intergenerational legacies.
“As Aboriginal peoples gain more access to schools of social work, the academy needs to respond to their educational needs. This involves incorporating Aboriginal world views into social work education” (Baskin, 2006). Social work is beginning to accept Indigenous worldviews as “acceptance and a belief in the unknown, inner journeying, experience is knowledge, interconnectedness, responsibility and teaching through oral tradition” (Baskin, 2006).
The social worker’s role should be one of healer or helper as they walk beside Indigenous families and individuals in need. The social work profession needs to also produce advocates with activism skills to embrace Indigenous cultures rather than invade them. To the Indigenous individual, family, and community, healing is also beginning to be approached through experience; an experience best delivered by Elders. One method taught by Indigenous Elders is that of the Medicine Wheel.
The Medicine Wheel
The Medicine Wheel is a circular diagram that represents a constant concept of growth. ”The circular nature ensures that the whole is addressed [as it] informs us that all its elements are related to each other” (Mehl-Madrona, 2003, p.99). This is in complete contrast to the European square system.
Indigenous individuals, families, communities and Nations who suffered unimaginable abuses of the mind, spirit, emotions, and body will benefit greatly by incorporating healing through the concepts taught in the Medicine Wheel. Several concepts form the basis of the worldview that many Indigenous cultures, which Graveline (1998) refers to as “Self-in-Relation” (p. 57) “that is; immanence (respect for all life forms), interconnectedness and balance. Every created thing and every human being are respected, valued as sacred and connected to the whole of creation and to the Creator” (Loiselle, 2006, p. 5).
This view is fully ecological. Everything is interconnected. Separation of the concept is not possible. “To divide any of these realities into separate categories is a dishonour to Indigenous ways of thinking” (Baskin, 2006). “These notions represent the inclusion of all aspects of one's inner and outer life and imply the requirement of a balanced attribution of energy, attention and care between all components of a human being” (Loiselle, 2006, p. 6).
The Medicine Wheel gives us a guide to bringing balance, justice, peace and harmony into our lives. “Living in harmony is perceived as a necessity” (Loiselle, 2006, p. 6). “Failure to do so puts people and the environment in positions of vulnerability and danger” (Swinomish Tribal Mental Health Project, 1991). Each individual is to live his or her life for the greater good of the family, community and Nation. This way of living will ensure a better place for the generations to come.
“So many pieces of the circle that contribute to Indigenous ways of knowing and seeing the world is inclusive of spirit, blood memory, respect, interconnectedness, storytelling, feelings, experiences and guidance” (Baskin, 2006). However taught, the Medicine Wheel teachings bring accountability. “Through embracing this worldview, each individual becomes intensely aware of personal accountability [and] for the welfare of others” (Graveline, 1998, p. 58).
“The legacy of the residential schools was one of cultural conflict, alienation, poor self-concept and a lack of preparation for independence for jobs and for life in general”. The need for reconciliation to self has never been greater. The concentration of this area will attempt to connect the individual in need to his or her Creator, self, family, community, and Nation.
Canadian ideological forces continuously reinforce Indigenous feelings of shame, condemnation, and self-hatred through the vehicle of racism. “If a person is whole and balanced, then he or she is in a position to fulfill his or her responsibilities to the whole. If a person is not balanced, then he or she is sick and weak – physically, mentally or both and cannot fulfill his or her individual responsibilities” (Little Bear, 2000, p. 79). The Medicine Wheel works to connect this facet to the whole.
“Aboriginal peoples in North America encounter frequent adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, and household substance abuse” (Blackstock, 2004). This has occurred through the disruption of intergenerational connections due to the removal of the Indigenous family unit. This removal has left many “without a sense of who they are in the world” (Goulet, 2002, p. 356).
“We are all related and all have a responsibility to each other’s healing and growing” (Fitznor, 1998). To be able to overcome the trauma of colonization and to increase collective understanding, “community development with the aim of building empowerment: and building parenting skills” (Robertson, 2006, p. 14) needs to be facilitated through Aboriginal concepts such as the Medicine Wheel.
“Not only is it ineffective to continue to arrest, charge and incarcerate Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, but [is] incredibly expensive as well” (Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission, 1999). Some national social work initiatives could include “providing public health nurses to at-risk mothers, or single parents families; enriched pre-schooling for at-risk children; Providing culturally relevant violence reduction education programs in schools; providing youth with job training; and implementing programs on reserves to prepare Aboriginal peoples for life in urban areas” (Monchalin, 2009, p. 6).
“Love, kindness, patience, sharing, caring, honesty, truthfulness, trustworthiness, justice and humility are conducive to well-being and healthy relationship” (Loiselle, 2006, p. 8). As one embraces a higher power (Creator) in prayer, meditation, personal relationship, worship, knowledge and wisdom, the rippling effect of the spiritual component of the Medicine Wheel cannot be held back. All other components are affected.
Indigenous health has been negatively influenced by “existing social and economic disparities, dramatic lifestyles disruption, social marginalization, inactivity, dietary change, and lower rates of educational attainment” (McNeil, 2008, p. ii). “The multiple stressors and socioeconomic hardships endured might contribute to the diverse health problems faced by Aboriginal peoples” (Duran, 1995). McNeil (2008) suggests that engagement in physical activity, traditional activities, healthy eating, budgeting, and meaningful conversations with significant others would be conducive to holistic health. Promotion of health at the family level is suggested.
The dominant ideology of the Europeans was quickly absorbed into the new dominion of Canada; to be ‘Indian’ was to be inferior and dirty. Duncan Campbell Scott was a leading voice in 1920 when he boldly said, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem … Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politics and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department” (Miller, 2004, p. 35). The process of ridding Canada of its “Indian Problem” not only destroyed Indigenous cultures but this process also shattered personal lives and created a perpetual downward spiral of psychological issues that are being passed down from generation to generation. This mental mindset seeped into the body politic to create a multitude of social ills and Indigenous self-hatred.
The people who established the residential school system knew exactly what they were up to. They were modelled after successful institutions and mechanisms of social order. These total institutions governed the behaviour of Aboriginal children all across Canada. The system was identified with a social purpose and permanence that had already been found to be successful in bringing about particular results. From a historical point of view, the residential school system was a deliberate systematic effort to break Indigenous generations into pieces. Indigenous children were severed from family, language, culture, and themselves. A nation was victim to a social experiment that was imposed on them because of greed, arrogance and superiority. To try to comprehend what this has done emotionally is unattainable. Any healer can only sympathize unless they too have experienced such devastation.
In trying to separate the different components with descriptions, I hope you can appreciate how all components are interconnected. The ripple effect touches each component when one is altered for good or bad. With this simple demonstration, I hope you can see how concentrating on one component instead of all create havoc, disharmony, and an unhealthy state of being. I will conclude.
Over 150,000 Canadian Indigenous children went through the historic trauma of the Residential System experience. This has been deemed as “the Collective Soul Wound” (Robertson, 2006, p. 10). Out of this number, around 80,000 survivors are still with us today. There is no documented number of how many survivors are living in Saskatchewan. “The experience of historic trauma and intra-generational grief can best be described as psychological baggage … It is continuously being acted out and recreated in contemporary Aboriginal culture” (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2004, p. 3).
According to an Ojibway healer, the fundamental principle of life “is not to get to the end of the Red Road but to enjoy the journey” (Morrisseau, 1998, p. 90). For this to happen, reconciliation needs to occur between Indigenous and Indigenous, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous and within every affected Indigenous individual. Reconciliation to self, family, community and Nation is a goal that all social workers should commit to. Addressing the legacy of abuse in all its forms and manifestations be it direct or indirect will give hope to intergenerational suffering through such vehicles as the Medicine Wheel. By building on the strengths and resilience of Indigenous peoples, social workers and the social work profession will be on their way to a healthy relationship with the Indigenous population.
The Social worker should act “as a facilitator who encourages public participation, acts as a consultant to the community development process, conducts needs assessments and surveys as directed by community members, and suggests resources the community may choose to access” (Robertson, 2006, p. 19). This can be done in its entirety while teaching the components of the Medicine Wheel.
“The Medicine Wheel is a pro-active and empowering approach to social intervention with individuals as well as a self-help tool. It is a framework that presents a complete picture of a person-in-environment” (Loiselle, 2006, p. 11). The social worker can mould the concepts around the issues of the individual in need to be used as a plan towards wholeness. The individual in need should then be awakened or have a revelation in regards to where they fit into the world. Accountability to family, community and society should occur as the individual learns that the only person she can change is herself. The healer/helper is responsible for providing simple yet profound principles for the individual to grasp a hold of and move forward. This concept now turns into a wellness plan. These plans will not change what happened in the past but will embrace the future.
Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission. (1999, November). Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from http://www.ajic.mb.ca/volume.html
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