What not to say to a residential school survivor, and what to do.

For something like 100 years, generation after generation of indigenous children in Canada were rounded up at age five and taken away from their families and communities and placed in residential schools, where they were taught English, taught western values and Christianized.  This was commonly a brutal experience, full of physical abuse, exploitation, sexual abuse and the express purpose of eliminating the Indian in the child.

Some of the abuse took the forms of rape, sexual molestation, physical beatings, deprivation of food or warmth, children being forced to work in kitchens or laundries or on farms or in stores for no pay (slavery), being forced to speak English (when you had never heard it before, and being beaten when you didn’t), forced separation from your family and siblings…

Many adults, even those who had a relatively benign experience at residential school suffered in the decades afterwards as they struggled to love other humans, to raise their children and to love partners and siblings.  When you have been deprived of good parenting models in your formative years, where do you learn to parent?

Many took to alcohol and drugs to bury the shame of what had happened nto them, because nobody told them that it wasn’t their fault.  Many never recovered from those painful addictions, or if they did they cleaned up and sobered up later in life when the prospects of getting a job or holding a life together were small.

For years there was no support or counselling for people who lived their lives with the post-traumatic stress disorders.  In fact when people went to court to ask for compensation, they were dismissed.  People’s stories were not believed, Churches and governments denied claims and at worst covered up these offenses.  And mainstream society was somehow fed the story that First Nations people were uneducated, incompetent, addicted and violent.

Today, I am in Prince Rupert working with the Native Ministries Council or the United Church of Canada.  THis is a group made up of First Nations congregations in the small communities on the coast where the United Church has long had a presence.  The United Church was the first Canadian institution to issue an apology for it’s role in colonizing North America, back in 1986 (a moment which was defining in my life) and since 1986, the Church has had a focus in it’s work of supporting reconciliation, working with survivors and facilitating healing.

Today we heard stories about residential school experiences, as we do anytime Elders gather.  The process of telling stories is powerful healing, even for people in their 80s who may have told the stories over and over.  To be listened to is a high form of respect and a powerful act of human relationship.  Today also we heard how retraumatizing it is when non-First Nations people respond to these stories with the commonly heard statement “just get over it.”

The residential school experience created a huge and multigenerational darkness in the lives of individuals, communities and families.  The responsibility for living with this darkness has fallen to First Nations communities, and especially the men and women and children who have been victimized by the multigenerational trauma.  It has not been a priority for mainstream society to choose to address this issue.  Instead we simply ignore the issue or invite people “to get over” the legacy rape, abuse, shame and addiction.

On September 22 in Vancouver, there will be a walk in support of reconciliation, and I am encouraging every Canadian, whether you have lived here all your life or just arrived to show up there, learn about these stories and how you as a Canadian have benefitted from this historical legacy of policies that spawned the residential school system.




  1. Thanks, Chris. Well said, especially this bit:

    “To be listened to is a high form of respect and a powerful act of human relationship.”


  2. Thanks Ana.