Reprinted from "Trauma and Victimization" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (3), pp. 9-10
The last Indian residential school (IRS) closed in 1984. That ended a period of time in which the government of Canada had attempted to eliminate Aboriginal cultures, languages and social structures. The attempt failed.
I am a medical doctor who has been especially interested in Aboriginal mental health. Over the last two decades, I have treated many survivors of residential schools. It became clear to me that their lives had been dramatically changed by their attendance at an IRS. Other doctors who also treated many of those survivors labelled them as alcoholic, criminal or drug addicted. Often, those other doctors had not asked about attendance at residential school.
Inherent psychological abuse
I noticed that many people’s IRS experiences were similar. The pattern of experience begins with a child being forced to attend an IRS away from their home community. Upon arrival, he or she is separated from opposite sex siblings, punished for speaking in a native language and, in many of the schools, required to attend religious services foreign to them. In my view, this all constitutes psychological abuse.
Many children attending an IRS were subjected to sexual abuse. For the most part, this consisted of anal rape of boys and vaginal rape of girls, although there was also some coerced oral sex. Most of the perpetrators were male members of the staff of the IRS. But it also happened that older students would sexually assault younger students. Most strikingly, these assaults occurred not once or twice, but for some children, continued every few days or weeks and over a period of years. One survivor reported to me an estimated 3,000 separate episodes of anal rape.
While most of the perpetrators were male homosexual pedophiles, many young girls were also assaulted by male heterosexual pedophiles. In some cases, the continued sexual assaults lasted into adolescence and resulted in pregnancy. Some of the pregnant girls were sent home and some were simply discharged from the school in disgrace. With lesser frequency, I have also heard reports of female heterosexual and homosexual pedophiles who instructed children in techniques of masturbation (manual genital stimulation of self or another) and oral sex. Usually, the children selected for such instruction were preadolescent and not themselves sexually active. Usually, the children were very distressed by their experiences.
Much of the discipline of the residential schools was physical. That is, children were struck, beaten or otherwise physically punished for misbehaving. A typical punishment story is of being beaten with razor straps, rulers and yardsticks. Several people who attended one particular school told me of a female supervisor who had a special stick for inserting vaginally into little girls. Some people had significant scarring, damaged eyes and dental damage.
The classic story, which has been repeated to me many times, is of a young girl punished for speaking her own language. She was forced to kneel on broken glass in front of a cross, with her arms spread and with a needle propped under her tongue. No one has told me that they were that very little girl, but many people have told me the story.
In their late teens, the IRS children were sent home from the residential schools. In most cases, they had had no training in parenting, minimal training in any employable skill and no support for their disturbed psychological functioning.
They had, however, been sexualized. They married and had their own children. Not surprisingly, they had difficulty parenting those children. They tended to parent as they had been parented in the IRS. That is, they punished their own children physically for misbehaving, and in many cases, treated them as sexual objects.
Unlike the IRS staff, this new generation of parents was genuinely fond of their children. It upset them to see their children upset, and they often consoled themselves with alcohol. So did their children. Physical violence and assault became commonplace.
This whole pattern was repeated for generations.
Today, most women on reserves have been sexually assaulted. Most people of both sexes have been physically assaulted. And nobody talks about it.
Only just now is the damage of the IRS system being recognized. Only just now are significant numbers of individuals beginning to talk about their traumatic experiences. Only now is some healing evident.
About the author
Charles is doubly qualified as a psychiatrist and clinical psychologist. He is the Director of the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic, was a Clinical Associate Professor in Psychiatry at UBC, and has been on staff at Lions Gate Hospital. Charles has long been active in Aboriginal mental health.