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Steven L. Cooper
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The Intergenerational Effects of Indian Residential Schools on Foster Care Today: A Personal Narrative

By Dawn Lamothe* 

In the summer of 2012, I began to trace my family history. This stemmed from a longing to fill what I felt was missing from my life – a connection to my mother and our Aboriginal culture. My findings were both fascinating and devastating -- fascinating because I gained more knowledge of my ancestral history and Aboriginal culture but also devastating when I learned how colonization affected my family, with my mother and grandmother living through culturally genocidal residential schooling.  This process became part of my research project for my honours seminar in fourth-year university.  I locate my personal experience of intergenerational trauma within the feminist notion that the “personal is the political.” My hope is that social justice can manifest within healing and understanding, and that youth from foster care or alternative care can access my research, gain understanding and knowledge of our collective history, and regain their identity in a contemporary way within Aboriginal culture.

In my experience there is a great strength in learning that one is not alone and that individuals share experiences. I have had the opportunity and privilege to hear the stories and achievements of hundreds of youth in care and throughout all their narratives there is a very important commonality: the realization that they are not alone, that what happened to them was out of their control, and that there are people all over the world that share the same experiences. With that said, Aboriginal youth in care may not understand the systemic oppressions of colonization and assimilation that have led to their parents’ inability to raise them. Youth in foster care cannot change what happened to them - but they can change how they feel about it, and let go of the anger and blame that may develop from a lack of understanding. Personally, the more I learn about my family, and in particular about my mother, the more I understand and am aware of how to end the cycles of historical trauma in my family. Connecting my experience to our larger collective history inspires and motivates me to be a part of continuing critical conversations of where we are, and where we are going.


Intergenerational Effects of Indian Residential Schools

Patricia Sutherland (Dawn Lamothe's mother), age four, at Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus Residential School in Fort George, Quebec, 1966 (bottom left)

 Patricia Sutherland (Dawn Lamothe's mother), age four (bottom left)
Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus Residential School in Fort George, Quebec, 1966 

Indian Residential Schools were not an educational system gone wrong, but an initiative to “destroy the Indian in the child.” It is estimated that over 150,000 children attended Indian Residential School, and thousands of them perished while attending the schools. In residential schooling, Aboriginal peoples endured trauma so severe, that languages have been lost, and leaders within communities were unable to keep up the magnitude of loss.  

The Intergenerational effects of residential schooling have been researched at length by the academic community.  Intergenerational traumas, or “historic trauma” is described as:

“hidden collective memories of [trauma], or a collective non-remembering, [that] is passed from generation to generation, as are the maladaptive social and behavioural patterns […] there is no ‘single’ historic trauma response; rather, there are different social disorders with respective clusters of symptoms” (Esquimaux, Smolewski 2004, p.3).

Intergenerational effects are a result of trauma being unresolved from a previous generation. Subsequently, if a survivor of residential schooling (like my mother) experiences neglect or abuse, they may begin to see this negative behaviour as normal.   Consequently, they pass this negative behaviour on to their own children, and we to our children.  The intergenerational effects of residential schooling have become the fuel of stereotypical imaging of First Nations people in Canada.  The intergenerational effects of residential schooling are evident insofar as "when compared to the general population, Aboriginal people are more likely to experience adverse childhood experiences, including abuse, neglect, and household substance abuse” (Bombay et al, 2011, p. 368). These effects are beginning to be acknowledged by the Canadian government.  On June 11th 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canada for residential schooling. Harper included in his public apology as follows:

“we now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds of generations to follow[…] Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we [the Government of Canada] are sorry.” 

My Family’s Story

Throughout my childhood, I knew that my mother had been in a place where she suffered badly, but amongst my family members this was not discussed. Many residential school survivors, my mother included, do not discuss their experiences in the schools with their friends and families. The traumatic indignity of being denied their culture, and of being emotionally, physically, sexually and spiritually abused is unfathomable. I can attribute many of my own traumatic experiences to these effects of intergenerational traumas, including poverty, substance abuse, and neglect.   Although the intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schooling have profoundly affected my life and the lives of my siblings, we remained strong like our mother before us.

My mother grew up in residential schools from the age of three and experienced unimaginable abuse. As a result, she suffered from a mental illness that caused her to psychologically revert back to her childhood, forcing her to re-experience the trauma. These episodes were brought on in times of stress – but the years leading up to being brought into foster care were the worst. My mother was a working single mother raising five children and had limited resources although we lived in an urban area. We went through winters without hot water to bathe in, heat to keep us warm, food in our bellies, or clean clothing. My second-oldest brother was frequently in and out of juvenile detention centres for breaking into neighbouring homes and stealing food for us kids. Our need for survival while living in poverty surpassed my brother’s rationale to abide the law.  While my brother may have seemed like a juvenile delinquent to some people, I know that he was searching for a way to cope with the effects of intergenerational trauma on our family in the only way he could. In 2003, which was my grade seven year, things were so bad that we were evicted from our home. From the spring of 2003, my brother and I were homeless, couch-surfing on family and friends’ homes until December, when we were put into foster care.

The trauma from residential school affects all aspects of a survivor’s life, in particular the ability to nurture and raise their children. Even if children weren’t being abused, during the “Sixties Scoop” they were removed from their homes and that was devastating to the transmission of cultural knowledge. Without mothers, grandmothers, and aunts to transmit culture, not only were languages and customs lost --children were also exposed to trauma without any sort of parental or familial protection.  When my mother’s episodes were not occurring, she was bubbly, loving, very likeable, and fully lived up to her role as a mother. My fondest memories are with her: going to powwows, enjoying the outdoors, and soaking up her wisdom like a sponge during my growth from infancy to womanhood.  My mother is the keeper of my dearest memories, and she embodies resiliency and strength.

Dawn Lamothe and her mother, Patricia Sutherland, in 2013

Dawn Lamothe and her mother, Patricia Sutherland, in 2013

The more I read, the more I learn about people who have experienced the same or similar situations, where they are caught in between the deep divide in Canada between the colonizers and colonized. Living as a youth in foster care caused me to feel different from both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community– when I wasn’t. In reality, “according to the 2006 census, children and youth make up 36% of the total Aboriginal population in the province,” putting Aboriginal young people at a particular vulnerability (Blackstock, 2011). For the children who suffer through the intergenerational impacts, and subsequently ended up on foster care, “[the] destructive outcome has been the individual attack on culture, making children feel ashamed of who they are, person proud and thriving culture before European settlements” (Spears 2011, p.122). Aboriginal children who end up in foster care lack a sense of identity as part of their Aboriginal culture.  They often see their situation as a problem within their family, rather than as a result of colonialism. This worsens when Aboriginal children do not have access to their culture, traditional ceremonies, or spiritual guidance. 

Although I had a great childhood, my mother’s mental illness prevented her from fighting within the legal and social welfare system to keep me out of foster care. I stayed in foster care until I was seventeen. With statistics such as “First Nations children are being placed out of home 6-8 times at the rate of other children” (Spears 2011, p.122), I know my story is worth sharing and discussing.  This is not just my story, but the shared experience of “the estimated 27, 000 First Nations children in child welfare [who] account for 30 to 40% of all children in child welfare, even though they represent less than 5% of the child population” (Blackstock 2011, p.187).  Many of these children, who may or may not be children of survivors of Indian Residential Schools, are still dealing with the intergenerational trauma themselves. My hope is to continue to be open to my culture and teachings so I can help children and youth live their lives in a good way, the best way they can. Our Elders, sacred teachings and ceremonies, and willingness to learn about our roles as people within our way of life, will empower our children and youth to do the same in the future.

*Dawn Lamothe has just completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Gender Equality and Social Justice from Nipissing University.   Dawn currently works at the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre as a research associate for the two-year project Urban Aboriginal Communities Thrive, which is a community-driven capacity building initiative in North Bay. Dawn is also a superintendent of a building owned by the local Children's Aid Society where she mentors and supports youth transitioning from foster care to independence. On her spare time, she is currently learning about the four medicines and the healing Jingle dress, adding jingles daily to her dress to dance in powwows in the coming year. 


*Patricia Sutherland – Residential School survivor, mother, grandmother, beader
Patricia is a mother of five children, and grandmother of nine grandchildren. While Patricia currently resides in North Bay, she was born in Moosonee and is a member of Constance Lake First Nation. Patricia was given the spirit name Awan Jiiga-gwam which means “mist on the water.” Before attending Residential Schools, Patricia was raised by her grandmother and learned traditional ways of life and her Cree language. During her time in Residential Schools, Patricia endured significant trauma which she continues to heal from. She openly shares her experiences offering support for others on a similar healing journey. She is a fluent speaker of three languages, including Cree, French and English. Patricia volunteers her time at the North Bay Friendship Centre during weekly community events, children's activities and Elder’s gatherings. Her knowledge and skills in beadwork and other cultural crafts are also highly regarded.


Sources cited:

Cindy Blackstock. 2011. "The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on First Nations Child Welfare: Why if Canada Wins, Equality and Justice Lose." Children and Youth Services Review 33 (1): 187-194.

Amy Bombay,  Kimberly Matheson, and Hymie Anisman. 2011. "The Impact of Stressors on Second Generation Indian Residential School Survivors." Transcultural Psychiatry 48 (4): 367-391.

Shandra Spears. 2011. "Strong Spirit, Fractured Identity: An Ojibway Adoptee's Journey to Wholeness." In Racism, Colonialism & Indigeneity in Canada, edited by Martin J. Cannon and Lina Sunseri, 127. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux. and Magdalena Smolewski. 2004. “Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing.” Ontario: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.



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