Even before he begins to speak, it’s apparent that this former chief of the Swan River First Nation has something important to say—something we all need to hear. When he does begin to speak, the softness of his voice stands in stark contrast to the way it fills the room. But he doesn’t need to speak loudly for his message to be heard. He relies, instead, on the power of simple honesty and the knowledge that he is speaking his truth and the truth of his people. His humbleness and compassion reach out and around the room as he gathers in even those sitting furthest from him, inviting them to become a part of the ongoing search for ways to alleviate the suffering of people who have been traumatized—either directly or indirectly—by one of the most horrific abuses in Canadian history: residential schools.
As Twin shares his personal story, it becomes clear that the stance of confidence and compassion he has arrived at has been hard won indeed. “When I came out of residential school,” Twin says, “I felt empty and inferior to other races. A lot of the memory of my youth was blank. I watched my mother die of prescription drugs under the influence of alcohol. She never lived; she never dealt with her issues (which resulted from attending residential school). I didn’t want to be like that for my children and grandchildren.”
But it’s one thing to say, “I don’t want to be like that,” and quite another to undertake the journey that leads to healing, especially when the trauma has been passed from generation to generation, building on itself as it winds around more and more lives.
It can be difficult, admittedly, to understand generational trauma and how it works. But it’s not really as complicated—or as unpredictable—as we often make it seem. When we consider that the last residential school closed in Canada in 1996—twenty years ago now—it can be tempting to dismiss it as something that happened in the distant past, something we should all be able to move on from, set aside, put behind us. But twenty years really isn’t very long when you consider that we’re now removed from it by only two generations at most. Add those two generations to the many more generations who were traumatized in the long history of residential schools, and it becomes much easier to see how and why survivors—including those who never actually attended residential schools, but became the heirs to the damage they wrought—still suffer the harm they caused.
Imagine, just for a moment, that you’re a young child who’s been torn from your family, forbidden to speak the language of your people, shamed into believing that there is something inherently wrong with you based solely on your heritage. Imagine that you’re stripped of all contact with the very—perhaps the only—people who would love you and nurture you into a healthy adulthood in which you can refer back to your culture as a foundation for achieving your dreams and creating a fulfilling life. Now imagine, for another moment, that you grow up and have children of your own. With no role models in place, with no guidance from your parents—who are themselves steeped in trauma—with no indication that there’s a place for you or your culture in a world that seems to shun your beliefs and traditions at every turn, from where will you gain the tools and models you need to nurture your own children? Herein lies the rub.
“With troubled parents who never learned what it was to be nurtured by family,” Twin says, “many of today’s youth grow up on their own, without discipline and values. Often, they aren’t taught about the purpose and value of school; and when they do attend, they don’t feel good about themselves…when the children next to them come from ‘good families’ who tell them to do homework and go to bed and eat breakfast and give them clean clothes.”
Twin considers himself fortunate to have had someone who did nurture him. This isn’t to say that it made the process of healing less painful—but it did make it more possible. “My healing journey was dark,” Twin says. “Thank God for my grandfather, who never went to residential school. He taught me discipline and that education is important.”
Unfortunately, not all indigenous students have the support that Twin had. “Mostly,” Twin says, “people have not dealt with the impact of residential schools; they are living in a traumatic state.” And it’s sad to think that finding the help needed to overcome such an experience may all be left to luck. Shouldn’t it, instead, just be a matter of course at this point? A given? A right? We at ADLC certainly believe so. And, while we can’t change the world, and we aren’t equipped to deal with the psychological aftermath of residential schools, we’re determined to use what we are experts at—delivering flexible learning that can be tailor-made to fit individual needs—to reach those students for whom a traditional education just doesn’t fit.
When Twin says, “I always talk to and encourage youth; if they want a good life, they need to experience the world, get an education,” he strikes at the heart of the reason for ADLC’s existence: the belief that a solid, high-quality education can change lives for the better. And that the availability of that education shouldn’t be dependent on one’s location or life circumstances.
But there’s also something equally, if not more, important at play here—taking the time to listen. In doing so, we recognize that those with the lived experience are the ultimate authorities on what they need to find the healing they seek. As Jacalyn Watson, audience member and ADLC teacher, puts it, “As a teacher, you don’t know what footsteps students had to take that morning. You realize that for children of parents who never had parental role models, you have to be a good example in your daily interaction, and you have to work at building positive relationships with each individual.”
So, first, we listen. And then we listen some more. Gary Frederickson, ADLC’s Learning Network Liaison for southern Alberta, picks up on Twin’s emphasis on the missing generation, on the key challenge of building trust, and on the importance of teachers recognizing and accommodating different cultural perspectives. Frederickson, who has a long-standing association with Kainai High School in southern Alberta, says that he thinks many teachers may not have heard enough about the impact of the residential school era on today’s indigenous students. “Often (teachers) treat indigenous students like any other students, but there are fundamental differences arising from culture and experience. Their kids are more quiet and respectful; you have to dig a little to get their trust. So often we don’t listen very well. Sometimes the best thing we can do is shut up and listen for a while.”
It’s only when we’ve mastered the art of listening that we become equipped to take the information we’re given and use it to find more ways to help make the healing journey a little easier, a little more within reach, a little more reflective of the lives at stake. As Cam Oulton, Assistant Superintendent of ADLC, puts it, “We have an opportunity to be role models, helping at the same time as we also accept and understand that the pain and anger is still out there.”
Of course, all of this requires a high level of trust, and that, understandably, is sometimes difficult to come by for people who have been so severely traumatized. The pain and anger that Oulton talks about are not, after all, the results of the victims’ choices—they are, rather, the result of something that was foisted upon them. Still, as Twin assures us, building that trust isn’t impossible—it just takes time and patience. “It can happen pretty fast—in a year or so I would say—if you have genuine concern for the child,” Twin says. He then adds an important point that we’re all well advised to keep in mind: “Trust is actions; they speak louder than words.”
Here at ADLC, we’re committed to working hard to build that trust, and to taking actions that contribute to healing. To that end, we thank Elder Twin for sharing his story and the indigenous perspective with us. We thank him also for his honesty, his compassion, and his willingness to talk about some hard truths. We will listen to those truths, we will take them to heart, and we will use them as guidance as we strive to help in the healing of indigenous individuals and communities by providing an education that meets them where they’re at in their journeys.
Additional Resources for Indigenous Students and Communities
At ADLC, our expertise allows us to provide you with unique learning opportunities so you can choose the educational path that works best for you and apply it to your future goals. If you need help in determining what that education should like, we invite you to contact one our academic counsellors.
If you’re looking for more general resources designed specifically to help indigenous individuals and communities affected by generation trauma, or you’re interested in finding out more about the ways you can help in the healing journey, we encourage you to check out the following resources:
This organization provides the following programs: Circle of Safety, Family Creative Healing, and Healing Anger for Indigenous Women.
This organization provides a range of services focused on health and wellness, arts and culture, elders, and youth.
This organization “is based on the belief that if indigenous newcomers are welcomed by a culturally relevant and coordinated referral service, they will connect with community and cultural resources to support them in developing safe and positive lifestyles in their new home.”
This federal government program provides mental health and emotional support services to eligible former Indian Residential School students and their families throughout all phases of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, including the following:
- Common Experience Payments
- Independent Assessment Process
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission events
- Commemorative activities
This organization provides programs and resources in the following areas:
- Court-workers and justice including residential school health support
- Children’s services including family group conferencing and Wahkowtowin Resiliency and Mental Wellness
- At-risk youth
This online resource includes TRC reports, TRC-related collections and exhibitions, and resources for students and educators.
This digital professional development resource is “designed to help teachers understand the holistic nature of indigenous ways of knowing, to provide opportunity for indigenous peoples to share their perspectives on topics important to them, and to demonstrate indigenous perspectives in teaching and learning experiences.”