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Part 2:  Sexual and Reproductive Health Issues of Concern to Aboriginal People

Unit 11 — The Residential School Experience

Be sure to read Part 1 before working on this unit. See these other units for more issues related to the residential school experience:

Unit 1 — Parenting
Unit 3 — Child Sexual Abuse
Unit 15 — Family Violence
Unit 16 — Sexual Violence


For about 100 years, the government removed Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them in residential schools in an attempt to make them "Canadian." In very strict and often violent environments, our children were denied regular contact with their families, were given poor educations and few life skills, and were taught that our culture and traditions were inferior and our people lazy, dirty and stupid.

Aboriginal children in residential schools grew up ignorant of the languages and customs of their own parents. When they left the schools as young adults, many had low self-esteem, and were confused and ashamed by their identities. They were unprepared for both life outside of the schools and life inside their Native communities. Communities and families, robbed of their natural structure and roles, began to fall apart. Residential schools have had a direct impact on our health overall, and our sexual health in particular.

Those who were victims of sexual and physical abuse are in greatest need of healing. Recently, Aboriginal communities have begun to deal actively with the effects on all generations of the residential schools. We have started talking and healing circles, addictions and violence treatment programs that make the connection to the residential schools, and parenting and cultural programs that try to reclaim what was lost.

We Are All Affected by the Residential School Experience

I went to residential school. I believe that people who didn’t go to residential school are more open. At the residential school, they did our thinking for us. They took away our culture, our language, our parents, our guidance ... When I left residential school, I thought I was so smart. Yet at 18 I didn’t even know I could get pregnant, or that I was pregnant. We didn’t have anyone to teach us.1 (click here for footnote)

People from residential schools and the generations after need some kind of counselling to deal with what happened to them. So that they won’t continue the cycle, even though the cycle has already continued for too long. We need to tell them "it’s not your fault." Then they wouldn’t take another innocent being and do the same things to them. I get confused about it all, I know that you can’t pinpoint it because it’s been going on for decades, centuries. My abusers were abused; their abusers were abused, and on down the line. We’re all hurting in one way or another, and I think that’s why the cycle continues and turns.
My stepfather was abused as a child, and he didn’t know himself how to be a parent. So he did his best, which was basically what his father did to him. I think that things like my situation can be prevented if the cycle of abuse is broken.2 (click here for footnote)

What We Are Learning About the Residential School Experience

Below are some key issues to address and ways that health care providers and others can support healing among residential school survivors, their families and their communities.

Some of the Effects on Sexual Health and Well-Being

What was lost to the residential schools? Connection to family and community, culture, language, spirituality, trust, self-esteem, self-confidence, the ability to make decisions, healthy sexual attitudes and role models for parenting skills.

This can affect sexual health in many ways:

  • families and communities are not as open and trusting as they could be, so it is hard to address people’s needs
  • women and men, and parents, grandparents and children find it hard to talk about sexual issues because of embarrassment and painful memories
  • many parents did not have a healthy sexual education so they can’t teach their children
  • parents and grandparents may not have good relationships so they can’t be good role models
  • its hard for all generations to make good decisions about sexual health because no one learned to make decisions at all

What was introduced? Anger, rage and hurt, confusion about identity, addictions (drugs, alcohol or gambling), sexual promiscuity, shame and guilt, depression and suicidal thoughts, and violence against others.

Steps Toward Healing

The effects of residential schools are said to last for seven generations and healing will take as long. It is not possible for communities, families and nations to heal within a few years — however, healing has begun and will continue to grow.

According to a study by the Assembly of First Nations, the individual healing process has a number of steps:

  • recognizing the hurt and the need to change
  • remembering the past and discussing it with others
  • resolving painful experiences and moving beyond
  • reconnecting with yourself, your family, your community, your nation

Some healing principles for whole communities to adopt include:

  • creating safety from violence
  • showing respect and tolerance for differences
  • being responsible and holding others responsible for actions
  • cooperating with others to share power and heal together 3 (click here for footnote)

Pilot coordinator Katsi says:
I used the residential schools unit of the Sourcebook at a workshop held at Six Nations in Ontario last summer. I made copies of the unit for the workshop participants, and had a copy of the whole book for them to look at. The information on ethical guidelines for doing healing work drew the most attention.

Katsi Cook, Iewirokwas Midwifery Program, Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, Québec, Ontario and New York

Some Healing Programs

Through the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (, communities have the opportunity to provide programs to help Aboriginal people deal with loss and pain, and rediscover and celebrate their traditional cultures. Following are a few examples of the many different healing strategies that communities are using in their dedication to rebuilding strong Aboriginal nations and cultures.

The Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company

"The Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company uses theatre as a healing tool. A theatre performance provides a non-threatening environment by which our stories of truth can be told. Its ‘Circle of Voices,’ an 8-week program for Aboriginal youth, includes a one-week theatre run of ‘The Truth Hurts.’ This presentation tells the stories of 14 Aboriginal youth ages 12 to 23 who cope with issues of family, love, identity, racism and abuse in relation to the multigenerational effects of residential schools."

Tl’oondih Healing Society

"There are 3-5 generations of Gwich’in families that have been affected by residential schools. For many it is the loss of language, culture, survival skills, respect for proper burial and individual expression that have been so devastating. For others it is memories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, forced labour and being taken away from one’s family, never knowing if one would return home that has been difficult to deal with."

"Our project addresses the legacy of residential schools through its counseling focus for all people affected either directly or indirectly — that is through their parents, elders and extended families. We address specific issues known to residential school survivors such as trust issues, relationship issues, limited parenting skills, grieving lost years from family, blame and shame issues."

Minwaashin Lodge Trauma Recovery Workshop for Women

"A 5-day retreat in a lodge which provides 24-hour accommodation with meals, childcare, transportation, etc. so that participants can focus only on their healing issues. The healing team is made up of 7 support and resource persons: 1 Elder,1 Grandmother, 3 trained therapists/counsellors and 2 facilitators." 4 (click here for footnote


The print version of the Sourcebook also contains information on print, web-based and audio-visual resources, and sample materials on the residential school experience.


1  Substance Use and Pregnancy: Conceiving Women in the Policy-Making Process, Deborah Rutman, Marilyn Callahan, Audrey Lundquist and others, Status of Women Canada, Ottawa, 2000, p. 129.  (back to paragraph)

2  Sacred Lives: Canadian Aboriginal Children and Youth Speak Out About Sexual Exploitation, Cherry Kingsley and Melanie Mark, Save the Children Canada, Vancouver, 2000, p. 13.   (back to paragraph)

3  Breaking the Silence: An Interpretive Study of Residential School Impact and Healing as Illustrated by the Stories of First Nations Individuals, Assembly of First Nations, Ottawa, 1994.   (back to paragraph)

4  Celebrating Healing Experiences: A Profile of Some of the Projects Funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Ottawa, 2000. Available at:   (back to paragraph)


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