Indigenous woman in sunglasses and parka looking into camera
Pamela Pitchenese of Eagle Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario is an intergenerational survivor of residential schools (Photo: Michelle Hill)

Topics: Justice | Indigenous

Residential school survivors’ scars bleed into following generations

The arrogant colonial practice left families broken, communities shattered and dreams extinguished for generations


One day when Pamela Pitchenese was a small child, her father took her to the residential school he’d attended: St. Mary’s in Kenora, Ont., over a hundred kilometres from their home in the Eagle Lake First Nation. He was “half-cut and crying,” she recalled for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing last fall.

The memory of that day stands out for Pitchenese. She was shocked to see her father cry. More significantly, her father rarely paid any attention to her. He was in and out of jail, favoured her brother, rarely touched her. He certainly never talked about his experiences at the school. So this visit made an impression.

“He said, ‘I used to live there. I hope you never have to live there,’” she told commissioners. Later, she said, “Whatever happened to him there, whatever they did — he never shared it with me. . . . I can’t imagine what they did to them there that he couldn’t love his own daughter. That he didn’t know how.”

Pitchenese, 44, never attended residential school. Before she spoke to the commission, she was introduced as an “intergenerational survivor” — a child or grandchild of a residential school survivor who wants to share the story of how a relative’s experience affected their own life.

As the TRC makes its way through its five-year mandate, one of the truths it has uncovered is the extent to which the offspring of residential school survivors — and their offspring — consider themselves victims as well. An estimated one-quarter of the witnesses who have come forward to tell their stories are intergenerational survivors like Pitchenese.

In her 15-minute address to the TRC last fall, Pitchenese told her story in a steady voice through her tears: her father rejects her at 10; she blows her money on drugs, alcohol and buying friends; at university, she lets men abuse her, which sets the stage for several abusive relationships later in her adult life.

“Now I realize all I ever wanted or needed was a hug from my dad,” she said. “I used to go searching for that.” For Pitchenese, the legacy of residential schools is that she never got it.

 The implication of what Pitchenese and others like her are saying is that the wounds of the residential school system probably go deeper than any apology or financial compensation or truth and reconciliation process can address. This fairly new twist in the narrative will no doubt pique skeptics who already take a dim view of the TRC. Every time the media carry a story about the schools and their legacy, a legion of online cranks and letters-to-the-editor writers are quick to chime “get over it.”

One person who has no doubt about the validity of intergenerational trauma is Marie Wilson. A lifelong United Church member, Wilson is one of the three commissioners who head up the TRC. She has listened to countless intergenerational survivor stories since the TRC began hearings about two years ago. The stories are remarkably similar, she says: survivor parents who were detached, had very strict rules, used extreme physical punishment, yelled and screamed, had an obsession with cleanliness and, in many cases, touched their children inappropriately. The old traumas being repeated for a new generation.

Wilson knows intimately how young Aboriginal Canadians are living with residential school legacies — and not just because she hears about it every day. Her husband, Stephen Kakfwi, is a residential school survivor, former president of the Dene Nation and former premier of the Northwest Territories. He’s an extremely capable man, she says, who found it hard to be a parent.

Wilson acknowledges that intergenerational trauma associated with residential schools might be a tough sell in some quarters. “Partly it’s the national media,” she says.

The truth and reconciliation process is supposed to foster respectful relationships and better understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. That requires a sustained media interest, like the exposure the post-apartheid truth and reconciliation process generated in South Africa. It hasn’t happened yet.

“We don’t know each other,” she says. Non-Aboriginals do not fully grasp the horror and the magnitude of what happened and how it transmits through the generations.

Nor do non-Aboriginals understand how their own cultural conditioning shapes their perception of an issue like this. Rev. Brian Thorpe was a United Church adviser on residential schools during the years when churches and the federal government were hit with thousands of lawsuits from former students. Now a minister at Ryerson United in Vancouver, he’s part of a local ecumenical group preparing to welcome the TRC this September.

“In our culture,” says Thorpe, “we live with an assumption that we’re all independent beings — we take no responsibility for what our ancestors did.” As a consequence, we have a hard time coming to grips with the impact of one generation’s experience on another. It’s doubly hard when the trauma is on the scale of residential schools — there isn’t an easy comparison in the mainstream Canadian experience, so most Canadians lack an automatic point of empathy.

It’s even hard to find comparisons among groups that have experienced intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma is an indisputable fact among Jews who are the offspring of Holocaust survivors. It was the subject of no fewer than 400 academic studies in the three decades following the Second World War. Seventy years after the Holocaust, the horrors it unleashed remain painfully real for Jews. Yet Holocaust-related intergenerational trauma has not led to the kind of dysfunction and social problems faced by First Nations families and communities damaged by residential schools. Why not?

Jewish educator Noam Dolgin of Vancouver offers three explanations. First, the vast majority of Jews who survived the Holocaust left Europe; they didn’t have to live next to their former oppressors. “If they’d been forced to face that trauma constantly, to see the tombstones, see the Germans, the remnants of the death camps, they would have kept the trauma in a different way,” he says. For residential school survivors in Canada, there was no escaping residential schools or the racism and colonial arrogance that led to their creation.

Dolgin also notes that Israel was granted statehood just after the war. For Jews around the world, he says, Israel became a symbol of cultural pride and defiance. There’s no equivalent for Canada’s Aboriginals. The residential school system was designed to eradicate their culture, language and religion.

Finally, Dolgin points out that the Holocaust is well documented and remembered in hundreds of museums, memorials and religious observances around the world. In Europe, it’s illegal to deny it. The story of residential schools is just starting to be told in Canada, and the full impact of what happened is rarely acknowledged. Mainstream Canadians simply don’t know enough about the school system to empathize with its immediate victims, much less its secondary ones.

At the start of each semester, Coll Thrush, an indigenous studies professor at the University of British Columbia, uses a nine-metre length of red wool stretched across the classroom to impress students with how much they don’t know about Aboriginal history. This is how long Aboriginal people have lived in North America, he explains. The last inch and a half represents when Captain George Vancouver landed on the West Coast. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is just the last speck of wool, barely a fingernail wide.

“Of course we have no idea what to do to heal,” Thrush says. This is all too new. He thinks it’s totally understandable that Canadians might reject intergenerational trauma. They ask First Nations to “get over it,” but they don’t even know what “it” is.

“I’ve never had anyone say flat out, ‘There’s no such thing as intergenerational trauma.’ But lots of people have said, ‘Get over yourself.’” Rev. Nanette McKay sees intergenerational trauma up close in her private and professional life. She’s the daughter of former moderator Very Rev. Stan McKay, who attended the Birtle (Man.) Indian Residential School. She’s also a United Church minister working as director of policy and strategy for the Child and Family All Nations Coordinated Response Network in Winnipeg, an agency that is often the first point of contact for families in crisis who need to access the social services system. Many of the agency’s clients are Aboriginal.

In her work, she sees the intergenerational impact of residential schools in “so many negative ways. The sheer number of children who are involved in child welfare. Who are wards of the government. The children of children who never had parents.”

She acknowledges that her father’s experience of residential school was not the nightmare that it was for thousands of other Aboriginal children, a point McKay himself makes. He says he had a “nurturing, self-sufficient” childhood before attending the school. He also had parents and elders who helped him work through his anger when he returned home to Fisher River, Man., in his early 20s.

“My capacity to dream, to imagine, was never broken,” he continues. “I think many children, aged four, five or six, had their dreams shattered. To imagine something more became impossible for them. That’s the intergenerational trauma that lasts generation after generation — people lose any sense of value of themselves, of their place in creation. That’s how life gets crushed. It didn’t happen for me. I was silenced, but my faith was not destroyed.”

Still, his residential school experience is a burden — a burden shared by his daughter. They both continue to run up against the same colonial attitudes that created residential schools in the first place. “We’ve solved nothing in terms of the colonial impact on the Aboriginal community,” says Nanette. “We’re still not able to raise our children without the help of systems designed without us in mind.”

Stan McKay even sees vestiges of colonialism in the way the church he once led has responded to its residential school past: “The attitude hovering around the whole process is it’s about [healing] them, not us.” He had hoped the United Church’s Healing Fund, started in the mid-1990s to address the legacy of the church’s involvement in residential schools and continuing today, would help heal non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal people — in their own way, both groups carry the scars of colonialism.

Instead, he says, the fund aimed to “fix” Aboriginals. As far as McKay is concerned, as long as the colonial legacy is alive and well, the impact of residential schools is far from over. Making an effort to understand intergenerational trauma, listening seriously to those affected by the experience of their parents and grandparents, is one measure of how committed non-Aboriginal Canadians are healing their own colonial wounds.

“For there to be a conversation, it needs to start from a different place,” says Nanette McKay. “It needs to start with the people talking knowing that the people who are listening are open to them. Otherwise it becomes a very angry conversation. To say, ‘Are you over it yet?’ is so insulting.”


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s February 2013 issue with the title “The other survivors.”


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