Intergenerational Trauma A Story with a need to be heard

“It was a daily thing, listening to my mom cry. I would listen to her fragmented childhood memories, these awful stories. As a child I would see these images of happy families out there, not having a care in the world, but our house was so different. It was so heavy because mom was the head of the household and we were all dealing with her trauma. We were robbed of having a healthy family experience. I was robbed of my mom.”

Jules Koostachin is the daughter of a Residential School survivor. Her mother’s past became the reality for their whole family.

“Living with someone who has been raised in an institution causes intergenerational trauma,” she said.

Rita Okimawininew, Koostachin’s mother, attended St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario, from the age of five to 16.

Rita Okimawininew (Photo Credit: Jules Koostachin)

Residential School History

Across Canada, Residential Schools were used as a tool to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture, with the goal of “taking the Indian out of the child.”

The first Residential School was created in 1876, and quickly grew to 69 school locations. In the 1930s the schools expanded, totaling to 159 across the country. The final school closed in 1996.

Many Indigenous children attending these schools, ranging from five years old and into their late teens, had been forcefully removed from their homes.

However, a few children were sent willingly.

Okimawininew’s mother purposely sent her to St. Anne’s because she was unaware of the school’s intentions. The concept was presented to her by local church leaders, who held up the façade that the school was for the benefit of the children.

“When people experience trauma at such a young age, it’s going to impact who they are as a person,” said Koostachin.

An estimated 150,000 children attended Residential Schools in Canada, and within the institutions approximately 6,000 of those children died.

The deaths stopped being recorded after 1920 because the chief medical officer at Indian Affairs was fired for suggesting that children were dying at an alarming rate, said Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Indigenous children had about a 1 in 25 chance of survival at the Residential Schools, according to research by CBC News.

The student deaths were so common, the architects who designed the schools planned for cemeteries to be incorporated into the designs.

Forms of Abuse

“The direct racism in the institution, the direct abuse, it was damaging to [Okimawininew] as a person. Not having the counselling or support services for her, she went on in her life without dealing with it,” said Koostachin.

St. Anne’s was known for their homemade electric chair, used as punishment for the children, and entertainment for the workers.

Other forms of punishment were beatings, rape and sexual assault.

“I remember being in the dining room having a meal. I got sick and threw up on the floor. Sister Mary Immaculate slapped me many times and made me eat my own vomit. So I did, I ate all of it,” said Andrew Wesley, another survivor of St. Anne’s.

Wesley’s story was published in Charlie Angus’ book Children of the Broken Treaty, a book that traces the history of the Residential School System.

Loss of Culture

However, it is not the beatings or abuse which Okimawininew, and many other survivors, remember most, although it does play a significant role. It is the loss of their culture that continues to haunt them.

“I remember my grandmother told me, when someone dies you have to sing. Residence schools wanted us to forget about what we believed in our cultures. I was not able to sing,” Okimawininew said.

Okimawininew did not receive the support or counselling she needed to heal from the trauma, so she was often faced with days of depression and self-esteem issues, and finds it difficult to speak of her Residential School experience.

Healing From the Trauma

There are many organizations today that help in the healing process for Residential School survivors.

“We’re looking to move forward and beyond the pain. We want to help people heal from the impact,” said Cindy Tom-Lindley, the executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society (IRSSS).


Located in British Columbia, the IRSSS is spreading awareness and support on the West Coast of Canada. They have eight offices where they offer support in a variety of ways. Some of their services include grief and loss, crisis and trauma counselling, as well as clinical and art therapy.

“I’m a third generation survivor, my grandmother went to Residential School, my mother and all of her siblings went to Residential School, and me and all of my siblings had to go,” said Tom-Lindley.

As a Residential School survivor herself, Tom-Lindley understands the importance of getting support to help heal from the trauma.

However, the government denied the severity of the Residential Schools for many years, making it difficult for survivors to speak out and receive the proper treatment they needed.

The Canadian Governments' Role

On June 1, 2008, the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established, with a five year commission to inform Canadians about the Indian Residential Schools, according to the official TRC website.

Koostachin and Buffin (Photo Credit: James Buffin)

“There are changes being made, like the inquiry for missing and murdered Indigenous women, but the government still has a lot to do, ” said James Buffin, a filmmaker from Toronto.

Buffin documents stories involving trauma and the ways people heal from them. He considers himself an ally to Indigenous peoples, by definition of the TRC.

On Wednesday June 11, 2008, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister at the time, made a Statement of Apology on behalf of the Government of Canada, to the students of Indian Residential Schools.

The apology states the failing to recognize the severity of what the Residential Schools have caused acted as an impediment to healing and reconciliation.

However, after the apology, the Indigenous community still felt as if the government was not keeping their promises.

“We need people to honour their words, and we need to honour our words. There is a trust that is missing,” said Koostachin.

The TRC is the guideline for the government to approach reconciliation for the future, according to Indigenous peoples.

“I think the TRC recommendations are a good place to start because it derives from the testimonials of survivors, and all of the work that’s been done,” said Koostachin.

Her concerns with the government are not solely based around the Residential Schools that have caused her family so much pain and suffering. She still finds there are other problems involving the Indigenous community and the Canadian Government today.

Parliament Hill

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline on Nov. 29, which carries crude and refined oil from Alberta to the West Coast of British Columbia. He also approved the Line 3 tar sands pipeline, a pipeline linked to the Enbridge Pipeline System, which transports crude oil and dilbit from Canada to the United States.

This created problems for the Indigenous community because many people believed there was a verbal agreement to not move forward with the project. For Indigenous people, having Trudeau now approve this project dampens the relationship and causes stress, according to Koostachin.

“We need to strengthen this relationship between the settlers and the Indigenous peoples. This is a time for cultures to finally come back together,” said Buffin.

However, there are still many challenges that need to be overcome, and the anger that remains is caused from years of serious oppression and racism.

“We’re the only country in the world with an Indian Act. That’s pretty archaic, because the Indian Act violates the Charter of Rights, and Human Rights Codes. So I think Canada still has a long way to go,” said Koostachin.

Many other survivors of the Residential Schools don’t think the Canadian Government is acting fast enough.

Scott Many Fingers' Tweet

Many Fingers, a Residential School Survivor and member of the Kainai/Blood First Nation, is tired of hearing the talk of reconciliation, and wants to see actions being done instead.

The Canadian Government may have a long way to go, but so do the survivors still healing from the trauma and horrific memories of what they had to endure.

“We provide support for survivors who faced abuse. We are creating the ability to help our people,” said Tom-Lindley

Okimawininew, now 72, has seen counsellors on and off, trying to receive the support she needs.

“She struggles each day. She has to wake up every morning and remember what has happened to her, because that trauma doesn’t leave you, it stays with you forever,” said Koostachin.

Despite the depression and anxiety that the Residential Schools have caused, Okimawininew still pushes through each day.

Koostachin and Okimawininew at a Pow Wow (Photo Credit: James Buffin)

“I think her grandkids give her hope. She’s proud of us, her children, and that we’ve done quite well. She’s a little better now that she’s older and her kids are adults. Our conversations are more mature and we can support her better. You can be more supportive when you have a better understanding of the past. But every day she still suffers,” said Koostachin.

Despite the increase in education on Indigenous Culture, and the Residential School’s history in schools and within communities, there are still Canadians who are unaware of their country’s past.

“People still deny that this actually happened, and they deny the severity of it. But I know what my mom went through; I lived through it with her. I know what she experienced because I’ve experienced it since I was a kid," said Koostachin.

"Don’t say it didn’t happen."
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Alison Trenton

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