Teaching Anthropology: Residential Schools and Intergenerational Trauma

BY: KAELIANA SMOKE, Undergraduate Student, University of Toronto Mississauga

As an Indigenous scholar, studying anthropology in Canada at the University of Toronto Mississauga, I understand better than others that there are long standing issues between the field of anthropology and Indigenous People of Turtle Island. Anthropology has studied Indigenous people as specimens and statistics through many years and dehumanized them in their reports and findings. These reports have continued to enable and support colonial agendas and injustices. Understanding such injustices in Canada is important in teaching anthropology as it acts as a reminder of why it is important to modernize anthropology techniques of research. This makes sure that Indigenous people are included in the recording of their own culture and research is not used against them ever again. Understanding the effects of Residential Schools, like intergenerational trauma, is important as well because it helps with the understanding of the modern culture of Indigenous people and barriers that they face. Overall, learning about these subjects will also make sure that the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee will be answered so that Indigenous people all over Canada can finally heal (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).

Indian Residential Schools are one of the many stains on Canadian history. Over the years that the schools were operational from 1840 to 1996 more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended the schools with over 50,000 of those children dying and never returning home (Milloy, 2019). The Indigenous children not only faced death, but many were put through physical, mental, sexual, and spiritual abuse at the hands of the staff, many who were clergy members and nuns (Milloy, 2019). It is assumed by many that only those that attended these schools were the only ones to suffer at the hands of the cruelty and once the last school closed that the trauma that was caused by the Residential schools would disappear. Yet this wasn’t true. Many generations suffered because of Intergenerational trauma that has been caused by Residential schools, including myself, a Mohawk woman from Akwesasne, whose grandmother and grandfather attended Residential School.


Intergenerational trauma is a term that was originally used to describe the after-effects of the holocaust in terms of the survivors and their families (Barker, 2019). It has been used recently to refer to the affects that the residential schools have had on the survivors and the generations that have followed them (Barker, 2019). Intergeneration trauma has been seen through the following forms as it pertains to Indigenous people (Bombay, 2013):

  • Loss of language and culture
  • Mental health issues such as PTSD and depression
  • High suicide and other mortality rates
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse
  • Loss of parenting skills such as neglect or child abuse which causes many Indigenous children to be in the foster system
  • Inability to express emotions such as love and affection towards others
  • Physical and mental abuse
  • Domestic abuse
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Etc.

It is important to understand that the effects of the residential schools should not be used to stereotype Indigenous people and their experiences. Residential schools are not the only events that caused intergenerational trauma in Indigenous people in Canada. Other events are the 60s scoop, Indian day schools, and colonialism that have been seen through government control such as the banning cultural practices, status and blood quantum laws, and the withholding of culture.

            My own story and how intergenerational trauma has affected me begins with my grandmother, Cecilia Jacobs. She attended the Spanish Residential School located in Spanish, Ontario. She spent most of her childhood at Residential school where she had her culture and language stripped away from her, but the school didn’t succeed. She remembered her language because she was resilient and had more strength than anyone. Even years after, when she was well into her 80s and I was just a teenager, she never told me what happened at that school, because she couldn’t handle to relive those memories. At times she would let something slip, like how the priests and nuns would slip into the dormitory at night and sexually abuse children. A part of me wanted to know what she went through all those years and how she survived but I know that in the end, that is all I need to know.

            The fact that my grandmother went to Residential School created this fear within my family. It wasn’t a crippling fear, but it was subtle. It was a fear of the racism and prejudice that I would have to face because of my skin, my culture, and language. I learned about my culture, but in bits and pieces as I grew up. However, I never really truly learned my language. I picked up words here and there, but it wasn’t my first language. My parents believed it would be easier for me in society to learn English first instead of my traditional Mohawk language as I would eventually have to go onto Westernized schools. I was mad that I never went to the Mohawk immersion classes when I was young and felt like it was too late to learn my language. However, now as I grow older and understood the complexity of colonialism and racism, I understand why this decision was made. I understand that for myself to heal from what my grandmother’s experience at residential school, I have to learn my culture and language so I can pass it on to the future generations. I believe that all Indigenous people have to heal in their own ways. It is our responsibility for the future generations to heal from the trauma that has passed on to us and I hope that we all find our paths to do so.

Works Cited:

Barker, B., Sedgemore, K., Tourangeau, M., Lagimodiere, L., Milloy, J., Dong, H., … Debeck, K. (2019). Intergenerational Trauma: The Relationship Between Residential Schools and the Child Welfare System Among Young People Who Use Drugs in Vancouver, Canada. Journal of Adolescent Health, 65(2), 248–254. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2019.01.022

Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2013). The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the concept of historical trauma. Transcultural Psychiatry51(3), 320–338. doi: 10.1177/1363461513503380

 MILLOY, J. O. H. N. S. (2019). National Crime: the canadian government and the residential school system. S.l.: UNIV OF MANITOBA PRESS.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, Library and Archives Canada, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Retrieved from: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

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