Residential schools in Canada
There are significant health disparities between the indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Canada. There are many factors that underlie these disparities and hinder the ability to address them appropriately. The residential school system has played a significant role in these inequalities. These residential schools which operated between 1876 to 1996 isolated children from the influence of their traditions and tried assimilating them into the dominant culture. The process incorporated torture that claimed the deaths of many children and deteriorated the health of individuals in those communities, impacts that are felt to today. This paper provides a critical analysis of the experiences of residential school and their impact on the health of the indigenous populations. The paper first provides the background overview of the residential schools and then focuses on three subtopics namely: the health status of the indigenous populations, the determinants of health disparities and the process of health and wellbeing among the victims of residential systems.
Residential schools were established in the 19th century by the Canadian government with an objective of educating and caring for Aboriginal people in Canada. They believed that through learning English, adopting Christianity and Canadian customs would pave the way for their success. Ideally, they would pass the skills to their children, and within generations, the native traditions would diminish or completely be abolished. The government established a policy where these skills were taught in church-run and government –funded industrial schools which were later called residential schools.
The aboriginal culture was so dominant that residential schools were thought as a possible way to help the society adopt modernisation. The problem arose when the government went to extra miles to instil the era of modernisation in the society. They discouraged students from speaking their mother tongue and from practicing any form of native traditions. Anyone found doing so would be punished harshly. Students lived in poor conditions and went through physical and emotional abuse. They were completely detached from a normal family life during the time they were in schools. Most spend ten months in school per year. This must have been a long time to be denied a normal life any person would wish for. As Bombay, Matheson, and Anisman (2014) states, these students found it hard to fit once they returned to the reserves. Some schools even carried nutrition experiments on malnourished students with federal government’s knowledge. The result of this initiate was students lacking skills to help their parents and being ashamed of practicing the little they knew including ashamed of speaking their native language. Furthermore, the skills they were taught in school were generally substandard such that it was hard to fit in the urban setting as well. Exposure to years of abuse meant devastation. Children found these residential schools horrific through repetitive processes of abuse including rape and torture. What they went through presented trauma in their lives and affected their health conditions including becoming ill and going through mental stress, something that affects them to today.
The Aboriginal Health Status
The calls for compensation by churches and all institutions clearly show that the physical, emotional and sexual abuse was an issue later regretted. The diversity of its effects has been told by reports of many people on their experiences that the governments worked with the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian churches among others to design a plan to compensate the former students. Calls for compensation began in the 1990s, and for the first time in 2007, the government formalized a compensation package for the victims. Even with all these compensations, the impacts of residential schools to the health of indigenous populations in Canada persist. The fact remains that as many as 6,000 children did not survive in the residential institutions and they can’t be brought back to life (Kirmayer, Gone, Moses, 2014). Most succumbed to death from torture while others committed suicide from prolonged depression and others to escape the abuse. These abuses together with overcrowding, inadequate care, lack of enough food and poor sanitation resulted in many deaths. Survivors today still recall what they went through like being beaten and needles shoved in their tongues for speaking the mother tongue. As these survivors recall, they are seen still angry and bitter towards the process. The effects connect to today social ills plaguing the society within the first nations. For example, the domestic violence, the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in foster care and even homicides among indigenous women.
The health impacts of residential schools can be detected on many health aspects. The first nations, the Inuit and Metis still show a burden of diseases or health disparities. The residential schools put a disproportionate burden of ill health and social suffering on the indigenous populations of Canada which brought social, economic, cultural and political inequalities thus health disparities as compared to non-indigenous populations. The world experiences among the first nations’ people explain the differences in socio-economic circumstances, a gap that has been persisting over the decades between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. The indigenous people in Canada are affected by major health issues than the non-indigenous people like the Indian and Northern Affair Canada. Some of these health issues include high infant and child mortality rates, high maternal morbidity, and malnutrition, diseases associated with smoking cigarette, hypertension, obesity, high homicide rates and illnesses from environmental contamination among many others.
The determinants of health disparities
The physical, emotional and mental dimensions among the indigenous people are influenced by a broad range of social determinants that have persisted since the residential schools” experiences. These determinants comprise of circumstances, environment, systems and institutions that influence development and maintenance of health. The effects of residential school on the Canadians health today are historic.
The first nations, Inuit and Metis people experiences a colonial process that was tough and lead to diminished self-determination and lack of implementation of polices that focused on the welfare of indigenous individuals. The students of residential schools were separated from their indigenous culture, lost their language and went through racism and discrimination. These forms of social seclusion which were extreme in remote areas like Metis are the result of the differences in social, economic status in different areas in Canada. Remote areas suffer from lack of economic development necessary to alleviate the health issues related to socio-economic status. Most of the Canadian public disassociate today’s events from residential schools, but in many ways, this is adjusted a misconception. The last residential schools closed in 1968 but many of the teachers, parents, and grandparents in the communities today are survivors of residential schools. Also, there are intergenerational effects as many of the survivors of residential schools share the same burdens as their ancestors. Some of the effects transmitted to them include personal trauma, compromised family systems, loss of aboriginal language and culture. These effects are what creates poor social status and derail the economic development in the indigenous population as compared to non-indigenous populations.
As Nelson and Wilson (2017) asserts residential schools lay a foundation for the domestic abuse and violence against indigenous women and children. This can be explained by the lack of nurturing family by the generations of children. Many children have grown with no right parenting skills but learning the abuse experiences transferred to them by their parents and in turn, transfers them to their children and family members. The domestic violence among Aboriginal families results in many broken homes, creating a cycle of abuse and dysfunction over generations. Some people never grew in an ideal family and worse enough, others did not even meet their families again as they died in schools. Parents were devastated and those that saw their children again the relationship was never the same as they had lost dialect with them. The children grew without their traditions as most had lost their mother tongue and disconnected from many of their traditional practices. These aspects have transferred from generations to generation and raising kids in the required manner has not been possible. The adults today and the many old people who children depend on to raise them are the same people that lost the best years of their childhood in physical and emotional humiliations in the residential schools. So as much as they have been fighting for their rights, the effects are strongly dominant in their lives, and they are never in the right mind-set of raising a kid as needed by the modern society. They were hardened in their early years when they had no one to turn when needed comfort and lacked someone to tell them they loved them. Such important caregiving did not appear like a big deal in their adulthood when raising their children who adopted such habits, and in that process, the indigenous population still have the characteristic of ignoring the little but those important aspects.
The sense of worthlessness instilled in the students of residential schools contributed to low self-esteem. This has manifested in many health behaviours observed today among the aboriginal people. The trauma experienced by the residential school students resulted in them not knowing they lost the meaning of life in the process of disconnecting themselves from terror and horrific experiences. The survivors today still have such memories and try to escape them through any means possible. The most relevant health behaviours include excessive drinking of alcohol and excessive smoking. These behaviours relate to many cases of mortalities and illnesses like heart diseases and lung cancer. Poor prenatal care, drinking, and smoking have been linked to poor physical, emotional and intellectual growth among the indigenous children. Other associated health impacts of these behaviours include lack of exercise and poor diet which has been associated with type 11 Diabetes among the youth and adults (Oster, Grier, Lightning, Mayan and Toth, 2014). In the first nations, people aged 10 to 44 years have been observed to have high cases of suicides and self-inflicted injuries which contribute to about 40% of mortalities (Ross and Dion et al., 2015).
The students in residential schools could face corporal punishment if found engaging in any traditional practice. This means even some of the most important practices like the indigenous foods were not transferable, and the practices that provided the indigenous population with foods were lost. Today there is a big global food crisis that could have been solved by the abandoned indigenous foods. It is no surprise that the aboriginal people in the remote areas face food insecurity which can be solved through traditional practices like hunting and gathering. Also, lands that were set aside for farming by these individuals have been transformed into commercial trade like real estate. This is due to the effect of forcing people into adopting modernisation completely abolishing the traditional aspects that are key to providing basics of live. The few farmers left are finding difficulties acquiring markets for their products because their population has been afflicted by poverty. They, therefore, have to access market to remote communities and since the cost of transportation is high, it means that healthy and nutritious food is not affordable to most communities. The lack of acquiring traditional foods is what has made these communities dependent on farm products provided by the few traditional farmers in practice thus poverty a major ailment. The issues of food insecurity subject the population to stress from a compromised diet when they fail to acquire food. This stress has been driving the victims into depression and deterioration in their health.
There are so many other factors that can explain today’s social ills. But crucial one thing to note is the subsequent cause of them, for example, their effects on the quality of education. The issues of poverty, domestic violence, social exclusion and indulgence to alcohol all contribute to family instability by manifesting in things like single parenting. The most affected are the children that are still schooling who end up receiving inadequate education either from dropping out or mental disability. Poor literacy affects someone’s ability to acquire information on proper nutrition and how to prepare healthy foods. According to Hackett, Feeny, and Tompa (2016), there is evidence of inequities in the distribution of opportunities with education area included. Educational facilities are lacking because of lack of capacity to promote education among people. Snyder and Wilson (2015) states that about 50% of indigenous youths drop out of schools or are pushed out of schools which has resulted in low literacy level and consequently increased poverty in future generations. There is still so much distinction between the on and off-reserve schools and students that want to further their education mostly enroll to off-reserve school, but they find it hard to fit that is why most choose to end schooling after eighth grade. Those that go on to enrol in off-reserve schools go through a lot of trouble trying to adopt the lifestyles of their classmates in the non-indigenous population which is mostly stressful and depressing thus affecting their education.
Healing and Wellness
Inspire of all the health issues faced by the indigenous people, they continue to strive for wellness. Many indigenous populations have lost cultures, suffered the loss of connections, languages and traditional ways of life through the residential school system. There are policies today designed to bring healing to these populations, empower them and give them back their rights. The process of bringing change to this devastating system began in the 19th century when the residential school was still in operations. The first people to recognize aboriginal societies were dying out are the European official who thought the only hope for the aboriginal people was converting them to Christianity. But this did to work because cultures still survived despite all effort to destroy them. The experiences and the needs of the aboriginal people were becoming more recognized, and the government acknowledged the detrimental health effects of separating children from their families.
The government decided to let the indigenous children to live with their families whenever they wished, and the system started adopting more qualified staffs. In 1960, the Indian department tried to take control of the system excluding the church involvement, but the abuse still continued. The government further took an initiative of phasing out segregation and incorporating the students in public schools. The result was slightly positive with more students reaching higher levels of education, but the problems persisted. Adjustment to public schools presented a lot of difficulties with encounters of discrimination.
The post-secondary education was most of the times considered out of reach for these Indigenous students and those that wanted to join university were mostly discouraged. There were efforts to phase out residential schools and attend to the needs of the victim communities, but it was slow with many rehearsals. The cries of affected people incorporated with the fact that the detrimental effects of these schools were widely recognized is what brought a light at the end through so many efforts to heal the society. Although the healing is not completely achieved, the indigenous populations gained hope and today there are so many changes that have happened and there is a continued healing and wellness process that will hopefully change the situation and bring a balanced development and good health to the indigenous population like that experienced by non-indigenous populations.
The government started an initiative to compensate for the survivors who bring their claims and prove that they were abused in the residential school system. This is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Established on June 1, 2008, to document and promote the extend and impact of the residential system experiences. This is by incorporating with the provision of safe settlements for former students to share their experiences and generally obtain a report on the legacy of the residential school system (Niezen, 2013). So far, the commission have held events in various Canadian cities where they have publicly addressed the extend and impact of the residential schools on the first nations, Metis and Inuit. The commission has made some steps in accomplishing its objectives for example by gaining access to about 3.5 million documents held by federal governments. These documents are believed to be able to build a strong case on genocide in Canada.
The settlement process although sounds generous, it may not be bringing a healing process but instead bringing back the pain as one recalls what happened to them. The settlement involves lawyers and government official and has all aspects of awakening the past pain and suffering. Some people have criticized the process saying that the program’s aim may be healing the past atrocities but it is putting the burden of proof on the victims to proof the torture that happened but excluding the state and churches from proving themselves. These survivors sometimes provide this truth in front of their abusers. The provision of the settlement requires that the adjudicators be qualified, and further have significant exposure to the Canadian Aboriginal people. But the fact remains, the provision does not specify that the adjudicators be native and therefore most of them are not native. A person’s fate is subject to the decision of the white authority figure. Although the program is trying everything possible to bring healing to the survivors, it is not the effective way and revisions for better healing program may be needed.
The Canadian government has also implemented healthy policies and programs with the aim of catering for the indigenous populations. The majority of Canadians including the on reserve and, Metis, off-reserve and non-status Indians, health services are provided by the national health insurance plan and administered at territorial level. For the first nations and Inuit people, the services are offered through the First Nations Inuit Health Branch (FNIHB) (Richmond and Cook, 2016). FNIHB administers programs that focus on the specific health needs of the aboriginal communities. These programs include community-based health promotion and diseases prevention, nursing stations providing primary care to people, programs focused on preventing communicable diseases, provision of safe drinking water and offering health benefits to non-insured individuals covering expenses like prescription drugs and medical supplies and equipment.
In some cases, administration of health services to Aboriginal needs are adequate, but there are other cases where there are gaps and complications created by the policy which have created barriers to equitable access to healthcare. The FNIHB have been incorporating negotiations by the individual communities to transfer health services depending on the extend of needs, and this is subject to defining some jurisdiction and setting parameters on agreements regarding delivery of health services between provincial, federal and the aboriginal government entities (Yi, Landais, Kolahdooz and Sharma, 2015). These health policies and programs could bring recovery to the aboriginal cultures by ensuring restoration of health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.
The residential schools subjected horrific experiences to their students. It is unbelievable that any human being, leave alone the spiritual leaders and public servants, could have abused children the way they did. Children that went through such physical, emotional and mental abuse deserve help and support from the government and everybody else. It is clear the indigenous populations are faced with complex and varied challenges. They are however increasingly understanding that the aboriginal issue concerns everyone and they are not willing to keep quit until their needs are fully met. Even though apologies and acknowledgments from government and churches are important steps in the healing process, the Aboriginal representatives have made it clear that these gestures are not enough without supportive actions.
These populations are increasingly recognizing knowledge, determination, and resilience of their cultures to meet the challenges and in particular with aid from culturally appropriate care in the improvement and maintenance of their health and wellbeing. The needs of the indigenous populations need more attention and favors in order to ensure with time the populations have equal rights and resources as any other population across the country. This will be possible if the health policy adopts a comprehensive health assessment measures that reflect and prioritizes health needs in their local jurisdictions. The aboriginal people also value the importance of retaining and learning their aboriginal language and recovering all their lost traditions.
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