12 Modern Indigenous Reality


Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Elder Jo-Anne Gottfriedson explains the importance of including loss of language and culture with the Day Scholars Class Action. Originally recorded at the 1L TRC Day, January 31, 2019 on site, in Moccasin Square Gardens (MSG), the restored and functional gymnasium of the KIRS.

Indigenous Peoples have faced many traumas that have compounded over generations. Residential schools, loss of culture, loss of land, loss of childhood, and loss of family are all traumas that many Indigenous People have faced. All of the stories told in the previous section are lived experiences that have greatly impacted not only Indigenous Peoples themselves, but shaped public opinion on Indigenous Peoples.

The historical violence against and dispossession of First Nations Peoples has led to intergenerational trauma.  A study found that among 127 residential school Survivors, all but two suffered from mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse disorder, major depression, and dysthymic disorder.[1] Studies have also shown that the diets of the children in residential school led to the development of disease, like diabetes, later in life. Some call the combination of these different disorders “Residential School Syndrome”.[2] Modern research also points to the potential for epigenetic changes in human biology in response to trauma that can impact a person’s offspring.[3] The children of those who attended residential schools generally face more negative health outcomes than children of non-attendees.[4]

Intergenerational trauma can be viewed psychologically, socially, and physiologically. It can also be looked at on individual and collective levels. On the individual level is the direct consequences of the parent’s behaviour on the children. For example, if someone is suffering from PTSD, depression, and addiction, they will have a difficult time raising their children in a loving and caring environment. Another way to think about intergenerational trauma is to consider the community-level response to trauma. The loss of culture and the weakening of social structures inhibits a community’s ability to take control over education, child welfare, and policing. The lack of cultural continuity has been linked to higher rates of suicide for Indigenous peoples.[5]


Foster Care System
The policy of taking Indigenous children from their homes, although evolved from adoptions, has not ended. There are many more Indigenous children in care today than at any point of the residential schools.[6] This has been deemed the Millennium Scoop to differentiate the era and experiences. Indigenous children are still entering child welfare care at increasing rates. According to federal government figures the number of status Indian children entering child welfare care rose 71.5% nationally between 1995-2001.[7]
Cindy Blackstock and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS or “The Caring Society”) have been successfully fighting the Canadian Government in the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) for Indigenous children’s rights since 2007. [8] In 2016, the CHRT in a nearly 500 paragraph decision found that Canada had discriminated against Indigenous Children and Families. The tribunal at para 456 stated that “they prima facie established that First Nations children and families living on reserve and in the Yukon are denied [CHRA s. 5(a)] equal child and family services and/or differentiated adversely [CHRA s. 5(b)] in the provision of child and family services.”[9].  The tribunal ordered Canada to cease its discriminatory practices and reform the First Nation Child and Family Services Program and the 1965 agreement[10] to reflect the tribunal’s findings and ordered Canada “to cease applying its narrow definition of Jordan’s Principle and to take measures to immediately implement the full meaning and scope of Jordan’s principle” [11] 
More than just funding, there is a need to refocus the policy of the program to respect human rights principles and sound social work practice. In the best interest of the child, all First Nations children and families living on-reserve should have an opportunity “…equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have and to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society” First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada et al. v. Attorney General of Canada (for the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada), 2016 CHRT 2 at Para 482.

Anti-Indigenous Racism

Anti-Indigenous racism is still highly present in Canadian society. One need only look back to the past year (2020) to see its prevalence.

In addition to the stark and visible acts of racism towards Indigenous Peoples, there is still a heavy presence of unintentional acts of racism, usually through the use of microaggressions. A microaggression is defined as “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a member of a marginalized group, especially a racial minority, that is often unintentionally offensive or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype”. [12] This might include actions such as watching an Indigenous Person while they are in a store or holding your purse closer. Those reinforce a stereotype of perceived criminality. There can also be more inadvertent microaggressions that may take the form of a “back handed” compliment. These may be comments like “you are so successful for an Indigenous Person” or “I bet you are the first of your family to go to college, they must be so proud”. Comments like these reinforce the idea that an Indigenous Person does not belong in a certain profession or academic circle. There can also be privileged based microaggressions. This may take the form of “othering” an Indigenous Person due to the pronunciation of their name or the food they eat. Not taking the time to respect the name a person was given because it is “too difficult” or “too strange” is incredibly harmful to a person’s self identity. As we have seen above, the erasure of Indigenous identity has been a substantial theme in Canada’s dark history of the treatment of Indigenous Peoples.

For a deep dive into race relations in a world that sees “colour-blind” (the idea that “I don’t see race, I just see a person for who they are”) or tolerance as acceptable, give the New York Times Bestseller “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo a read. Olulo’s book although focused mainly on the experiences of Black or Latinx people in America, does an excellent job of working through privilege, microaggressions and the harm that those can cause. This book is recommended not only for its content, but for its wide avaliblity in bookstores and public libraries, including on accessible formats such as audiobook.


Retraumatization from the Discovery of Mass Graves

On May 27, 2021, the bodies of 215 children were discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.[13] To date, there have been discoveries at 3 residential schools since the announcement in Kamloops. On June 24, 2021, The Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary finding Thursday of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School. [14] On June 30, 2021, ʔaq̓am, one of the 4 bands that comprise the Ktunaxa Nation near Cranbrook B.C. announced a preliminary finding of 182 unmarked graves on what was believed to be cemetery grounds. [15] On July 12, 2021, 160 “undocumented and unmarked” graves were confirmed to be found Penelakut Island at the former Kuper Island Industrial School. [16]

The discoveries of these graves is not new news to Indigenous Peoples in Canada, but is harmful news nonetheless. The TRC Calls to Action 71-76 call on the Federal Government and other relevant parties (Indigenous Nations and Provincial Vital Statistics agencies) to provide existing information about the burials and deaths of children who attended residential schools but also to “develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried.”[17]

Indigenous Peoples especially those who attended the school have been directly impacted by this news. Some have expressed feelings of being overwhelmed or retraumatized. Others have found a sense of peace in getting closer to having answers and recognition for the horrors faced.  Students themselves were the ones who had to dig the graves and bury the children that had died. For those students, this has been a very difficult time. One survivor George Muldoe, in an interview with CTV news, stated that when he was 15, he had the task of digging grave sand burying his fellow students. There was no ceremony or family, just a truck dumping the bodies and then himself and the other students tasked with the burials. He remarked that a body could sit there for 3 days while they were digging until they could bury it. He didn’t always know who he was burying and sometimes, students didn’t even get buried. In the interview, he remarked “I don’t think they’ll ever find everybody… some of the people, especially the fetuses, were put in furnaces,”.[18]

Ultimately, it is important to remember that this is still very much in living memory. Former student’s friends and family members are being rediscovered. For some, it may bring closure, for others, it will cause a great deal of trauma. There is no one right way to grieve or react to news like this. At the end of the day, understanding how trauma affects individuals will better aid you in understanding the lived experiences and intergenerational trauma of Indigenous Peoples.


Timeline of Unmarked Grave (Re)Discoveries – May-June 2021

Canada Day, July 1st 2021 – Copyright Garry Gottfriedson

Canada, you have claimed this July day 

to boast the birth of colonial takeover

a perpetual death warrant for my people

and a day in which you have held

your own citizens in scorn

when in fact, they were innocent

of your contempt and cover-ups


tell me how can I celebrate

what arose from within the deep

corners of your mind

to wordsmith the Indian Act and other policies of




and starvation


you see, I have 215 reasons

to be skeptical of your contributions

the price of their last breathes

at the hands of the church and state

your residential school legacy of

child abduction




and murder


to celebrate

your colonial birthday is an acknowledgement

that their lives and mine

was not a high enough price

to appease your ghastly desire

to abuse our bodies at your will

then use our blood as ink

to write your white paper policy


it is betrayal to admit defeat

under those circumstances

because those 215 ancestral bones won’t allow

the river-songs still flowing

in my blood to die so easily

nor will they will permit

the graveyards in my heart to enter rage


instead they whisper

from the orchards

“they have found us”

and I share that joy

and the new found courage

to use my voice to thank

my ancestors and awakened citizens

breaking your shame

running for the dead

riding and driving in solidarity

the kind-heartedness of Sikh and other

strangers shedding tears with us

reminding us of this simple word


‘I have returned to being human’

and for this, I will celebrate

  1. Carrado, Cohen, Mental Health Profiles for a Sample of British Columbia’s Aboriginal Survivors of the Canadian Residential School System.
  2. Ian Mosby, "Hunger was never absent: How Residential school diets shaped current patterns of diabetes among Indigenous peoples in Canada" (2017) 189:32 CMAJ E1043, online (pdf): US National Library of Medicine <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5555756/pdf/189e1043.pdf> [perma.cc/6TWX-TR66].
  3. Yehuda, Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms
  4. Bombay A, Matheson K, Anisman H. The intergenerational effects of Indian residential schools: implications for the concept of historical trauma. Transcult Psychiatry. 2014;51(3):320–38.
  5. Chandler, Michael & Travis Proulx. “Changing selves in Changing Worlds: Youth suicide on the fault-lines of Colliding Cultures” (2006) 10:2 Archives of Suicide Research 125.
  6. “Speaking Notes for Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine International Conference on Ethics” (5 February 2007), online: Nation Talk <nationtalk.ca/story/speaking-notes-for-assembly-of-first-nations-national-chief-phil-fontaine-international-conference-on-ethics> [perma.cc/X34L-B6NU].
  7. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, “Why is this case important?” (25 January 2021 last visited), online: First Nations Child and Family Caring Society <fncaringsociety.com/why-case-important> [perma.cc/3979-M5WV].
  8. “I am a Witness – Background” (25 January 2021 last visited), online: First Nations Child and Family Caring Society <fncaringsociety.com/i-am-witness-background> [perma.cc/WQN5-3ULB].
  9. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada et al. v. Attorney General of Canada (for the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada), 2016 CHRT 2 (CanLII), online: CanLII <canlii.ca/t/gn2vg> [perma.cc/VAN7-ZUM5].
  10. In 1965, the federal government entered into an agreement with the Province of Ontario to enable social services, including child and family services, to be extended to First Nations communities on reserve.
  11. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada et al. v. Attorney General of Canada (for the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada), 2016 CHRT 2 at Para 481
  12. Dictionary.com "Microaggression" https://www.dictionary.com/browse/microaggression
  13. Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir, "Remains of Children of Kamloops Residential School Discovered" Press Release, May 27, 2021. https://tkemlups.ca/remains-of-children-of-kamloops-residential-school-discovered/
  14. Bryan Eneas, "Sask. First Nation announces discovery of 751 unmarked graves near former residential school" CBC News, June 24, 2021. Last Updated June 25, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/cowessess-marieval-indian-residential-school-news-1.6078375
  15. Alex Migdal "182 unmarked graves discovered near residential school in B.C.'s Interior, First Nation says" CBC News, June 30, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-remains-residential-school-interior-1.6085990
  16. CTV News "More than 160 unmarked graves found near another B.C. residential school site: Penelakut Tribe" July 12, 2021. https://bc.ctvnews.ca/more-than-160-unmarked-graves-found-near-another-b-c-residential-school-site-penelakut-tribe-1.5506774
  17. Truth And Reconcilliation Commission of Canada "Calls to Action" 2015.
  18. Steven Dyer "'I've been very overwhelmed': Survivors gather at former residential school site" CTV News Edmonton, July 6, 2021. https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/i-ve-been-very-overwhelmed-survivors-gather-at-former-residential-school-site-1.5499456


Implementing Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action Copyright © by Nicole Schabus (academic lead). All Rights Reserved.

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