Kristin Harder couldn’t bear to let her friend photograph the tiny braids that lay curled in their little box. Although dry with age, the hair was clearly that of a child, wispy and innocent.
The little braids in the box could very well have belonged to Harder’s birth mother, who attended Indian residential school and later gave Harder up for adoption during the infamous Sixties Scoop.
Harder’s reaction exemplifies the multi-layered impact of the generational trauma wrought by Indian residential schools on Canada’s indigenous peoples and the depth of the healing process for survivors and their families.
One of the first actions of Indian residential school administrators was to cut the children’s long hair, a terrible indignity for First Nations people that came to symbolize a cut with their cultures and families.
The braids were part of the Witness Blanket, an art installation of reclaimed objects commemorating survivors of Indian residential schools and part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work in Ottawa last week. The Witness Blanket will be on display until July 9 in Ottawa City Hall.
The Sixties Scoop was a period from the 1960s through the late 1980s during which an estimated 16,000 indigenous children were taken—scooped up—from their families and adopted by non-native families. The children experienced a loss of cultural identity, their birth family, history and Indian status. The assimilationist practice formally ended in the 1980s, but the effects are still being felt today, and a number of adoptees are suing the government.
Harder, Blackfoot of the Siksika Nation, was physically abused in the foster home where she lived for the first three years of her life. She was finally adopted by a white Mennonite family and raised in the city of Edmonton without any contact with her birth family or culture.
“For years I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was so uncomfortable in my own skin and I didn’t fit in anywhere,” she recalled recently.
Harder described her adoptive parents as fundamentally good people who were unable to understand her often-crippling distress and anger.
“Their eyes are open but their ears are shut,” is how she described it.
As a teenager, Harder found and met her birth mother, an experience she described as “awkward.” Now passed away, her mother was an alcoholic and unable to build a relationship with Harder or any of the other six children she bore.
“I have since learned that she was dealing with her own trauma,” Harder said.
Eventually, Harder was able to not so much forgive her mother as understand her. This knowledge has been essential in her own healing process, said Harder, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She has been seeing a therapist from the Métis Nation who specializes in helping residential school survivors.
The therapy has been provided as part of Canada’s legal obligation under the Indian Residential Settlement School Agreement’s Resolution Health Support Program for survivors.
“In recognition of the intergenerational impacts that the Indian Residential Schools had on families, the Resolution Health Support Program services are also available to family members of former school students,” says the website of Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health branch.
The health support services have been very popular among survivors and their families, according to Valerie Gideon, assistant deputy minister of regional operations for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. In addition to traditional clinical mental health services, the program supports traditional healing practices chosen by clients as well as cultural camps and gatherings and financial support for elders and healers who lead such efforts.
Initially health support services were accessed 34,000 times, according to Health Canada; by 2012–2013 it had risen to 473,000, and already in 2015 it is at 323,000. Although Health Canada does not yet have clinical outcomes from the Resolution Health Program, Gideon and others in the field are confident the results will be favorable. Health Canada has funded a longitudinal data study that has been following a cohort of survivors since 2002. The data, according to Gideon, should be available soon.
The Resolution Health Program falls under the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch’s Mental Wellness Continuum Framework, which is driven by a First Nation perspective. The Framework, designed to ensure that mental health programming continues over generations, has been endorsed by all First Nation chiefs across Canada, Gideon said.
“The healing journey is not going to be over once the Settlement obligations are met,” said Gideon. “People will still need to have access to mental, emotional and cultural support.”
In other words, healing is a long-term, ongoing process. Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Chief Willton Littlechild said that he began to see healing begin for people about four to five years into his work with the commission.
“During her testimony, one woman told us she used to hate herself,” he told ICTMN. “She was ashamed of the way she was treated because she was Indian. Now I look in the mirror and I love myself, she told us. I can tell my children I love them.”
During TRC gatherings people have shared that they’ve quit drinking and drugging because they are on their healing journey, according to Littlechild.
“People applaud and boost each other up,” he noted.
Delving into the trauma from residential schools is not so much an excuse for addiction and other negative behaviors as it is a search for understanding among survivors, according to Littlechild.
“People tell us that they were trying to kill the pain within them with drugs and alcohol but because of the TRC’s work and gatherings they have come to know their own stories, to know where they are coming from,” Littlechild said. “This knowledge has given them the strength to begin their own healing journeys.”
Ultimately, healing for Indigenous Peoples will not depend on the Canadian government’s reaction to the TRC’s recommendations, noted Littlechild.
“Real healing starts with me, with that revelation that I need to make a better relationship with myself, my family and with the Creator,” he said. “It doesn’t matter so much what others do; its just as important what we do individually.”
Outside City Hall, where the Survivors Quilt hangs, the final celebration of the TRC gathering was in full swing with a round dance and performance by Buffy St. Marie.
Suzanne Nottaway, Algonquin, danced with utter abandon to the pumping sound of St. Marie’s guitar. She danced as though alone with her disabled daughter, who smiled up at her appreciatively from her wheelchair. Nottaway, 53, is a residential school survivor whose main language is French.
“First Nation’s people are as the fleur sauvage [weeds]; we survive everything they try to do to us,” she said.
Harder watched the performance and dancers as they twirled under the brilliant sun.
“Coming to the TRC gatherings and meeting other survivors and their families has helped me realize I’m not all alone, I’m not crazy,” she said. “My anger and other reactions are those of a traumatized person.”
And this, she said, has helped her heal beyond her generation.
“I’ve come to realize how damaged my birth mother was,” Harder said. “She had no way to get rid of her anger; she had no safety zone. Being among others like me is the beginning of creating my own safety zone.”
This project is made possible by support from The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism and the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, University of Southern California‘s Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism.