Survivors of residential schools and their families have been found to suffer from historic trauma that has had a lasting and adverse effect on the transmission of Indigenous culture between generations. Passed on intergenerationally, a 2010 study led by Gwen Reimer explains historic trauma as the process through which “cumulative stress and grief experienced by Aboriginal communities is translated into a collective experience of cultural disruption and a collective memory of powerlessness and loss”. It has been used to explain the persistent negative social and cultural impacts of colonial rule and residential schools, including the prevalence of sexual abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, lateral violence, mental illness and suicide among Indigenous peoples.

The 2012 national report of the First Nations Regional Health Study found that of respondents who attended residential schools were more likely than those who did not to have been diagnosed with at least one chronic medical condition. A sample of 127 survivors revealed that half have criminal records; 65 per cent have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder; 21 per cent have been diagnosed with major depression; 7 per cent have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder; and 7 per cent have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

Loss of language and culture

Although encouragement to keep Indigenous languages alive was present in some schools, a key tactic used to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society was to suppress Indigenous languages and culture. Many students spoke the language of their families fluently when they first entered residential schools. Teachers responded by strictly prohibiting the use of these languages despite many students having little or no understanding of English or French. The practice of traditional and spiritual activities including the Potlatch and Sun Dance were also banned. Some survivors reported being strapped or forced to eat soap when they were caught speaking their own language. The inability to communicate was further affected by their families’ inabilities to speak English or French. Upon leaving residential school some survivors felt ashamed for being Indigenous as they were made to view their traditional identities as ugly and dirty.

The stigma created by the residential school system regarding transmission of Indigenous culture by elders to younger generations has been linked to the over-representation of Indigenous languages on the list of endangered languages in Canada. The TRC noted that the majority of 90 Indigenous languages still in existence are “under serious threat of extinction”. With great-grandparents representing the only speakers of many Indigenous languages, it was concluded that a failure of governments and Indigenous communities to prioritize the teaching and preservation of traditional languages would ensure that, despite the closure of resident schools, the eradication of Indigenous culture desired by government officials and administrators would inevitably be fulfilled “through a process systemic neglect”.[4]:202 In addition to the forceful eradication of elements of Indigenous culture, the schools trained students in patriarchal dichotomies useful to state institutions, such as the domesticization of female students through imbuing ‘stay-at-home’ values and the militarization of male students through soldierlike regimentation.


With your support, we can continue to build and maintain the Mohawk Village Memorial Park that will honour all the former residential school survivors who attended the Mohawk Institute.

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