By: Catherine Robeson
From the late 1800s to the 1980s, indigenous children in Canada were removed from their homes and relocated to the Indian residential school system. This was a system of approximately 150 schools across the country whose ultimate goal was to obliterate the cultural heritage of these children through humiliating them, isolating them, and prohibiting their language and practices, and more. The purpose of this project is to provide insight into the narratives of not only two survivors of the Indian residential school system, but also the intergenerational effects on their descendants who never attended such schools themselves. This research began by conducting two case studies using four testimonies of those affected by the residential school system gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, followed by a thematic analysis of two parent-child pairs, looking for patterns in the narratives of those who survived the school and the next generation who continued to experience the aftereffects of these residential schools. The case studies were chosen from the nearly 300 testimonies held in Saskatchewan, Canada, since there is an already existing public video database of these testimonies. Results from this project will help gain a better understanding of the multi-generational trauma that the Aboriginal peoples in Canada suffered. The goal is to discover if there are in fact patterns in the narratives of these two parent-child pairs, and if so, how those narratives compare between the parent survivors and child descendants.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada was established in 2008, with a mandate of 5 years (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, n.d.). The goal of the Commission was to promote “truth, healing, and reconciliation” for those affected by the Indian residential schools. The Commission collected more than 6,200 statements, many of which were videotaped, and were obtained at TRC National Events, Regional Events, and Community Hearings (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, n.d.).
There are many accounts of loss and abuse in the Indian residential school system- children taken away from their families, stripped of their culture, maltreated by staff, and more. By sharing their personal truths, people can face their difficult memories and reframe their experience as one of strength, and ultimately, healing (Castellano, Archibald & DeGagné, 2008). The events put together by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were a platform for this, and even survivors participating defined reconciliation along the lines of ‘personal healing through truth telling’ (James, 2012).
The ideas of Canadian-indigenous reconciliation are based on spreading awareness of the indigenous past, present, and future (James, 2012), and by researching the way these testimonies are given, one can better understand the legacy of the residential schools- what they meant, what they mean now, and how they can impact the future.This research project used transcribed testimonies for thematic analysis as opposed to alternative methods to research this topic because the stories given in the testimonies create a holistic narrative which creates a magnitude of facets to explore and possibilities to find patterns.
On the FAQ’s page of the Truth and Resilience Commission’s official website, it answers the question “What will the TRC do?” by stating that they will collect historical data about the Indian residential schools and their effects through both creating national events and supporting local events, with an end goal of creating suggestions to the Canadian government about these effects and establishing a permanent national research center. By the end of the five year mandate, the TRC had enough information to put together a multi-volume final report, and hundreds of hours of event footage.
The Culture and Mental Health Research lab in the Psychology Department at the University of Michigan has been going through the TRC video footage, clipping the videos of testimonies, coding them, and putting them into a database for future research. The province of Saskatchewan has been a focus of this clipping, therefore my research will draw on narratives from this particular province.
This current project is looking to answer the following questions: Are there patterns in the narratives of a two survivors of Indian residential school and their respective descendants in testimonies recorded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada? And if so, what are main themes in the patterns? How do they compare between the survivors and descendants?
This project selected a two parent-child dyads from approximately 300 public video testimonies gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Saskatchewan, Canada that were clipped and catalogued by Trauma and Resilience in Indian Residential Schools lab in the Psychology Department at the University of Michigan and will be transcribed by the end of this summer.
For this research, thematic analysis was used on two case studies, a method which serves to examine qualitative data in a systematic fashion while also retaining the flexibility to fit a variety of research questions and types of data (Braun and Clarke, 2006). In this context, the project entailed searching across the testimonial narratives of two separate Indian residential school survivors and their descendants acquired by the Trauma and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This was followed by coding the main ideas prevalent in the transcripts, and ultimately consolidating all the codes into overarching themes to answer the research questions.
Figure 1 (linked)
The thematic map on the left (Figure 1), outlines the connections between motifs that arose from coding transcripts of the narrations. At this point in time, this project has found evidence supporting themes of physical and emotional abuse in Canadian Indian residential schools, along with unattended emotional needs within communities. The aftermath and lasting impact of the suffering included struggles with the concept and expression of love towards self and others, as well as misuse of substances. Multiple narratives indicated a realization, such as a death of a loved one or reconnection to spirituality, which pushed them to seek help, the most effective aid being from traditional healing methods. The messages moving forward for future generations focus on a return to traditions and passing on elders’ lessons.
While these two parent-child pairs are not representative of an entire Indigenous population, a qualitative analysis of their narratives gives a little more insight when it comes to the inter-generational trauma caused by the Indian residential schools. By thematically analyzing their expression of their experiences, there is that much more representation of First Nation perspectives in research regarding the Canadian Indian residential schools. This can add to the wealth of research done regarding the topic- research that can be used as a basis for taking into account Indigenous voices when decisions or policies are made regarding the effects of the Indian residential schools. Furthermore, this research can be a starting point for further study, to inquire into whether or not the sentiments expressed are reflected in a wider population.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa
Castellano, M. B., Archibald, L., DeGagné, M., & Castellano, M. B. (2008). From truth to
reconciliation: transforming the legacy of residential schools. Ottawa: Aboriginal
Healing Foundation=Fondation autochtone de guérison.
James, M. (2012). A Carnival of Truth? Knowledge, Ignorance and the Canadian Truth and
Reconciliation Commission. International Journal of Transitional Justice, 6(2), 182-204. doi:10.1093/ijtj/ijs010
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (n.d.). About the commission. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=39