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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Canada’s Indian Residential School System

Historical trauma and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation

Wayne K. Spear

Reprinted from the "Aboriginal People" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 5 (1), pp. 26-27

The Canadian Indian Residential School System’s century-long policy of forced assimilation* of Aboriginal peoples has left a legacy of destruction, pain and despair. Some of the problems facing Aboriginal people because of the assault on their cultures are:

  • addictions

  • abuse among victims and their families, self-abuse and violence

  • suicide

  • crime

  • poor parenting skills

  • poverty

  • trauma

  • difficulty forming healthy relationships

The Aboriginal healing movement had begun to address the conditions of communities even before the closing of the last government-run Indian residential school in 1996. With this movement has come a focus on addictions and mental health and a renewed commitment to traditional Aboriginal teachings—specifically, to a holistic view of individual and community wellness.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the AHF

In November 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) released a 3,200-page final report. The report detailed the historical relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Canada.1 RCAP recorded many testimonies from survivors of residential school abuses.

On January 7, 1998, the federal government responded to RCAP by issuing a Statement of Reconciliation and a strategy to begin the process of reconciliation. The strategy was outlined in a document called Gathering Strength—Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan.2 The government also announced a $350-million healing fund to help heal the legacy of residential school abuse.

On March 31, 1998, the Aboriginal-run, not-for-profit Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) was created to manage the fund. The AHF was given an 11-year contract ending March 31, 2009.3 They had one year to organize themselves, five years to spend or commit the funds, and five years to monitor projects and write a final report.

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation completed its mandate well ahead of schedule. It released its three-volume final report in January 2006.4-6 The report traces the role of the AHF in the Aboriginal healing movement. It also presents data collected to evaluate the process and reports on promising AHF-funded activities.

A brief overview of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s work

Healing—a long-term process, occurring in stages
The healing journey begins with awareness. An understanding of the impact of the residential school legacy on one’s self and one’s family follows awareness. It takes time for individuals and communities to reach the “readiness to heal” stage.

Healing . . .

  • requires that survivors feel safe

  • addresses trauma issues

  • reclaims healthy, productive lives

Based upon research and evaluation findings, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation proposes that 10 years is needed for a community to:

  • reach out

  • dismantle denial

  • create safety

  • engage its members in therapeutic healing

The minimum time needed to move through identifying needs, outreach and starting therapeutic healing is 36 months. In other words, on average, a minimum of 36 months is needed to initiate meaningful healing in a community. Ten years of constant effort is needed to bring about lasting change.

Stable funding is needed for communities to continue to heal.

Community-based healing projects
The AHF has funded the following types of community-based healing projects since 1999:

  • 65% are direct healing services such as therapy, counselling and on-the-land, culture-based activities

  • 13% are prevention and awareness initiatives. These include books, workshops and education on the legacy of residential schools. They also include the prevention of violence (violence between victims, or among Aboriginal victims and members of their community) and abuse

  •  8% are in the area of building knowledge about the history and impact of the residential school system. Too many Aboriginal young people don’t know enough about this

  • 6% fit into the category of training. Training healers is an essential part of the healing process

  • 3% are in the category “honouring history”

  • 3% are projects that assess needs

  • 1% are concerned with project design support and conferences

AHF-funded projects found that 75,636 (37%) of people have special needs (e.g., severe trauma, including alcohol abuse; suicidal behaviour; etc.).

So far, of the AHF-funded healing projects in communities:

  • 20% are just beginning their healing activities

  • 65.9% accomplished a few goals, but much work remains

  • 14.1% accomplished many goals, but some work remains

Participants’ experience with healing activity:

  • 33% had previously participated in a similar program

  • 66% were participating in healing activities for the first time

The four most commonly cited changes for participants were:

  • improved self-awareness

  • relationships with others

  • knowledge

  • cultural reclamation (revival of traditional practices, promotion of language, etc.)

Most of participants felt better about themselves because:

  • they found strength

  • they improved their self-esteem

  • they were able to work through their trauma

For more information, or to receive free copies of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s final report (and/or other AHF publications), visit or phone 1-888-725-8886.

About the author

Wayne Spear is a Kanien’kehake (Mohawk) citizen of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Confederacy) and the Director of Communications at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation

  1. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1996). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.

  2. Indian Affairs and Northern Development. (1998). Gathering strength: Canada's Aboriginal action plan. Ottawa: author.

  3. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation has since received $125 million in additional funding. This funding has been used to continue existing projects, and extends the current mandate to September 2012.

  4. Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (2006). A healing journey: Reclaiming wellness (Vol.1). Ottawa: author.

  5. Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (2006). Measuring progress: Program evaluation (Vol. 2). Ottawa: author.

  6. Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (2006). Promising healing practices in Aboriginal communities (Vol. 3). Ottawa: author.


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