Photo courtesy Ben Powless
Ben Powless with his mother, whose own mother was also a residential schools survivor.

A Mixed Blessing, Part 2: 'Killing the Indian in the Child'

Martha Troian
June 27, 2013

On Tuesday June 25 we introduced Ben Powless, whose family is riven with aftereffects of Canada’s residential schools system. In this second installment of A Mixed Blessing: Stories by Intergenerational Residential School Survivors, we learn more about how the legacy of his grandparents’ and parents’ time away from their families and cultures played out. Part 1 can be found here

'Killing the Indian in the Child'

During the 19th century the Canadian government undertook an aggressive assimilation policy under which children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in Indian residential schools. Church-run and funded by the Department of Indian Affairs, more than 130 schools operated across  the country, the last one closing in 1996. The mission was to address the 'Indian problem,' and through its policies to ‘kill the Indian in the child,' as the motto went.

Evan Adams, a Coast Salish physician from the Sliammon Band near Powell River, B.C, calls it “phenomenal genocide of a whole generation of children and families.”

“The system was about removing people from their land, Adams says. “It wasn’t to help the child, or to assist the child, or to educate the child, or to give them opportunities.”

Sadly, for many children this often meant emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse—sometimes even death—at the hands of priests, nuns, and school staff. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended the schools. About 80,000 survivors (former students) are alive today. Their descendants are called intergenerational residential school survivors. Because of the abuse—and the simple fact that many were raised away from their families—parenting skills in aboriginal communities were often profoundly altered. Known as 'intergenerational trauma,' the cycle of abuse was transferred from one generation to the next. 

“There is a holistic connection between body, mind, and spirit, between the past and the present, we know that to be true,” says Dr. Adams. “There is evidence to show the experiences of the parents are passed onto their children.”

The stories of these survivors and intergenerational survivors are becoming more common today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1990, First Nation leader Phil Fontaine publicly declared that he had been physically and sexually abused while at residential school. The now former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)—which represents more than 600 First Nation communities in Canada - became one of the first leaders to do so. According to Adams, more people are aware of the experiences at residential schools and beginning to acknowledge previous trauma and the role it might play in how people are functioning today.

“I am seeing a small increase in terms of programming toward discussing previous trauma,” Adams says. While many students were not sexually or physically abused, being uprooted from their families and forbidden to speak their language was often just as traumatic.

Powless’s paternal grandparents were from Six Nations of the Grand River. Located near Brantford, Ontario, it’s one of the largest First Nations in Canada. His grandfather attended the Mohawk Institute Residential School—known as ‘mush hole’—near Brantford, Ontario. Attending the school had a profound effect on Powless’s grandfather. 

“He was a victim of physical and psychological abuse during his time there,” says Powless. He would never talk about it.”

Despite being fluent, Ben’s grandfather never taught the Mohawk language to his children. Powless recalls his father recounting the time he asked his grandfather why.

"Apparently, my grandfather broke down and started to cry,” Powless said. “He said, 'We were ashamed of the language and what it was to be an Indian.' That really affected my dad. My dad always felt he didn't have access to his culture or to his language.”

Powless’s grandfather also didn’t know how to discipline his children without getting physical, which eventually drove Powless’s father away from home. But by then it was too late. Ben’s father, Richard, was quick–tempered and aloof, which left the younger Powless always feeling an arm's length from him. Although the boy escaped physical abuse, he resented his father because of his strict parenting.

Next: Beatings’ Toll: Deafness and Alcoholism, the Effect on the Powless Women