News & Events
First Nations Centre Supports Students Dealing With Effects of Residential Schools
With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission holding its first public event this summer, Fanshawe News sat down with Donna Smith-Sutherland, supervisor of Fanshawe's First Nations Centre (FNC), to talk about the intergenerational effects of Indian residential schools on students here at Fanshawe.
For over 100 years, the Government of Canada forcibly removed First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their homes, placing them in church-run residential schools. According to Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, the goal was to "kill the Indian in the child."
Donna Smith-Sutherland, front, and the "dynamite staff" of Fanshawe's First Nations Centre. Left to right: Belinda Sayeau, Melanie Akiwenzie-Lisk and Bev Antone-Collar.
In the late 1980s, Smith-Sutherland was director of a family violence agency at the Walpole Island First Nation. In that role she was "astounded" by the wide-reaching scope of residential school impacts throughout the community.
When the doors of the agency opened after 10 months of preparation, they were "swamped with community members" looking for support with issues related to residential schools.
She came to realize that there was no hard and fast dividing line between abusers and abused as Walpole Island struggled to cope with the devastating aftermath of residential schools.
Smith-Sutherland emphasizes, "Every Aboriginal person in Canada has been affected by the residential schools." While she can't share personal stories of Fanshawe students, she does have permission to share information from her own family that is representative of the experience that many students' families have survived.
Walpole Island, or Bkejwanong, near Wallaceburg, ON, is one of seven First Nations in Fanshawe's catchment area. Three generations of children from Walpole Island were abducted from their homes and taken to the Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie. Among them were a member of Smith-Sutherland's extended family and his two younger siblings.
"He was abducted from his home when he was six years old, with two other siblings, and never saw home again until he was 16." Although his younger sister was also at Shingwauk, he wasn't able to spend time with her during those 10 years, because the boys and girls were separated. "And he didn't even get to connect on a regular and on-going basis with his brother, because [school officials] made a point of making sure that didn't happen."
"There were so many different kinds of abuses that happened within that residential school at Shingwauk."
Although there were residential schools closer to home in southern Ontario, the Indian agent at Walpole Island decided to send the children to northern Ontario, to ensure their complete separation from their families.
"The Indian agent felt that the people were too resourceful and would go and retrieve their children and take them back home to where they belonged. Shingwauk was a lot further and it was very difficult for them to come and get their children."
While there has been a great deal of media coverage of the residential school story, mainstream Canadians may not realize how close that experience is, both in time and space. Smith-Sutherland: "One of the communities in our catchment area had that kind of trauma - Shingwauk just closed in 1971."
Her family member's story was common at Walpole Island. In fact, Smith-Sutherland says that every home in that community had children abducted and taken to Shingwauk. Each of these cases has a direct impact on the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the survivor, and generations yet to come. Given the importance of the collective in the Aboriginal world view, there are also serious effects on extended family and all members of their communities.
Residential school students had no way to learn parenting skills, being raised in a cold institution far away from their parents and relatives. Students were often physically, sexually and emotionally abused by the people who were supposed to protect and teach them. Separated from their families, they had no recourse. After leaving the schools, alcohol and other substances were often the only way they could find to bury the pain, adding addiction to the list of harms they suffered.
Speaking of the relationship her family member had with his own children, Smith-Sutherland says, "Because of the trauma, he couldn't talk to and parent them the way he wanted to."
While she believes in community development, Smith-Sutherland says Walpole Island, and communities like it, are "still reeling" from the impact of residential schools. "We've still got a long way to go" in healing Aboriginal people and communities. "We will continue to see that ripple effect for a long time to come."
At Walpole Island, "You're always hearing about violent deaths, you're always hearing about young people acting out. Well they're acting out that history - how could they not?"
She notes that these intergenerational, multigenerational effects are part of the story that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is working to collect.
Because multiple generations of children were separated from their families and forbidden to speak their own language, traditional teachings and Indigenous languages were partly lost. Smith-Sutherland says though, that there is still hope in "the resiliency of the people."
"People are starting to ask for those teachings, they're starting to feel an urgency for trying to revive the language. There are a lot of really good, positive things happening in the communities. It's bringing an energy of hope in the people."
"People are hearing about their true history for the first time.... How do you heal from something if you don't know what happened?"
So how does that negative experience with formal education in residential schools affect students' and families' attitudes to post-secondary education now?
"We're moving into a time now where education is starting to be really encouraged and supported." But it hasn't always been that way.
"When I was a teenager," Smith-Sutherland says, "it wasn't, because there was still that fear that our children are going to be brainwashed. That that child or young person wouldn't come back in the same way, that they would be void of all the things that are important."
When she decided to pursue education, a "Going to Battle" ceremony was held to help prepare her. Elders explained why they weren't supportive of education outside the community. "They talked about the importance of knowing who we are, individually and collectively, and our connection to each other. It was really important for me to hear that.... Always pay attention to who I am, and that grounding that I'd already had. It was always acknowledged that we have a different world view.... You go and you learn their way, and you adapt it and take what you need and you leave the rest behind. But always remember to bring it back to your people."
Now that First Nations communities are taking more control of their own education, the attitude toward post-secondary education is becoming more positive. Students are starting to be encouraged and supported to go out and get the credentials they need, and bring their knowledge and skills back to help their communities.
Smith-Sutherland talks to students about their role and responsibility toward their own community. She considers herself a "bridge or transition between a young person leaving their community - who may or may not know their history, who may or may not know their culture - and sending them out in the world to be good people."
Beyond providing "student support services for Aboriginal students attending Fanshawe College," the First Nations Centre is a "home away from home," a connection with Aboriginal roots and traditions.
And Smith-Sutherland is "auntie, grandma, sister, cousin, mom to a lot of our students." The First Nations Centre also provides peer support and emphasizes the common reason for students being here - to achieve academic success.
"It's my job to help them to become grounded in who they are while they're here - that's the key to our success."
Once Aboriginal students get to college, Smith-Sutherland notes that they're "at a disadvantage right off the hop" because the curriculum is based on a Western world view, which emphasizes individualism and competition, in contrast to the Aboriginal world view which values the collective and co-operation. "Students are expected to conform and learn a different world view."
She notes though that, "We do have a lot of instructors here that do want to make a difference."
What can faculty and support staff do to make that difference?
"Just understanding that there is a different world view is a really good starting point; understanding that not everybody comes in here with a Western world view."
"So many times I get students coming in here and saying they feel totally disrespected. And that instructor may not even realize that what they've done has been disrespectful because of their world view. The Western world view is all about competition, it's all about linear, it's all about the individual. Where with the Indigenous world view it's all about the collective, it's all about a different way of looking at the world which is not consistent with theirs. They're almost total opposites."
Smith-Sutherland has organized two training sessions for faculty and support staff so far this year, exploring the differences between the Western and Aboriginal world views, and expects to offer more in future.
Faculty and staff can also help by referring First Nations, Métis and Inuit students to the First Nations Centre. Of the approximately 800 Aboriginal students estimated to attend Fanshawe in the last academic year, 206 registered with the First Nations Centre.
FNC staff take a holistic approach, supporting not just academic success, but also students' emotional, social, spiritual and physical development. Smith-Sutherland and her staff work to empower the students. "Our students are getting their voices and they're sounding their voices because I'm helping them to see how they can do that.... I'm trying to empower them in an organization so that they can learn how to do for themselves."
Smith-Sutherland considers the First Nations Centre has a bridging role, "Between coming from their communities to being here, to being shown and being taught and being empowered to do it for themselves, so that they go out there and they are the role models, they are the ones that are teaching others."
She sees hope for the future, in the "energy of de-colonization that's happening, where Aboriginal people are getting their voice, and sounding their voices, and saying 'No, maybe this is what happened in the past, but this is what we want happening in the future for our young people.'"
For the Aboriginal students here at Fanshawe, "If they have that connection in who they are, you can guarantee they're going to be successful."
As for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she says, "I fully support the work that they're doing and really believe whole-heartedly that what they're doing - gathering that information and trying to find our own ways of evaluating and processing that information - is crucial because it's based in our way. Because people will not open up necessarily, they'll not share their entire story with someone that they don't trust... It has to be our people doing that. That information has to be collected as a starting point, trying to determine the grass-roots impact of what's happened."
"Look at here," she says, pointing to a group of students and staff laughing and talking together at the First Nations Centre front desk. "Just the fact that we have the students, the minute they walk through that door, there's an enormous feeling of celebration, in the fact that they've been able to make it to our doors. So we work really hard, and the passion is there, to work really hard at providing them with whatever support that they need while they're here."
"The change that we can make, individually and collectively, is awesome. Just as the impact that residential schools had in a negative way, we can make an impact in a positive way by working together.... And I don't mean just "us," I mean everyone within Fanshawe College and for every student. If we do that and we create that energy, it's amazing the things that we can accomplish."
Learn more about Fanshawe's First Nations Centre at www.fanshawec.ca/firstnations.
More information about Indian residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is available on these websites: