For Residential School Kids, a Legacy of Sex Abuse

Native leaders hope Truth and Reconciliation hearings will break the cycle of violence.


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The residential school in Port Alberni, one of the most notorious, operated for more than half a century from 1920 to 1973.

Jerry Adams hears “Just get over it,” a lot. He hears it from some young aboriginal kids who say they’re sick of talking about their grandparents’ residential school experiences. He hears it from some non-native people, dismissive of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which is coming to the PNE Coliseum in Vancouver Sept. 18 to 21 to record the stories of residential school survivors and their descendants.

Just get over the past. Get over residential schools.

“We’re trying to,” he says, laughing, in his office on East Broadway, on the main floor of a no-frills three-story apartment building decorated with aboriginal art and smelling of freshly-baked buns.

WHEN VICTIMS BECOME THE CRIMINALS

Many speakers at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings are expected to be “intergenerational survivors” — people who didn’t attend residential school themselves, but whose lives have been affected by the scars that parents, grandparents and communities bear from the residential school experience. Their testimony will shed light on the ongoing connection between abuse suffered at residential schools and the myriad social problems plaguing First Nations communities, including aboriginal over-representation in foster care. Some facts:

– In B.C., about five per cent of the population is aboriginal.

– Nationally, aboriginal children represent about 22 per cent of child protection investigations when abuse is suspected. Social workers are four times more likely to find substantiation for an allegation of abuse of an aboriginal child than for allegations of abuse of non-aboriginal children.

– In B.C., just over half of kids in the care of the Ministry of Children and Families are aboriginal.

– Of street youth in B.C., 54 per cent are aboriginal In Vancouver, the figure rises to nearly two thirds (65 per cent). Forty percent of kids on the street have spent time in foster care. More than a third said they’d been sexually exploited and 15 per cent already had a child of their own.

Adams, 63, a stocky, cheerful former social worker and member of the Nisga’a Nation, is the executive director of the Circle of Eagles Lodge Society. He seems, on the surface, like a walking advertisement for getting over it.

Adams was the first of his siblings not be sent to residential school. Instead, he was raised by grandparents before being boarded out for high school. He went directly from there to Langara College, where he began studying social work. Eventually he earned degrees from UBC and UVIC. For the past 40 years, he’s worked in youth outreach, in social work, and in administration with the Urban Native Youth Association and Circle of Eagles. His wife, his children and his grandchildren have not been abused, he volunteers.

Adams holds a wall of awards recognizing his work. Still, he admits that he doesn’t know how he was able to break the cycle while so many people he works with and loves seem trapped. They’re good people, he notes, who are struggling with pervasive, multigenerational horrors. Speaking only for his own experience, he said, it is the love of his grandparents and his extended family in his home village of Aiyansh that fill him with strength.

“Healing can’t come from anyone else but our people,” said Adams. “Parents teaching their kids that abuse is not okay.”

That can be hard, he adds, when for so many aboriginal people abuse is so close it’s still raw. His own brother survived horrific abuse, Adams said, but still won’t talk about it. His niece committed suicide.

“It’s really trying to unlearn the cycles, and be understanding that there is a possibility for us to be healed. It’s so hard for us to trust one another still. Abuse has affected so many of us directly.”

Disturbing pattern of sex abuse

Circle of Eagles is a home for aboriginal men transitioning out of prison. Some are sex offenders. Their crimes have usually been against the women and children closest to them, Adams said, which often leads to social workers taking their own kids away. The residents will be among those paddling from Kits Point to Science World as part of an All Nations Canoe Gathering to mark the TRC’s hearings. They are part of the community as well as part of the story.

Sexual abuse is a leading reason for government child protection services to become involved in a family, which often results in the removal of kids. About one in 35 kids whom social workers confirm has been abused has also been sexually violated. Many more, Adams and others suggest, are never officially reported.

Adams is not sure how widespread incest and sexual violence are among First Nations in B.C., but he’s sure they are much more common than most people are ready to acknowledge.

“There are programs [for sexual offenders] in institutions, but it doesn’t stop it,” he said.

He hopes story telling at the TRC this week will begin to crack open the conversation. But he also acknowledges that it will take time over generations before the community washes itself clean of the effects of chronic abuse.

Abductions then and now

Fifteen years ago, Sto:lo Nation activist Ernie Crey and journalist Suzanne Fournier wrote the book, Stolen from Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities. It was among the first to make the argument that provincial foster care has become the residential school of the modern era.

In the book, Crey also suggested that stopping the chronic incest plaguing so many communities is the key to ending mass apprehensions of aboriginal children. Stop abusing them, he says in effect, and government will stop taking them away.

Unlike much child protection thinking in North America whose guiding principal is “the best interests of the child,” Crey and Adams focus on helping adults — especially those sexual offenders who were victims themselves.

“The community has never gone through a deep healing process to make it safe for men who were abused and men who became offenders to come forward and disclose and get healed,” a man called Peter Joe told Crey and Fournier in Stolen from our Embrace. “Behind all the alcoholism and drug abuse, the family violence; men are hurting pretty bad. You know, all those scenes [in residential school] come back to me, the beatings and being so scared, in my nightmares and even when I’m awake.”

At least one notable change has taken place since Crey and Fournier’s book was published, but perhaps not entirely for the better. The province has handed much of B.C.’s child protection work over to aboriginal agencies. Formerly, most of these offered family support only, an approach that Crey believes had been working.

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Jerry Adams works with aboriginal men, many of them sex offenders, who are transitioning out of prison.

While Crey certainly supports the principal of aboriginals administering child protection, he says that mixing their mandate to include the power to remove kids introduced a distrust that has undermined their efforts. “Parents don’t trust the agencies because they deliver both support and apprehensions,” Crey told the Tyee Solutions Society. “What was once a helping agency now has a dual role.”

Breaking the silence

Crey believes the only way to restore lost confidence is for both aboriginal agencies and the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development to separate family support programs from the function of taking children into foster care. Lifting the threat of child removal, he says, will rebuild trust and ultimately offer families and communities the help they need.

For his part, Adams proposes two approaches to ending the cycle of violence and apprehensions. Some people are able to make a personal decision to change their behaviour for themselves and their own families. Many of his staff, he said, have made that choice and been able to maintain it.

But abuse is not an individual problem either, he insists. It’s a shared legacy of a dark era, a community-scale problem that demands community action. He urges a community return to the power of traditional spirituality: the drum, gatherings and dances.

Both men suggest that a critical first step is simply the acknowledgment that incest and sexual violence are widespread in aboriginal communities, and stem from a multigenerational cycle of abuse that started in residential schools.

That work has a chance to continue this weekend, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission listens to the stories of those who survived the residential schools, and now are struggling to rebuild lives and families.

Pieta Woolley reports on solutions to breaking the link between foster care and youth homelessness for The Tyee Solutions Society. This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI), with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. TCI and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this page for contacts and information.