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Aboriginal Youth Identity Series: Health and WellnessSeniors Health and Wellness
Health and Wellness
Health and Wellness

Lesson 1: Defining the Residential School Experience

Teacher Information

Note: You may use the following information to develop a hand out for your students.

Beliefs and values differ from one culture to the next as do feelings of health and wellness. In Aboriginal communities the family was viewed as an important unit since traditionally all members of the family had to work together in order to survive. Aboriginal communities view the concept of health and wellness to include spiritual, mental, and physical wellbeing as equally important. If one of these areas was out of balance then the person or community was considered unhealthy or unwell. The medicine wheel is an important teaching method in many Aboriginal cultures. Aboriginal cultures are not homogenous so it is important to note that not all Aboriginal cultures practiced this concept. Medicine wheel teachings, facilitated by an Elder, represent harmony and interconnectedness within the individual and community. These teachings help people develop healthy minds, spirit, and bodies.

Aboriginal people also have a strong belief and world vision that embraces all living creatures and human beings as being equal. Animals and nature are respected and are believed to work harmoniously with humans. Aboriginal People never wasted what was given to them and they believe that all things return to the earth in a natural cycle.

In the late 1800s, the federal government in conjunction with Christian missionaries began a process that would forever alter the health and wellness of many different Aboriginal communities across Canada. This process was known as residential schools. Assimilation was the primary goal of these schools.

Generally speaking, residential schools are viewed in a negative light. Aboriginal students were stripped of all forms of cultural identity. Young children were taken from their families and communities and placed in “private” schools. Sometimes these schools were very far distances from their communities allowing their health and wellness to be further attacked as they had very little contact with their own people and cultural beliefs.

In some instances boys and girls were forced to cut or shave their hair and it was forbidden to speak their own language. They were often secluded from their own brothers and sisters who attended the same school and in many instances given Christian names. Since the importance of language to culture is paramount, the fact that many Aboriginal children were not allowed to speak their mother tongue resulted in the inability to communicate in their traditional language at all. This was incredibly damaging for many Aboriginal communities across Alberta. These young children were not allowed to practice cultural rituals that created balance, health, and wellness in the individual. They were often alone with no one to turn to for guidance. A stark reality is the amount of emotional and physical abuse that many Aboriginal children had to endure while separated from their culture and families.

Residential schools were not the only form or schooling made available to Aboriginal children. Industrial schools were also developed and funded by the government to teach the Aboriginal children skills that they would need to be successful in the new western world. Day schools were also developed on some reserves as well as boarding schools. Alberta was not exempt from any policies of assimilation and therefore represents a broad range of different types of schools for Aboriginal children.

When it was recognized that residential and industrial schools were not succeeding in the process of assimilation as hoped, the focus shifted to integration in the late 1950s. However, some residential schools continued to operate until the late 1980s. Integration focused on placing Aboriginal students in public or separate schools without acknowledging their culture or traditions.

Overall, the education of Aboriginal students post-contact could be argued to be a negative experience. There is no debate as to whether or not residential schools succeeded in diminishing the cultural identity of many of its young students. Aboriginal children did not receive knowledge, traditions, and cultural practices including language from their parents and communities as they were often separated from them for long periods of time. They did not learn the ways of Western culture either; therefore it is argued that they are marginalized between two cultures. It is no surprise that the socialization process was interrupted and the state of Aboriginal controlled education is a very political and emotional topic today.

It has also been argued that the residential school experience disrupted the balance between mind, body, and spirit. Therefore, the residential schools created a generation of adults who are unhealthy and unwell. Alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment, and high levels of crime in Aboriginal communities are just a few of the ways in which these former students have manifested their negative residential school experiences. When an individual is separated from their culture, traditional practices, beliefs, and values it is easy to see how they can fall out of balance.


Students will:

  • Develop and understanding of what factors are needed to create health and wellness in a community
  • Evaluate the effects of residential schools on individuals
  • Analyze the long term effects of the residential school experience on many Aboriginal communities
  • Appreciate the importance of Aboriginal beliefs, values, and traditions

Main Lesson

If you chose to utilize the Teacher Information in the form of a worksheet, present and discuss it with students. If you are reiterating the information in the form of notes, make sure to allow for questions.

Show the following video to your class. It is suggested that you preview the video and devise a worksheet to accompany it:

Mission School Syndrome: 1993, ACCESS-The Education Station
BPN 2063701. To contact: phone 780-440-7702 or internet at www.accesslearning.com

The video is approximately 58 minutes long but it is possible to only show the beginning of the video as it conveys the most powerful message of residential school experiences. The history of residential schools is explored from the late 1800s to the 1960s. The video studies the impacts of Yukon boarding schools upon Aboriginal culture, identity, and language.

Discuss the video and any student questions. Link the information from the notes and handout and video to the concept of health and wellness, and incorporate the students’ responses from the introductory activity. Do the students feel that the health and wellness of Aboriginal communities who sent or had children taken to residential schools was compromised? Why or why not?

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