The children who didn't stand a chance
The aboriginal boys and girls who endured devastating abuse are, as adults, victims, survivors and heroes
Saturday, June 30, 2007
They didn't stand a chance. The aboriginal boys and girls who were forced to attend Canada's residential schools and ended up being the targets of physical and, devastatingly, sexual abuse, were truly victims.
Whom could the young aboriginals trust? The list of their residential school tormentors is shocking: It starts with teachers, staff and especially dormitory supervisors, many likely part of a network of British pedophiles.
But even "celibate" nuns abused the innocent children; in some cases holding down seven-year-old boys while priests sexually assaulted their tender bodies.
As well, before many aboriginal children were trucked off to the schools, they were already struggling in their villages as most had to dodge heavy-drinking parents, aunts and uncles.
They didn't really have a chance.
The horrendous ramifications of abuse related to Canada's residential school system, attended by more than 125,000 aboriginals, are spelled out in an important and unique psychological article published in the July issue of the B.C. Medical Journal.
Even though the research paper adopts a neutral, scholarly tone, it persistently reveals just how horrifying are the lives of most of the now-adult men and women, the walking wounded, molested in residential schools.
The article's findings are revealing to explore the day after Canadian aboriginals' "National Day of Protest." Large demonstrations occurred across the country Friday as aboriginals, led by Phil Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who was himself abused in a residential school, called for the renewal of recently cancelled programs aimed at resolving a litany of aboriginal problems.
The B.C. Medical Journal article, however, is not a politically correct guilt trip aimed at the federal government that financed the residential schools, or the churches that ran them (in fact, it indicates priests and nuns were the least likely staff to engage in abuse.)
But it does show that Canada has a long way to go to heal the enduring pain perpetrated inside the scores of now-defunct schools.
In the article, lead writer Ingrid Sochting, chief psychologist at Richmond General Hospital, and four other authors say many of Canada's aboriginal people have developed a complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder -- which could be called "residential school syndrome."
The often-startling study is based on interviews Sochting, of UBC, as well as SFU psychologist Robert Ley and UBC psychiatrist Charles Brasfield conducted with 127 B.C. aboriginals who maintain they were abused in the schools.
For a journalist who has written extensively about residential schools since 1988, this study revived the almost overwhelming sadness I felt covering the abuse debacle -- which has led to more than 12,000 aboriginals filing lawsuits.
I feel most empathy, of course, for the poor aboriginal students; but also for the many decent school staff who believed they were doing good by trying to educate and Christianize natives.
The article cuts through the miasma of politics, legalisms and obfuscation emerging from all sides, which now clouds the pivotal debate over what to do about the schools' legacy.
One of the most crucial findings, especially for the criminologists who co-authored the report, SFU's Ray Corrado and Irwin Cohen of University College of the Fraser Valley, is that almost two-thirds of the aboriginal sample group ended up involved in crime.
They were convicted of physical assaults, robbery, major driving charges and, of course, numerous sex crimes -- as the victim often re-victimizes.
A shocking three out of the 127 residential-school students became murderers.
It does not take rocket science to link residential school abuse with the chronically high incarceration rate among Canada's aboriginals.
Another revealing discovery is that the largest group of perpetrators by far were non-clergy dormitory, teaching and support staff.
Sochting is convinced a network was operating like a pedophile ring in Britain in the 1900s, with white molesters spreading the word Canada's Indians were easy pickings.
"I have no doubt the word got around in England: 'Come out and be with these young savages,' " Sochting says.
Given how many Canadians blame the churches for all that went wrong inside residential schools, some may feel relieved that this study suggests, for the first time, priests were the abusers in only 3.7 per cent of cases studied; nuns in 2.9 per cent.
But the stories about priests and nuns are particularly, dare I say, disgusting.
As Sochting says, they break taboos we have about celibate men and women who supposedly give their lives to God.
Former students told researchers about four or five cases involving nuns -- including some in which native boys were held down by the sisters while priests forced the children to perform masturbation or fellatio or endure anal penetration. Other nuns sexually fondled native boys or had the boys fondle them.
Such exploitive behavior can occur, Sochting suggests, when troubled people, particularly narcissists, suppress their natural sexual energy.
Despite the abuse inflicted by nuns and priests, Sochting says her group, which conducted interviews with members of 24 aboriginal bands, often heard good things about clergy. "Many of the students I talked to spoke very fondly about many of the priests."
However, the study points at another female-related discovery I've never before heard discussed by anyone -- that aboriginal women appear to be significant abusers.
A minority of the aboriginals who agreed to be interviewed for the study, 70 per cent of whom were male, admitted they had also been abused in their villages.
Their most common sexual abuser was an aunt.
When it came to physical abuse, mothers were also the victimizers in 37 per cent of the cases, followed by fathers at 31 per cent.
"It's important to not have an image of an idyllic life on reserves," Sochting says.
Along with Brasfield, she is exploring how a cycle of physically punishing and sexualized child-raising by female aboriginals probably began in residential schools.
The paper also discusses how to clinically diagnose these residential school abuse victims -- offering tentative suggestions about how to treat such patients, who are usually seen as too "difficult" for most therapists to handle.
As patients, they are filled with deep shame, which comes in part, as Sochting says, from the simple physiological fact their genitals responded when stimulated by father and mother figures they desperately needed in their lonely lives.
Like battered soldiers terrorized by post-traumatic stress disorder, those abused at residential schools have gone on to experience debilitating physical ailments, depression, anxiety, near-universal addiction, suicidal inclinations, rage and a range of mental illnesses.
Normally, I'm one of those people reluctant to use the word "victim" -- because it's a label that implies people have no responsibility for what goes wrong in their lives.
But in the case of so many adult aboriginals, abused at delicate ages, "victim" seems to, grimly, fit. They didn't get a chance.
All the more reason to be hugely impressed by those abused aboriginals who battle long enough against their inner torment to look upon themselves as "survivors."
Then there are those abused aboriginals, such as Fontaine, who combat their personal demons while leading immensely creative lives.
They may deserve yet another classification: Psychological "heroes."
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]