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Residential Schools and their Impacts on Aboriginal Health

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The Residential School System developed as a result of the missionary experience that the first countries had with various religious groups. The government developed administration system for the institutions as early as 1874 which were based mainly on assimilation ideologies. Following the establishment of the institutions, children were removed from their native homes at the formative stages of development. Those who were enrolled in these schools were exposed to health challenges of varied nature. They range from the psychological, emotional, physical and mental. This paper seeks to explore the impact that the residential schools had on the Aboriginal health and how the challenges could be possibly addressed.

The Psychological Health of the Aboriginal Population

The Residential School System had severe impacts on the psychological health of the Aboriginal populations. With the establishment of the schools, children were removed from their families at younger ages, some as young as five or six years old and enrolled in these institutions. Wilson, Rosenberg & Abonyi (2009); Kendrick (2008) cited that psychological development of a child in the formative stage of development is very important for the holistic development of a child in his later life. The psychological health of the children was thus endangered. The children were exposed to new environments altogether, with emotional cut-off from the family attachment. This greatly affects the normal emotional development of children.

Most of the Aboriginal children who were enrolled in the residential schools experienced emotional torture. They cried most of the time with no one to offer any psychosocial support to them (Kendrick, 2008). Therefore, the enrollment of the children in the residential schools at the formative stages can be best described as an equivalent to their exposure to emotional abuse (Wilson et al., 2009).

The emotional and psychological difficulties that the students experienced in the residential schools were further complicated by the requirements and restrictions that were put on them. For example, the students enrolled into this system were not allowed to speak their original languages. Austin & Boyd (2010) cited that this caused trauma and grief resulting from cumulative emotional and psychological wounding that the students had to go through across their lifespan development. Removal of children as young as five years from rural households and their exposure to regulated environment where they were not permitted to speak their Aboriginal languages was an abuse enough to the psychological well-being of the children. Austin & Boyd (2010) cited that lack of emotional expression often leads to other cognitive disorders that one may develop later in life.

In Canada, the children who broke the rules in the residential schools were severely punished irrespective of their age. This is tantamount to child abuse. Studies have shown that physical abuse of children at the formative stages of development has lifetime effect on their emotional, psychological and even physical health (Wilson et al., 2009). A good number of children were emotionally and spiritually destroyed as a result of the harsh disciplines and living conditions which they were exposed to. The psychological trauma that the Aboriginal population experienced in the residential schools has been spread from one generation to another.

The Physical Health of the Aboriginal Population

The residential schools in Canada were greatly under-funded by the federal government. Austin & Boyd (2010) cited that the students were living in deplorable conditions. With the overcrowding in the institutions, communicable diseases broke out and spread from one person to another. Besides, there was poor sanitation in the institutions with the students sometimes taking days without bathing because of lack of water and other sanitary facilities. Outbreak of culinary diseases such cholera, diarrhea and typhoid were not only common but widespread in the institutions. The institutions lacked adequate trained medical and healthcare staff and facilities to attend to the health issues of the students. As a result so many children and adults died under poor residential school system in Canada (Wilson et al., 2009).

The students in the residential school system developed physical health complications significantly due to lack of facilities. The beddings were rarely washed and because of the large numbers of the Aboriginal students, accommodation facilities were sometimes not adequate to cater for all the students (Waldram, Herring & Young, 2006). As a result, sometimes students spent the night without beddings to cover themselves. This exposed them to diseases such as pneumonia and other respiratory-related complications (Kendrick, 2008). 

Studies that have been conducted on the impact of the residential school on the health of the Aboriginal populations reveal that housing units contributed significantly to poor health conditions of the “beneficiaries”. For example, in March 2003, the studies revealed a total of 15,840 housing units needed repair while another 4937 needed total replacement (Austin & Boyd, 2010). Despite these conditions of housing units, they still accommodated Aboriginal populations. Under such conditions, the health implications of the housing and the accommodation facilities for the residents are very severe.

The Aboriginal populations were also exposed to poor diet. Most of the meals that were served lacked nutritional value in some cases and were unbalanced in many other cases. This did not only affect the nutritional needs of the body but also contributed to development of some health complications such as kwashiorkor and other development related issues. Singer (1996) observed in a study that a residential school system limits the ability of the Aboriginal students to participate in physical sports freely. Lack of physical exercise contributes to development of long term health complications especially in late adulthood because of poor borne development (Waldram et al., 2006). 

The mixing of students from different social backgrounds, family set-ups sometimes lead to development of certain behavioral problems. For example, behavioral problems like drug abuse, alcoholism and sexual abuse developed in some of the residential facilities (Wilson et al., 2009). These exposed the Aboriginal population in the residential schools to further health risks. The impact of drug abuse on the mental and the physical health of an individual is very severe. Unfortunately once these behaviors developed, they were not addressed effectively. Sexually transmitted diseases that spread as a result of irresponsible behavior greatly affected the health of the victims.

Dealing with the Health Challenges Residential School System

Residential school system was generally a coercive initiative imposed on the Aboriginal population. In order to address these challenges, the first initiative will be to review the residential school policies so that it is not made compulsory for a child to be enrolled in the residential school system (Singer, 1996). The policies should focus on defining the minimum age at which a child can be enrolled in a residential school system. For example, young children below 12 years should not be enrolled into residential school. This will enhance normal emotional and psychological development in the formative stages of life. Besides, this initiative will eliminate the emotional torture caused by exposure of a young child to a new environment away from the family members with whom a child has an emotional attachment.

All the residential school facilities should operate on condition that they have adequate medical facilities and health professionals. This will ensure that the healthcare needs of the students enrolled in these facilities are addressed as a matter of urgency. For example, the residential school policy should put as a requirement that each facility has a nurse and a qualified doctor in the night and the day shift depending on the number of students enrolled in the facility (Warry, 2007). Besides, the residential schools should have health facilities such as dispensary within their proximity to attend to the health needs of the residents (Kendrick, 2008). Professional such psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers should be deployed in the residential school facilities to attend to the emotional needs of the children.

The residential institutions should also have facilities that can adequately support the health needs of the residents. For example, the accommodation facilities should be adequate enough to accommodate the residents effectively. This will eliminate healthcare problems associated with overcrowding and lack of other accommodation facilities. Sanitation and hygiene standards should be kept high in the residential schools. The residential schools should only operate on the condition that there is a high standard of hygiene and sanitation. This should include even the maintenance of high standards of hygiene in the preparation of the meals. Constant evaluation of the performance of the institutions in terms of sanitation and dietary provision to the residents should also be considered.

The use of severe punishment in the residential schools should be abolished at all costs. The discipline for errant residents’ students should be moderate and involve much use of positive and negative reinforcement techniques. The discrimination and stereotyping in the residential schools should also be ended (Warry, 2007). This will help to reduce the health risks that are associated with severe physical torture and punishments. Psychosocial support programs for students in the residential facilities should be considered to ensure that their spiritual, social and emotional challenges are competently and effectively addressed.


Residential school system has had severe implications on the Aboriginal health. The Aboriginals suffered lasting psychological, physical and mental health problems caused by the deplorable conditions under which the schools operated. There is a need to review the policies governing the operations of the residential schools to ensure that their operations do not affect the health of the Aboriginals negatively. Whereas the benefits of the residential schools could be outlined, the immediate and the long term health implications of the schools on children and Aboriginal population at large should not be ignored.

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