Abstract: Trauma and Loss in Indigenous Context: The Case of the Beauval Indian Residential School (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Trauma and Loss in Indigenous Context: The Case of the Beauval Indian Residential School

Thursday, January 17, 2019: 3:15 PM
Union Square 13 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Rachel L. Burrage, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose

In clinical sciences such as social work, trauma and loss are generally viewed in terms their psychological impact on individuals.  Among Indigenous peoples, such concepts may be construed more broadly and include effects on families and communities.  This study examines reports of trauma and loss among First Nations survivors of the Indian Residential School System (IRS) of Canada to incorporate these perspectives into the social work knowledge base and thus improve services for indigenous clients and communities.


This study is part of a larger analysis of public testimonies from 40 Cree and Dene elders (21 men, 19 women) who attended the Beauval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.  Testimonies were downloaded from a public database, catalogued, and transcribed by a third party before being entered into NVivo 11 for analysis.  An inductive approach to thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) was used, with the formation of themes driven by the content of the transcripts rather than by preconceived categories.


Six overarching themes were found in the testimonies: Life before IRS, Conditions at IRS, Effects of IRS, Resilience, Resistance, and Healing.  This presentation will focus on Conditions at IRS, Effects of IRS, and Healing.  Conditions at IRS included subthemes of institutional violence, institutional conditioning, disconnection from family, positives, general negative statements, and ambivalence about the IRS experience.  At Beauval, indigenous children were separated from their families and subject to a routine of institutional conditioning, in which students’ lives were controlled daily for ten months out of the year to force assimilation to dominant cultural norms.  Violence was used to demean indigenous individuals and culture and enforce institutional conditioning by punishing deviations from the norm or attempts to speak out.  Effects of IRS included personal losses, losses of connection, and broader impacts of the IRS system.  Personal losses were conceptualized in terms of losses of wellness, voice, meaning, self, and educational opportunities.  Losses of connection included connection with family, others beyond the family, and culture and language.  Participants described healing in terms of reconnection to others, reconnection to culture, finding voice, responsibility and forgiveness, and reconnection to self.  They also noted that it was an active process, that healing was possible, that money received from the government had little meaning, and that the healing process was long and ongoing.

Conclusions and Implications

IRS survivors focused primarily on personal, social, and cultural losses rather than psychological outcomes in describing their experiences at Beauval.  In understanding the effects of IRS, it may help to focus on institutional violence and conditioning rather than trauma, in which trauma is seen as one of many potential outcomes of this type of violence, which also include multiple forms of loss.  In contrast to many clinical approaches for trauma and loss, healing efforts for IRS survivors should focus on reconnection to family, community, and culture in addition to individual recovery.  Such approaches require social work training that prioritizes indigenous understandings and bridges the divide between micro and macro approaches to healing and wellness.