“There was nowhere to run to”: Social Support, Cultural Continuity, and Health

By: Émilie Lebel

Émilie Lebel

Contributing Writer

Émilie is an emerging freelance writer specialising in health and social justice. Her knowledge base includes an Honours Bachelor of Health Sciences & Psychology (uOttawa, 2013), a Master of Health Sciences in Occupational Therapy (uOttawa, 2015), and a certificate in Concurrent Disorders (University of Toronto & CAMH, 2022) along with years of experience in community mental health and acquired brain injuries.  Emilie is passionate about effective positive social change – which she works to spark through education and meaningful discourse.

 This article is part of a series exploring how residential schools have destabilized the social determinants of Indigenous health. Each feature amplifies the voice of a knowledge keeper to examine the ongoing legacy of these institutions in communities today.

Selina Legge is an Inuk of Nunatsiavut. She is the co-founder of the Toronto Inuit Association, has established Inuit youth programs in Toronto, and is currently Secretary and Treasurer for the Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation. “In 1964,” states Legge, “I was taken from my family and my ancestral lands by the Canadian government without permission.” At the time, she continues, it was a split: “either you went to the residential school, or you were taken off and you were made a child ward of state and the adoptee program.” Unlike her siblings, Legge was too young for school. “So,” she says, “I went one way and they went the other way.”

In her family alone, seven children were taken from their communities and placed in residential schools or the child welfare system.  “The way of the Inuit, it was broken from my family,” says Legge. “The thing is that we were educated and civilized in our own ways. This was not necessary.”

Family, Community, and Identity

As happened in Selina Legge’s family, these government policies severed social bonds by forcibly removing children from their families.

Indeed, residential schools were usually located far from the communities from which the children were removed. The difficult distances dissuaded visits.  No matter the distance, however, it was mandatory for children to live on the premises during the school year, thus maintaining physical and emotional distance from their homes. In contrast, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report (2015) explained, “compulsory attendance laws provided that, for non-Aboriginal children, school attendance was not mandatory if the school was not conveniently close to the child. Non-Aboriginal children were not required to attend schools where they could not return to their families each day.”

The child welfare system did much the same thing. From the 1950s to the 1980s, it removed children from family and community in an oppressively misguided attempt to prevent neglect. In most cases, identities and origin were not disclosed to the children. They were often adopted or fostered into non-Indigenous homes, thus becoming further estranged from their cultural ties.  This is what happened in Legge’s case: she did not get adopted, so she became a child ward of state and got placed with white people. “Because of this,” she emphasises, “I lost my language and my culture. So, I don’t speak Inuktitut.”

In fact, Legge explains, she was unaware of her origins until she was 17. It was then that she gave birth and placed the child up for adoption. During this process, she saw her birth certificate, and birthplace, for the first time. “I went from there and I found my family by myself,” says Legge. She contacted a local church and made some enquiries. “They said, ‘you know, your family has been looking for you ever since they took you.’” She arranged to meet them. Yet, she spoke only English while many of her relatives spoke Inuktitut.  “They’ve broken that community connection,” Legge says. “I can’t communicate with them.”

Clearly, both systems achieved a similar result, as the TRC’s analysis revealed, by “[placing] Aboriginal children in ‘triple jeopardy,’ removed from parents, extended family, and culture.” Through these practices, the TRC continues, “[children] were forced to abandon their languages and cultural practices. They became alienated from their families, their communities, and ultimately from themselves.”

Furthermore, these impacts deepened with each generation. “While initially, Survivors could return to communities where their languages and cultures were still alive and vibrant, with each successive generation of Survivors, there was a greater weakening of community cultural and linguistic strength,” states the TRC. Besides, those who eventually returned to their homes found their eroded language skills and cultural knowledge hindered community re-integration.

“It’s created one whole mess, taking the children from their communities and from their families,” says Legge. “And now we’re trying to put together the broken pieces, pick it all up and put it together.  I keep going, but I’m not the person that I could have been. If I was able to do as much and get as far as I’ve gotten today by myself, I can just imagine what I could have done with all my community together.”

Social Support, Social Capital, & Health

Social networks such as those formed with family and friends comprise an important social determinant of health (SDH). These structures function to provide social support, defined by researcher Sydney Cobb (1976) as “a sense that one is loved and cared for, is esteemed and valued and belongs to a network of communication and mutual obligation.” Cobb identifies its invaluable component parts as:

Equally important, social capital elevates the concept of social support, which is specific to the individual, and to the level of the community. Thus, a supportive, coordinated, and collaborative community provides higher social capital and promotes well-being.

Stronger social support and capital is proven to lead to better health outcomes, states social medicine and public health expert Donco Donev (2005). “Individuals enjoying strong social ties and support appear to be at a lower risk of psychosocial and physical impairment, whereas a lack of social support has been found to be associated with depression, neurosis and even mortality.” This also includes incapacity from chronic diseases and complications during pregnancy. And, he adds, “research shows that people with strong social support [are at less risk of dying] of certain diseases than those without it, and they also recuperate more quickly once a disease has been diagnosed.” As reported in the Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative (2018), lack of social inclusion is correlated to:

For one, these supportive networks create an informal safety net—meaning that, when things get tough, there is a web of supports to catch us before rock bottom.  For instance, if faced with loss of employment, someone with a strong social support network may find housing, food, or financial help from their family. Assistance such as this is protective and could go as far as to prevent homelessness – hence these supports could also prevent the health and social difficulties associated with homelessness. Moreover, social systems and positive relationships can mitigate the effects of stress. As stress is a powerful mechanism of disease expression, development, and prognosis, positive relationships are connected to positive health outcomes. Finally, social roles and expectations provide purpose as well as a means of improving self-esteem, both important in psychological wellbeing (Donev, 2005).

In Inuit communities, notes Legge, health is negatively affected “[by] the losses of connection with the community.” For instance, the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and alcoholism is particularly high, she states, as are cases of ADHD and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) “because of the alcohol and the trauma.” Legge also points to alcohol as a cause of poorer eating habits, which render individuals vulnerable to further health difficulties.

Importantly, adds Legge, “there’s been a lot of suicides within the Inuit communities because of the residential schools, because of the Sixties Scoop, because they’re always struggling.” In fact, there are approximately six to 11 times more deaths by suicide among Inuit peoples than within the general Canadian population (TRC, 2015). Sadly, one of Legge’s sisters died by suicide “because, mentally, she couldn’t handle [the trauma].” 

The crises begin immediately with separation. “Now that they’ve taken you from your family, there’s where your social problems start and exist.” She describes her own childhood and early adolescence as extremely difficult, with no such social support to turn to for help. “I grew up with a lot of abuse,” she states. “Until about the age of 12, I was locked into a room…I was tied to a bed.”  Legge knew she had to break free and managed to run away at 14.  “I didn’t know who I was,” she explains, “so, I did, I got away…but where is ‘getting away’ to? You’re running to the street.”

As a young girl, alone on the city streets, Legge landed among traffickers who “got [her] from city to city, selling [her].” This cycle, she explains, is not uncommon: there are many missing and murdered Indigenous women “and that’s how it [starts]…from them running and ending up on the streets, and people getting them.” Without a safety net to trust in times of crisis, Indigenous women and girls such as Legge are at the mercy of their circumstances. They live with the ongoing health impacts of this cascade of obstacles or, unfortunately, face an early death.

A Longing for Belonging

In addition to family and community, culture is an essential means of connection with others and with the world. As such, notes the TRC, “cultural loss has been recognized as a significant determinant of health in the Aboriginal community.” 

The term “cultural continuity” captures this connection and its loss. Loppie Reading and Wien (2009) describe it as “the degree of social and cultural cohesion within a community.” In addition, they emphasize the importance of relationships between generations, customary within Indigenous society, “which is maintained through intact families and the engagement of elders, who pass traditions to subsequent generations.”

The deprivation of cultural continuity “has massive implications for the health and well-being of these communities,” affirms the Commission on Social Determinants of Health (2008). To start with, states Donev, cultural isolation can have profound effects on physical well-being and “is comparable to the risks associated with cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and obesity.” Additionally, cultural loss is a crucial driver for the high suicide rate among Indigenous youth. Indeed, low cultural continuity is linked to issues of identity and belonging: isolated, without a sense of self or of greater purpose often attained through social roles, many obstacles seem insurmountable.

“There was no sense of identity growing up,” recalls Legge. “You only identify yourself with what they’re calling you… a dirty, savage, eskimo.” So, she explains, shame settles at your core. Along with it, she adds, is the feeling of being the only one. “You go back into your community, and you feel you don’t belong there because you never grew up with them, and you see their tight knit families there,” says Legge. “No matter where I went, it’s like I don’t belong.”

As a result, culture is now something she strives to pass onto her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. “There were two whole generations there that you were not allowed to speak your language, you were not allowed to practice your culture.” Consequently, many haven’t had the opportunity to learn what would otherwise have been passed down from generation to generation. This sets them adrift, lost and wondering who they are. Now, Legge emphasizes, the most important work is to integrate this knowledge back into Inuit societies. “That’s what they’re longing for. The Inuit are longing for…‘teach me what I should have known.’”


Legge describes healing as “a long road,” and one which started with years of counselling and standing up to these systems. “I was strong enough that I started a lawsuit against the perpetrators,” she explains. “I took the RCMP, and social services, and the government to court.” Without question, that sense of being able to push back is a vital sign of change. “Now, Indigenous people can speak up.” And, she adds, “I found that once one person started standing up, then the next person and the next person. So, I find that the more that I talk, the more that the next victim is going to stand up and speak. It’s giving strength to the voiceless.”

The way to heal, says Legge, is to reconnect with each other and with culture. To do this, the always-increasing number of Inuit in major cities need Inuit-specific services through which to build a community. She adds an important caveat: “We [are] all put in the same basket as First Nations. We’re not First Nations, we are Inuit. We have a different culture, different teachings, different foods.” So, Legge and other collaborators have worked to open services across Canada specifically for the Inuit. This effort, she explains, provides places to go and places to call home. It weaves the threads of community and generates a social network. “Now with these community organisations they’re able to have their country food, to sit around the table with their fellow Inuit and have their culture, have these sessions. They have a place.”

The Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation, too, seeks to foster reconnection. Over the past two years, Legge and other volunteers have spent countless hours setting up this foundation, which will support survivors and record their stories. Now, she adds, “we will start getting together with allies and build programs and services for survivors. We need programs. A lot of people are hurting, there’s been a lot of crimes against them. Somebody needs to be held accountable.” As Legge adds, “It’s started. It started small and now it continues.”

Fundamentally, she stresses, “we need our own culture, we need to be teaching our children, and our grandchildren what it means and what it is to be an Inuit and how to speak their language.” Other experts agree: “Young Indigenous children’s mental wellness will be optimized by […] reinforcing a strong sense of cultural identity and relationships with family, community, and cultural and spiritual practices.” (Greenwood, de Leeuw, Stout, Larstone, and Sutherland, 2022)

“I’ll build as many Inuit organizations as I can,” declares Legge. “I do it now for them.”


Bryce, P. H. The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada.  Ottawa: James Hope and Sons, 1922.

Cobb, S. (1976). Social support as a moderator of life stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 38(5), 300–314.

Commission on Social Determinants of Health. (2008). Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health: Commission on Social Determinants of Health final report. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Donev, D. (2005). Social networks and social support as determinants of health. Health determinants in the scope of new public health, 531.

Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., Stout R., Larstone, R. & Sutherland, J., editors. Introduction to Determinants of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples’ Health in Canada. Toronto (ON): Canadian Scholars Press; 2022.

Loppie Reading, C., & Wien, F. (2009). Health inequalities and social determinants of Aboriginal peoples’ health. Prince George, BC: National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Peoples’ Health.

Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative. (2018). Key Health Inequalities in Canada; A National Portrait. Canada: Public Health Agency of Canada.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Canada’s Residential Schools: The Legacy; The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.

World Health Association (2022). Social determinants of health. Consulted on

Further Reading

Downie, G & Lemire, J. (N.D.). The Secret Path.

Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., Stout R., Larstone, R. & Sutherland, J., editors. Introduction to Determinants of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples’ Health in Canada. Toronto (ON): Canadian Scholars Press; 2022.

Jean, Michel. Tiohtiáke. Montréal: Libre Expression; 2021.

Maurice, Jacqueline Marie. The Lost Children : A Nation’s Shame. Professional Women Publishing; 2014.

Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative. (2018). Key Health Inequalities in Canada; A National Portrait. Canada: Public Health Agency of Canada.