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“The Poverty Was Intended”: Health, Residential Schools, and Education

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.

Chantal Batt is a descendant of residential school survivors. Her family on her mother’s side is Ojibway from the Lake of the Woods region of Ontario.  In that area, Batt notes, children were sent to Kenora’s St-Mary’s Catholic Indian Residential School and Cecilia Jeffrey. “My grandparents didn’t have very good experiences,” she recounts. “My grandfather certainly didn’t: he lost his brother and sister. They died while they were at school together. Their brother Charlie, who was 6 at the time, tried to run away and died from falling off a cliff. We don’t even know where he’s buried. And we don’t know what happened to their sister.” 

As adults, eager to prevent their children from being taken to these schools, Batt’s grandparents moved off the mainland every September and “[disappeared] in the lakes to avoid the RCMP.”

Batt confirms the dreadful conditions noted by Dr. Bryce: “[T]hese were schools that were, first and foremost, very poorly built. They had a lot of mould in them, were not well heated.” She describes how sewage was released upstream from the water intake “so the kids were drinking their own sewage.” “Children,” she continues, “would get tied up and left alone in an outhouse, locked in there overnight with no shoes on in cold weather. They’d eat food with bugs in it and not get enough food. It’s just horrible, horrible to know what my loved ones have been through, and how this trickled down.”

Batt observes that an individual’s current health “is very much tied up in their physical and emotional history. You can’t reach your health potential unless you deal with those lingering impacts. My family is not very different from other residential school families in that they are still carrying a lot of pain, and pain that hasn’t been expressed or articulated yet because it’s so far down that they don’t necessarily know how to get it out, or even what the pain is.”

As she emphasizes, “Indigenous people’s health is directly tied to the legacy of residential schools.”

Health and Poverty

Batt became a volunteer health advocate in 2011 after her mother fell ill. She recounts how hard it was for her mother to get medical attention and how, once diagnosed with cancer, she was told she had three months to live, but given little support. This response, she notes, was due both to an overwhelmed healthcare system and to the complexity of her mother’s care needs. 

“Over colonized history,” explains Batt, “Indigenous people sought to avoid health systems. There are a lot of Indigenous people today who don’t trust the healthcare system, with good reason.” Such reasons, for her family, include the forced medical experiments conducted at Cecilia Jeffrey. “[They] tend to avoid the healthcare system, and then once they’re in it, they’re sicker than the average patient.” With Batt’s support to navigate difficult waters, however, her mother’s cancer went into remission for many years. “Otherwise, she would maybe have only lasted those three months, but I pushed and pushed for everything she got.”

Through that experience, Batt became involved with the Ottawa Hospital Patient Advisory Council as an Indigenous representative. She worked on several projects within the hospital such as the creation of a “safe space” for Indigenous patients, training videos, and revising patient guides. She continues to work with the Canadian Medical Association on training modules to “sensitize those in the medical system to the lived realities of Indigenous people in the healthcare system.” 

Over the course of two years, Batt’s aunt passed away at 63; her mother at 70; and her uncle at 61. “My family is not living proof but dying proof that Indigenous people have the shortest lifespan out of any demographic of Canadians,” she says. “I know that firsthand.”  

“Indigenous people, once they are in the system – if they go in the healthcare system – tend to have very complex medical needs and files,” says Batt, highlighting issues with poverty and its many ramifications as decisive factors when it comes to health in her community. Food insecurity is one example. “Food is expensive because it’s sort of remote there,” she says, so access to food and healthy foods becomes an issue. In addition, Batt points to “unhealthy habits” like a tendency to eat a lot of processed foods, which results of being alienated from traditional diets and food sources. 

These factors create conditions ideal for the development of diabetes and heart disease – both rife in her community, states Batt. Poverty impacts an individual’s ability to respond to medical advice. “They could be living on the street, they could be working jobs that don’t pay very well or don’t allow them time to take care of their health, or even single parents,” says Batt. For example, recommendations to eat in a healthy way and attend treatment could be impossible to follow for an individual on a strained income faced with the additional costs of food, unpaid time-off, or transportation. Without a doubt, the effects of poverty on health and well-being are a clear reality observed throughout many Indigenous communities.

From Education to Low Income– A Cascading Effect 

The Lake of the Woods area, affirms Batt, “was hit very hard by the impact and legacy of residential schools. There is still a lot of health and socioeconomic impacts being felt there today.”  

Poor education acts like the first falling domino in the social determinants of Indigenous health. In Canada, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples are disproportionally more likely to have completed less education. These education attainment disparities, in turn, lead to disproportionate rates of unemployment or underemployment and to the unequal distribution of poverty, poor housing or homelessness, overcrowding, food insecurity, and discrimination (Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative, 2018). Indeed, noted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015, “it is a bitter irony that one of the schools’ greatest failings was the very quality of the schooling they provided.”

The TRC’s analysis demonstrated why inadequate schooling set in motion a chain of events that resulted in inter-generational health impacts:

The TRC report noted that “it was not unheard of for Métis children to attend schools for a decade or more yet receive nothing more than a Grade Two education…[It was] not enough education to enable them to transact ordinary business—scarcely enough to enable them to write a legible letter.” What’s more, this system further disrupted livelihoods as it largely prevented families from teaching their children traditional occupations. This gap left entire generations of residential school survivors with diminished skills for securing employment, thus destabilizing the economic status of Indigenous people and communities. 

Given that educational attainment of mothers is determinative of their children’s academic success (Commission on Social Determinants of Health, 2008), the survivors’ lower economic power trickled down to their descendants. “Not surprisingly,” the TRC report states, “the child poverty rate for Aboriginal children is very high—40%, compared to 17% for all children in Canada…These children are living with the economic and educational legacy of the residential schools.”

In truth, says Batt, “residential schools were not designed to turn Indigenous kids into scholars. They were designed for a country that was growing its industrial sector, so to create workers for those industrial sectors. They were literally not intended to be educated above what was seen as their station. They were meant to be a poor, working underclass to serve the wealthier levels of society that owned the means of production. The poverty was intended.”

Furthermore, both residential school students and those who attended “regular school,” like Batt’s mother, faced a system pervaded by discrimination. Educators and students alike were encouraged to regard Indigenous students as inferior. Teachers taught curricula that demeaned Indigenous cultures and history. “That’s what the schools wanted us to do,” says Batt, “to be ashamed of ourselves and to change. They were intended to make you feel ashamed about who you were, so that sentiment got passed down the generations.” 

For this reason, school for many became a place where they cannot feel safe, and which hasn’t proved helpful in securing a livelihood. “People are wary of education because of the education that their ancestors received and the western system of residential schools,” Batt explains. “There are Indigenous people who have gone on to higher education, who are making their way through the system. But there are still many people who haven’t finished high school and don’t see the value in education.” Indeed,  indicates the TRC report, “the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey showed that 72% of First Nations people living off reserve, 42% of Inuit, and 77% of Métis aged 18 to 44 had a high school diploma or equivalent… In comparison, the 2011 National Household Survey revealed that 89% of the non-Aboriginal population had at least a high school diploma.” A legacy of the residential schools, then, is that educational success rates are lower in Indigenous communities than in equivalent Canadian households

 “I’ve made a conscious decision to escape poverty,” reflects Batt. “Even though I’m not naturally an academic person I’ve forced myself through academia because I knew I was never going to live in poverty. That was my goal.” But, she adds, “I think I could have gone even higher if I didn’t have to fight [these] demons.”

Moving Forward

How do we break the cycle of poor educational attainments leading to poverty and, in so doing, begin to redress the distribution of health problems in Canada? 

First and foremost, the TRC states, the educational system needs to break away from the legacy of being used as a tool for assimilation. Funding must be adequate for the task of closing the gap left by residential schools. Additionally, curricula need review: Indigenous schools should meet the needs of their students by covering topics of importance in a culturally competent manner. “Place-based learning,” for instance, is identified in the TRC as a “philosophy that anchors the student’s lessons in the cultures, the land, the history, and the stories of their communities” while including elders in the learning process. Meanwhile, non-indigenous curricula should support non-discrimination by including Indigenous perspectives and accurate history.

“I think education all around is key,” says Batt. That includes education on residential schools and their lasting impact. “That’s long overdue because Canadians didn’t know about it, and now they do,” she explains. “Maybe they’re starting to figure out why there are so many Indigenous people on the street and so on. We’re poor, we make the streets look bad, we’re drunks, we’re this, we’re that…look what our families have had to go through! They’re broken.” 

This goal is precisely why Batt gives her time and energy to health advocacy. “Education is always the thing that changes the game; education, and awareness.” She hopes her work with the Canadian Medical Association will “open eyes and ears to the realities and lived experiences of Indigenous people.” Her goal is to change attitudes within the healthcare system, to foster empathy, to improve service quality, and to hopefully nurture trust. “The attitude towards Indigenous patients from the healthcare system has never impressed me. But it’s starting to change, I think, with awareness.”

Yes, things are changing. With advocates such as Batt, Indigenous organizations, and improved funding, education levels are rising. D’Hont, a Métis physician from the Northwest Territories, notes that the number of Indigenous graduates for health-related programs, such as medical school, is climbing. This trend creates momentum by inspiring youths to follow suit (D’Hont in Greenwood, de Leeuw, Stout, Larstone, and Sutherland; 2022).  “There are people in our community trying to rise up,” agrees Batt. But, she adds, “they have to start from a very low level and climb above that. And that’s not easy to do. We’ve been broken but not eradicated. We’re still climbing up.”


References

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

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 Organisation

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.

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

ST Fayed, A King, M King, et al. (2018). In the eyes of Indigenous people in Canada: exposing the underlying colonial etiology of hepatitis C and the imperative for trauma-informed care. Canadian Liver Journal 1.3. doi: 10.3138/canlivj.2018-0009 

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 https://www.who.int/health-topics/social-determinants-of-health#tab=tab_1 

Further Reading

Downie, G & Lemire, J. (N.D.). The Secret Path. https://www.secretpath.ca

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.