The Stolen Generations were a reality in Canada as well. Here, the Wise Old Warriors, a team of elders pioneering efforts to right those wrongs, describe an approach that draws on traditional culture to heal a survivor of the abuses

Native way to overcome trauma

By Lorraine McRae and Jan Sanders

Canada’s Indian Residential Schools ran from the 1870s to 1996. Their aim was to “kill the Indian in the child”. There were over 130 of these government funded, church-run schools across the country.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their families and placed in these schools. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practise their culture.

While some had positive experiences at these schools, many suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and some even died there. The unresolved trauma has been passed on from generation to generation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent six years travelling to all parts of Canada to hear from some of the 80,000 survivors. In its study released in June this year, it declared the experience to be one of “Cultural Genocide”.

It described the schools as an education system in name only for much of its existence. They were created to separate Aboriginal children from their families, to minimise and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and indoctrinate children into a new culture—that of the legally dominant Euro-Christian society led by Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.

Many successive generations of children from the same communities and families were placed in those schools. Their experience was hidden for most of Canada’s history, until some survivors revealed it in several thousand court cases that ultimately led to the largest class-action lawsuit in Canada’s history.

Our team, which consists of both indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, has been involved with survivors of these schools. We are writing to describe an approach we used to help one of our team members from the Ojibwe community, the second-largest indigenous group in Canada, get over the trauma of having been through the Indian Residential School system.

The seven of us, known as the Wise Old Warriors, have been linked for over 20 years. We are  committed to finding ways of extending the native ways and practices throughout the broader society. 

The person we helped, a recently retired 65-year-old, had asked us to craft a healing process for her and her family. This is the beginning of a letter she wrote, describing her experience at an Indian Residential School:

“I am Sandy Jackson Reilly. I have many me (selves) and one is my past history with Residential School, better known to me as Mush Hole. I am sitting here with tears. The tears happen if I have to talk or deal with that part of my life.
I was six. Being sent away from my mom and family was a big No. As a little Ojibwe girl, I needed my mamma. Do you want to know what I learned at Mush Hole? It was fear, loneliness, being hungry and not having my twin sister my bed as we did at home; not being allowed to go home. I knew what it was like to be so sick; all the little Ojibwe girls all over the place being sick. This was awful."

Sandy, a friend of ours, was ready to reopen this chapter of her life. The sessions were held in our homes. They were three to four hours long and accompanied by food and laughter. We gathered in a circle and began with a ceremony. We cleansed ourselves and our space by smudging with sage. We gave thanks to the water, that the world’s people would have clean water. In the middle of our circle was a candle. It represented the “children’s fire” and future generations, honouring our ancestors, all of humanity and Creation.

Sandy led each session with a letter she had written. Up until this point, she hadn’t been able to share or recall details of her school experience without additional trauma. As she read her first letter, we listened. She captured the images, sounds and emotions of being in the school. As we each shared around the circle, we prepared the space for her to tell her story. She was seen, heard, believed and validated with words of support and, at times, silence. Metaphors and images came through her pain and trauma. We supported her as she led the way to her own healing.

At the first circle, one elder remarked that he saw Sandy in regalia dancing at the Pow Wow in her home First Nation. It was a strong image that held for Sandy a vision of her journey

Sandy said that although writing the letters was not easy, it was a life-giving process that often went late into the evening. She used her native ways of knowing to clear herself and sought help from the Creator for courage and clarity and to give voice to her pain and hurt.

A breakthrough happened in the third session. We were using “creative visualisation”. Sandy held her five-year-old self on her lap, surrounded by her mother and sister who were in the spirit world. She was able to talk to her five-year-old self, comfort her and let her know that she would be there for her when needed. It was a loving sacred time for all of us. Sandy’s daughter and niece also joined the circles, involving their generation in the healing.

The last letter occasioned another creative visualisation - Sandy journeying home to her island with joy and hope. She was welcomed back, having let go of the hurt, anger and pain.

Throughout the sessions, Sandy entered into various images. She journeyed through these images and experiences to wholeness. Healing happened on the physical, psychological and spiritual levels. The use of artistic expression through the letters, native traditions and group presence in a safe, loving environment with the ancestors enhanced her journey.

Half way through the process, Sandy began designing her regalia. We selected the fabric. She designed a simple dress which would be cool in the heat of summer and hold the beauty of her native heritage. She invited us to help in the creation of the regalia. We added a hat and moccasins.

In July, we attended the Pow Wow with her family and community. It was a life changing experience. Sandy looked beautiful in her regalia. After offering gifts and medicines, she spoke eloquently, briefly explaining her healing journey and giving thanks. An elder explained the sacred healing dance. The host drummed and the jingle dress dancers danced around us. There were tears, handshakes and hugs for Sandy and her family from all the dancers and others present. Sandy’s healing is healing others. The ripple effects are evident by follow-up circles with other family members.

Our team is experienced in many kinds of healing. But it was essential to let Sandy lead the process and not our prescribed ideas and actions. Our four sessions were organic and happened within the framework of a ceremony and circle model.

It was therapeutic but was not therapy. It included self-reflection, insight, understanding and bravery.  Writing was a more helpful healing tool than any of us had thought. It worked for Sandy because she was comfortable in writing. For others, it might be another form of artistic expression.

To create a healthy planet, we must heal the hurts of individuals, families and nations. The indigenous wisdom of the planet must be woven into any new creations. Our “new planetary story” must be inclusive. To look forward we must heal the past.

Through this work we would also like to honor the memory of one of our founding members, Merle Assance Beedie, who died five years ago. She worked hard to seek justice for the residential school abuse, which she herself had undergone. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Union of Ontario Indians now known as Anishinabek Nation.

Sandy’s letters are available for reading if you want to understand the effects of the  Residential Schools and her healing process. Information on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found at

Lorraine McRae does work on personal growth, healing, governance, and Ojibwe language, history and cultural teachings. Janet Sanders ( is a facilitator, program designer, project manager and trainer with 30 years of international experience with the Institute of Cultural Affairs.

Make a comment on this article (Please name article in your comment)

Back to Table of Contents