Residential Schools, Prisons, and HIV/AIDS among Aboriginal People in Canada: Exploring the Connections

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series


A reality for many Aboriginal people is that their lives have been influenced by residential schools, even for those who did not attend them. This flawed educational system—if it can be called such—fell short of its primary purpose, which was to educate. Instead, its secondary purpose of assimilation has resulted in a whole new reality for generations that followed the first school opening.The question of whether or not assimilation was inevitable is beside the point. The fact remains that the federal government enlisted church organizations to carry out one of the most known systematic attempts of assimilation that changed Aboriginal people forever. So what does this have to do with HIV/AIDS? Are Aboriginal people living in the past? Why must we constantly raise these issues rather than simply move on? One would have to know the lives and stories of every Survivor to understand the answers to these questions.

It is true that not all Survivors experienced the same situations. It is also true that Survivors are not to blame for all the issues and concerns in Aboriginal communities. What is true is that residential schools contributed in hugely significant ways and, when combined with other pressures and shifting economies, helped create some very bleak conditions for Aboriginal people. For example, the introduction of alcohol, accompanied with family violence and sexual abuse, was a difficult issue to address. This was often because Aboriginal communities did not have the resources at the time to face these challenges. Poverty had crept into environments that, while not perfect, they worked for the most part prior to European contact.

As to whether Aboriginal people are living in the past does not preclude the fact that, in the last two generations, government and non-Aboriginal society were still determining what was best for Aboriginal people. Examples such as only being allowed to vote in 1960 without relinquishing treaty or Indian status rights, forced relocation, and the child welfare system removing Aboriginal children into non-Aboriginal homes well into the 1970s (and still some today) took place in the not so distant years.

The systems we speak of, and the subsequent impacts, are believed to impede forward movement. This is also known or referred to as the “healing needs” of the Aboriginal population. Multiple losses, poor socio-economic status when compared to mainstream Canadian society, and insufficient time to grieve a previous loss before the next loss occurs are all factors that have slowed the healing process for many Aboriginal people.

Few non-Aboriginal homes can claim the same level of premature and often violent deaths that occur in many Aboriginal communities. When substance abuse enters the equation, then it becomes easier to see how despair and loss of hope take firm hold. While many Aboriginal communities are climbing out of dark pasts, what remains are significant challenges to retain culture, language, and traditional strengths while seeking to be adaptive to a new era.

This report describes some of these challenges. They will help to understand that Survivors have needs, unique and above others in the Aboriginal population, yet they are still part of the people as a whole who have been impacted by a failed system. These needs become compromised when new health issues such as HIV/AIDS or injection drug use come into play. HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination, including homophobia, make it all the more difficult to face and respond appropriately. And, when dealing with Aboriginal people who are or have been in prison, this brings yet another level of healing needs that often goes unanswered. HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C are two of the newer health threats facing Aboriginal people today, especially those in prison. In exploring the connection between the residential school legacy and HIV/AIDS, this report focuses on incarcerated Aboriginal people because it is in the Canadian prison system that some of the most disturbing infection rates are found. Any person whose life path leads to prison has undoubtedly experienced a breakdown in the personal support systems and social networks that keep most people afloat. Prisons, like residential schools, are complete institutions. Far too many Aboriginal people are still spending portions of their lives in institutions where they have little control and are forbidden to leave.

Rather than closing one’s eyes to these realities, one needs to understand that the solution to truly overcoming the impact of residential schools is the same one in overcoming HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C, child sexual abuse, or addiction—the solution is simply to be informed and not to be afraid. Through knowledge and reason, Aboriginal people can rely on their traditional strengths to face any challenge that comes their way.

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