Peaceful Childhoods – First Nations


Violence occurs across all cultures, and in each culture it is contextually situated in the reasons why it occurs and in the ways it manifests itself. For many First Nations people, residential schools and colonialism have left a history of violent experiences, the consequences of which can be seen today in self-directed and family violence in First Nations communities.


Residential schools, which were government or church run, were part of a broader effort to destroy the First Nations culture in Canada by forcibly separating First Nations children from their homes, families, and cultures and impart Western values. Sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse was rampant in many residential schools, as well as a lack of familial affection, hugging, or bonding.[1] The experience of being institutionalized at a residential school limited children’s exposure to positive parental role models, leaving a generation of people with few parenting skills or family structure norms. Sadly the residential schools, although now closed, have had a ripple effect on the parenting skills and family structures of many First Nations communities.[2]

Violence in Aboriginal communities occurs not only against a backdrop of residential school violence, but in situations of ongoing social exclusion from Canadian life. Canada’s historic and ongoing colonialism impacts Aboriginal people today; some argue that even the label of ‘aboriginal’ is a legal and political tool of colonialism to separate indigenous people from their cultural and community.[3] Canadian policies have resulted in displacement from lands, resource confiscation, separation from culture and language, along with the erosion of social and political institutions, based on attitudes which were demeaning and racist.[4] Historic and contemporary inequalities and injustices have resulted in poor overall well-being of Aboriginal peoples today. In comparison with non-Aboriginal Canadians, Aboriginal people today on average have lower incomes and education levels and higher rates of unemployment, suicide, food insecurity, overcrowding, and infectious and chronic diseases.[5] Many of these factors may contribute to the prevalence of violence in communities, and violence may also serve to sustain these realities. For instance, situations of violence may result in poor mental health, declined academic ability, and trouble keeping work, furthering situations of unemployment, poor health and self-esteem, and lower levels of education.[6],[7]


Within the above situations of colonialism and state-sponsored familial disruption through residential schools, and subsequent social and economic dysfunction, interpersonal violence is a major problem in many Aboriginal communities. Violence within Aboriginal communities is fostered by racist social environments, further diminishing feelings of dignity. Decades of this breed anger and hatred, and have instilled values of oppression and violence into people who then carry these values into their own families.[8] Aboriginal women are more likely to be victims of violence, spousal violence, fear for their lives due to partner violence, and experience emotional or financial abuse from their partner than non-Aboriginal women in Canada.[9] Aboriginal women are twice as likely to die from being physical beaten, and are murdered at 4 times the rate of non-Aboriginal women. The perpetrators in most of these cases are acquaintances or family members.[10] Violence against women is correlated with violence against children, and children who observe violence are at risk for neurological development problems and psychological suffering, and learn that violence is acceptable.[11] Often family breakdown results in First Nations children being placed in foster care and adopted outside of their communities, further weakening their cultural identity and connection to their communities.[12]



Notions of resilience for First Nations people have cultural and community groundings, including traditional knowledge, values, and practices. Different disciplines think of resilience differently, but it can be thought of “as a dynamic process of social and psychological adaptation and transformation”, encompassing characteristics of both individuals and communities.[13] Forms of resilience may differ between people of different ages, communities, life histories, and genders. Processes of reconciliation and forgiveness, the treaties, spiritual beliefs and values providing tenacity, hope, and pride, and unique identities based on self-reliance and independence are all sources of resilience based on continuing and emerging cultural identities and values.[14] There are a variety of social protective factors which can help mitigate violence in Aboriginal communities, including cultural pride, land-based participation, community cohesion, and having trusted people one can confide in.[15] These factors can all play a role in helping First Nations communities cope with the historical trauma of residential schools. Healing as an Aboriginal idea refers to a personal and societal recovery form the effects of systemic racism, which will require restoration and reconciliation within Aboriginal communities and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.[16]

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a process which emphasises the rehabilitation of the offender, responsibility and accountability, and healing of the harm done, rather than typical punitive-style punishment such as imprisonment. In the First Nations context, often restorative justice focuses around healing circles, which brings together elders, the offender, and sometimes the victim to discuss the offense and its underlying causes, its effect on the community and victim, and what steps should be taken to correct the harm.[17] Aboriginal criminal offenders qualify according to Section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code and Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Gladue, [1999] 1 S.C.R. 688 for special consideration of adverse background factors and of aboriginal notions of justice in sentencing, often which may then involve restorative justice methods rather than prison sentences.[18]


Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada is an important part of addressing the impacts of residential schools and colonialism on First Nations communities and families. Reconciliation should focus on understanding and acknowledging past and present racist and colonial policies, and moving forward in respectful relationship to restoring land, economic self-sufficiency, and self-governance to First Nations peoples.[19] Self-governance is a vital factor in overcoming past policies which created dependency and powerlessness, and should be pursued in concert with addressing the impacts of colonial rule including family violence.[20] Reconciliation is necessary, along with interventions to address social and relational erosion, to move forward from the legacy of violence left by residential schools in the lives, families, and communities of many First Nations people.



There are many resources dedicated to breaking cycles of violence within First Nations communities, teach positive parenting skills, support victims of domestic violence, help perpetrators confront their own experiences of abuse, and provide healing for survivors of residential schools. Below is list of websites which provide resources and information:



  1. Lafrance, J. & Collins, D. ‘Residential Schools and Aboriginal Parenting : Voices of Parents.’ Native Social Work Journal 4(1): 104-125. 2003.
  2. National Clearinghouse on Family Violence. (2008). Aboriginal Women and Family Violence. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada. Retrieved from
  3. Alfred, T. & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against contemporary colonialism. Government and Opposition Ltd. 597-
  4. Canada., Erasmus, G., & Dussault, R. (1996). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: The Commission. 3(1). Retrieved from
  5. Mikkonen, J. & Raphael, D. (2010). Social determinants of health: The Canadian facts. Toronto: York University School of Health Policy and Management. Retrieved from
  6. American Psychological Association. (2015). Violence & socioeconomic status. Accessed 13 September. Retrieved from
  7. Canada., Erasmus, G., & Dussault, R. (1996). 3(3).
  8. Canada., Erasmus, G., & Dussault, R. (1996). 3(2).
  9. Brennan, S. (2009). Violent victimization of Aboriginal women in Canadian provinces, 2009. Retrieved from
  10. RCMP. (2014). Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview. Retrieved from
  11. Nicholls, V. (2008). Aboriginal children exposed to family violence- A discussion paper. Native Women’s Association of Canada. Retrieved from
  12. Canada., Erasmus, G., & Dussault, R. (1996). 3(2).
  13. Kirmayer, L., Dandeneau, S., Marshall, E., Phillips, M.K., & Williamson, K.J. (2011). Rethinking Resilience From Indigenous Perspectives. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 56(2):84-91. Retrieved from
  14. Kirmayer et al. (2011).
  15. Fraser, S., Geoffroy, D., Chachamovich, E., & Kirmayer, L. (2014). Changing Rates of Suicide Ideation and Attempts Among Inuit Youth: A Gender-Based Analysis of Risk and Protective Factors. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 45(2): 141-156. DOI: 10.1111/sltb.12122
  16. Canada., Erasmus, G., & Dussault, R. (1996). 3(3).
  17. Justice Education Society. (2015). Aboriginal restorative justice remedies. Retrieved from
  18. Justice Education Society. (2015). Gladue and aboriginal sentencing. Retrieved from
  19. Centre for First Nations Governance. (2011). What does reconciliation look like in Ontario?: Indigenous and non-Indigenous reconciliation in Canada not only about legacy of residential schools. Retrieved from
  20. Volume 3 Chapter 1 Royal Commission