When Rupert Ross started law school no one was talking about residential schools.
When he started working in aboriginal communities no one was considering a First Nations’ perspective on healing or what the history of colonialism had done to destroy the communities.
“We were just sent up north to take our legal system to those primitive people and bring them up to date,” he said.
“That was never directly said, but that was the impression that I went north with. It came as a shock to find myself learning while I was up there, instead of just imposing our way of doing things.”
As a Crown attorney, Ross conducted criminal prosecutions in more than 20 remote, fly-in First Nation communities in northwestern Ontario, including more than 20 homicides.
He witnessed the extent of social breakdown in many First Nation communities.
“It was clear that they couldn’t have survived for thousands of years showing the same symptoms, so something happened to change them,” he said in an interview this week.
“That became my question. How can communities be reduced to this level of dysfunction and violence and everything else. What did it?”
Ross will be Whitehorse and Carcross next week along with two other leading experts, Dr. Lee Brown and Tonya Gomes, talking about the psychological damage left behind by residential schools.
Ross said the impact of taking thousands of aboriginal children away from their families and culture can still be felt generations later.
Kids who went to residential schools grew up in a place where no one wanted to hear them talk at all, never mind talk about their feelings, Ross said.
They sometimes grew up to be parents who have had to numb themselves and are unable to model emotional health for their children. That includes the basics like recognizing different emotions and understanding how to manage them, Ross said.
“Everything gets buried until it explodes, and it explodes with the violence that I prosecuted for 26 years.”
Ross said he frequently prosecuted people for violent crimes like murder who had little to no criminal record.
The people in their lives seemed surprised, usually blaming the violence on something like alcohol. But it’s more complicated than that, he said.
“It’s all the other stuff that was boiling around inside. They didn’t know how to manage it, they didn’t know what was there, and they didn’t know how to control what was coming into their emotional skill sets and so they just exploded in what we think of as mindless violence.
“It’s not mindless, it goes back several generations.”
During his career Ross has had posts with both the federal Department of Justice and Health Canada, travelling the country looking at indigenous approaches to healing.
He said he’s seen the positive impact of programs that connect people with the cultural roots that were taken from them.
“If you read the responses of people who’ve been through that programming they just make you cry,” he said.
“People feeling this weight lifting off their shoulders. That they’re not evil, or horrible, or empty, or whatever. That they have strength, they have possibilities. It’s wonderful to see. I spent 30 years seeing the opposite.”
Next week’s events start on Tuesday with a discussion titled “Exploring the psychological damage of residential schools,” from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.
The other events will be held from Wednesday to Friday at the Carcross Tagish First Nation capacity building in Carcross.
Ross said the events are open to anyone, with the goal of community healing in mind.
“People have to recognize that what goes on that’s negative is not because of individual failure, it’s rather a cultural dynamic that has put them in a situation where their behaviour was virtually predetermined,” he said.
“If people stop holding themselves to blame for the stuff they’ve done and then if they start to find out that there are ways to overcome those cultural factors, the historical factors, then they can become healthy again.”
He said anyone who works with First Nations, including teachers and lawyers, can benefit from these kinds of events, “to gain an understanding of children who are coming in front of them. How did those children get built?”
The events have a $75 registration fee. Both the Carcross Tagish and Kwanlin Dun First Nations are willing to help members with that cost if they are interested in attending.
More information can be found on both First Nations’ Facebook pages.
Contact Ashley Joannou at