Events planned to help understand the impacts of residential schools

When Rupert Ross started law school no one was talking about residential schools.

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Wyatt’s World

Wyatt’s World for March 5, 2021.

City councillor Samson Hartland in Whitehorse on Dec. 3, 2018. Hartland has announced his plans to run for mayor in the Oct. 21 municipal election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillor sets sights on mayor’s chair

Hartland declares election plans

Premier Sandy Silver speaks to media after delivering the budget in the legislature in Whitehorse on March 4. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Territorial budget predicts deficit of $12.7 million, reduced pandemic spending in 2021-2022

If recovery goes well, the territory could end up with a very small surplus.

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25 after two masked men entered a residence, assaulted a man inside with a weapon and departed. (Black Press file)
Two men arrested after Dawson City home invasion

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25.… Continue reading

Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters at a news conference in Whitehorse on Dec. 21, 2017. New ATIPP laws are coming into effect April 1. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News file)
New access to information laws will take effect April 1

“Our government remains committed to government openness and accountability.”

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Public Health Nurse Angie Bartelen at the Yukon Convention Centre Clinic in Whitehorse on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
State of emergency extended for another 90 days

“Now we’re in a situation where we see the finish line.”

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been postponed indefinitely. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
2022 Arctic Winter Games postponed indefinitely

Wood Buffalo, Alta., Host Society committed to rescheduling at a later date

Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)
South Klondike Highway remains closed due to avalanches

Yukon Avalanche Association recommending backcountry recreators remain vigilant

RCMP Online Crime Reporting website in Whitehorse on March 5. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Whitehorse RCMP launch online crime reporting

Both a website and Whitehorse RCMP app are now available

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Most Read