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A Mixed Blessing, Part 3: Deafness and Alcoholism, the Aftereffects of Residential School

On Tuesday June 25 we introduced Ben Powless, whose family is riven with aftereffects of Canada’s residential schools system. This third installment of A Mixed Blessing: Stories by Intergenerational Residential School Survivors, chronicles the lasting health problems—both psychological and physical—left by the schools on the women in Powless's family. Read Part 1 and Part 2. In this segment we also introduce Amy Bombay, 29, an Ojibwe with roots in the Rainy River First Nation in northwestern Ontario. 

Powless’s maternal grandmother was raised to become a traditional medicine woman. Originally from Parry Island First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario, she too attended residential school and suffered at the hands of the nuns and priests.

She was beaten so badly by the nuns that she was deaf for the rest of her life. She had to rely on a hearing aid,” said Powless. 

With nine children but few parenting skills, she lost most of her children to Children’s Aid.

My grandmother suffered a good part of her life from alcoholism,” says Ben. “She had to endure some of the worst injustices. There are some parts that will always be painful.”

Ben’s mom, in turn, never knew her own mother in a personal way. Though placed in a good foster home, Ben’s mother still carried the scars of her biological home.

Amy Bombay, 29, Ojibwe, was born and raised in Ottawa, and she too is an intergenerational residential school survivor. Her grandmother and grandfather attended St. Mary's Indian Residential School in Fort Frances, Ontario.

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“I would hear through my mother and my aunt that my grandmother use to say things like, 'You can't run for class president or homecoming queen because you're an Indian,’ " Bombay said. “She would say these things to her children without explaining why she said it.”

Through her non–First Nation mother, Sheila Bombay, Amy learned about her father's history.

“He never spoke to us about the difficulties he had growing up, and I don't think my grandmother spoke to him about her difficulties either,” said Bombay of her father, Harry Bombay. “He's really good at shutting out his emotions when facing difficult things.”

Earning a PhD in psychology at Carleton University, Amy Bombay focused on understanding the transmission of trauma in First Nation families—using research on children of Holocaust survivors as her starting point. She found that children of residential school survivors had higher rates of depressive symptoms and stress. She also found that children of survivors were more likely to be exposed to childhood adversities such as abuse, neglect and having an alcoholic parent or a parent who’d been incarcerated.

This placed the intergenerational survivor at greater risk of traumatic experiences in his or her own adulthood. As adults, they perceived higher levels of discrimination. All of these factors contributed to their susceptibility to depression. It’s something that Bombay has seen in her own family.

“I never met my grandfather,” she said. “He died early because he became an alcoholic after residential school.”

She didn’t know her grandmother well either. “My grandmother had emotional problems because of residential school, which impaired her parenting skills.” 

Next: A Broken Home, and Struggling to Fit In