“A Spectre in Our Midst”: How the Indian Residential Schools Affect an Entire Community | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves

“A Spectre in Our Midst”: How the Indian Residential Schools Affect an Entire Community

Richard Wagamese explores how the Indian Residential Schools system affected even those who did not attend them.  
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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

reading copy


English — CA
Also available in:
French — CA


  • History
  • Culture & Identity
  • Human & Civil Rights

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has not only focused on the individuals who attended the residential schools but has also provided space to explore how the effects of survivor experiences sent ripples across the communities. Intergenerational survivors like Richard Wagamese, who is quoted below, explore not only the issue of reconciliation but also the effect of residential schools on those who did not even attend them.

I am a victim of Canada’s residential school system. When I say victim, I mean something substantially different than “Survivor.” I never attended a residential school, so I cannot say that I survived one. However, my parents and my extended family members did. The pain they endured became my pain, and I became a victim. When I was born, my family still lived the seasonal nomadic life of traditional Ojibway people. In the great rolling territories surrounding the Winnipeg River in Northwestern Ontario, they fished, hunted, and trapped. . . . We lived communally. Along with my mother and siblings, there were my matriarchal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Surrounded by the rough and tangle of the Canadian Shield, we moved through the seasons. Time was irrelevant in the face of ancient cultural ways that we followed.

But there was a spectre in our midst.

All the members of my family attended residential school. They returned to the land bearing psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical burdens that haunted them. Even my mother, despite staunch declarations that she had learned good things there (finding Jesus, learning to keep a house, the gospel), carried wounds she could not voice. Each of them had experienced an institution that tried to scrape the


off of their insides, and they came back to the bush and river raw, sore, and aching. The pain they bore was invisible and unspoken. It seeped into their spirit, oozing its poison and blinding them from the incredible healing properties within their Indian ways.

For a time, the proximity to family and the land acted as a balm. Then, slowly and irrevocably, the spectre that followed them back from the schools began to assert its presence and shunt for space around our communal fire. When the vitriolic stew of unspoken words, feelings, and memories of their great dislocation, hurt, and isolation began to bubble and churn within them, they discovered that alcohol could numb them from it. And we ceased to be a family.

Instead, the adults of my Ojibway family became frightened children. The trauma that had been visited upon them reduced them to that. They huddled against a darkness from where vague shapes whispered threats and from where invasions of their minds, spirits, and bodies roared through the blackness to envelope and smother them again. They forgot who they were. They struck back vengefully, bitterly, and blindly as only hurt and frightened children could do. 1

Connection Questions

  1. What are, according to Wagamese, the effects of the residential schools on the Ojibway people?
  2. Look up the word spectre if you don’t know it. What is the spectre of the residential schools, according to Wagamese? How does he describe it?
  3. Re-read the last paragraph. What do you think Wagamese is trying to say about the effects of the Indian residential schools on his family? How does he explain his relatives’ behaviour?
  • IndianIndian: When the first European explorers landed in the Americas in 1492 with Christopher Columbus, they referred to the entire indigenous population on the continent as “Indians” because they believed that they had arrived in India. The term came into widespread use among the settlers, and it lumped together entire local populations, disregarding their extraordinary diversity. Ultimately, the name Indian served to differentiate between Indigenous Peoples and the settlers, who referred to themselves as Europeans, whites, and, finally, Canadians.
  • 1Richard Wagamese, “Returning to Harmony,” in Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential Schools, 153–158, available at the Speaking My Truth website. Reproduced by permission of Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "“A Spectre in Our Midst”: How the Indian Residential Schools Affect an Entire Community," last updated September 20, 2019.

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