PERSONAL AND CULTURAL HEALING
In a survey of students in the four most recent partnerships, 95% rated culture as a "very important" aspect of the training program; and 87% of participants in the documentation and evaluation project reported significant increases in cultural identity and pride. A distinguishing feature of all seven partnerships was a conscious focus on the strengths of First Nations communities. This contrasts with the focus on deficits that has shaped the historical relationships between native and non-native Canadians and that shapes most contemporary social program initiatives.
Aspects of cultural healing reported by evaluation participants included both personal and community development. Many students described feeling more aware of their potential to make a difference in their own lives, in their families, and in their communities. Significant psychosocial healing was reported by 92% of the students.
Students' Perceptions of Change
Evaluation interviews revealed personal transformations in various dimensions. Positive changes reported by students are first presented in order of the frequency of their self-identification of ways in which they had experienced personal growth, as a direct result of their participation in the training program:
Over 80% of program graduates reported that their parenting and grand parenting had improved significantly. Eleven reported that they'd shared their new skills with their adult children, who are now raising their own children. This evaluation finding has particular importance for our training programs, because most of the students were mothers and several were grandmothers. In the four most recent partnerships, 53 students were parents or grandparents to 186 children. In a total population of approximately 5,100, this represents a substantial impact.
Effects of the program on parenting were accounted for by most participants with reference to the program content, in which they explored their own parenting experiences and develop new understandings about how they could support children's optimal development in the context of a strong family life. However, an enabling condition for direct impacts on parenting was that the students did not need to leave their families in order to participate in the program, affording them ample ongoing opportunities for practice, feedback, and reflection on their child care practices.
Residential school trauma
Residential school trauma was a recurrent theme in the collected data, emerging through interviews with students, instructors and other community members. Reams of poignant testimony have been collected in many different venues across Canada over the years, describing the suffering to parents, to children and to communities of residential schooling, child welfare practices, and other 'helping' services deemed by governments and non-government organizations, at the time, to be in the 'best interests' of Canada's aboriginal people.
Many graduates talked about having missed the foundational experiences of being parented effectively. Some had been forced to attend residential schools off reserve as children; others were raised by parents who had attended residential schools. The profound and deeply distressing legacy of residential schooling trauma emerged in reflections on course work, discussions with instructors and Elders, and self-assessment of the changes they experienced during the training programs. Many program graduates recounted feeling considerable emotional pain when their studies focused on children's place in families, children's development, and personal childhood experiences.
Although the long era of enforced residential schooling for First Nations children is now over, its impact on the transmission of culture remains. In many communities, generations of aboriginal people do not know their own traditional culture and languages, and their identities as individuals and as members of a cultural community have been fragmented. The First Nations Partnership Programs were created in part to bring together the worlds of university-accredited knowledge and indigenous knowledge, and to strengthen cultural knowledge, identity and pride.
I learned from the Elders how to raise my daughter and how to forgive. We never got any teachings when we were young, because we were raised in residential school. The Elders gave us their teaching, and their words helped us to become better parents.
Supports for students
The program evaluation revealed the link between personal healing and the supports available to students through the community-involving, community-based nature of the program. Key elements of the program design and delivery came together to create a supportive environment. All of those who reported a reawakening of past trauma during the study of early childhood and adolescence also identified one or more sources of support within the training program that were readily available to assist them in working through their feelings and achieving some sense of healing.
Classmates were the most often identified supports, followed by instructors and intergenerational facilitators. In one community, the intergenerational facilitator twice intervened with a 'time out' from regular classes and assignments so that students, Elders and instructors could hold healing circles and sweat lodge ceremonies to promote healing from residential school trauma and other personal and interpersonal difficulties.