Overcoming residential school trauma: the story of Eric John Large

Kamloops Indian Residential School classroom 1950. Wikipedia

Growing up with his paternal grandparents on the Saddle Lake Indian Reserve in Treaty No.6, from 1953 to 1965, Eric John Large attended the Blue Quills Indian Residential School outside the town of St. Paul, Alta. After being removed from his family and attending residential school, Large was able to “overcome” his past. He used his experiences and knowledge to help other residential school survivors, becoming a social worker to help them obtain the rights and reconciliations they deserve. 

“I spent twelve years [at Blue Quills]. We would bus into the town of St. Paul everyday and then be brought back by four o’clock, but we lived there 24/7. We did go home on the so-called Christmas holiday, Easter holidays and during the summer,” says Large. Most students were taught the basic subjects such as math (arithmetic) reading, writing and of course, religion. 

John Large at bottom left at Blue Quills Indian Residential School in Grade 8, 1960/61.

Large explains how the school was under contract and hired various Christian denominations to administer the schools across the country. Blue Quills was one of the schools that was run by clergy (Oblates of Mary Immaculate) and nuns (Sisters of Charity). “There was a lot of religious structure and praying, from getting up in the morning, before and after meals and in the evening,” says Large.

It was hard enough that everything was structure-based, but it was harder when it came to having any sort of freedom. According to Large’s memory, everything was routine, the same thing day after day. “People have to realize that we were controlled 24/7, and we were underaged.” According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, many Indigenous people experienced, sexual, psychological, spiritual and physical abuse “at the hands of their so-called caregivers in the residential school system.”

Large adds: “I get asked something, trying to recall something that happened 65 years ago. Can you imagine the 85 years old trying to remember and they’re in trauma stages, some of them you cannot talk to them. That’s how bad it is.”

history of residential schools

The last residential school in Canada closed in 1997, after the system had been active for decades. Research conducted by Jennifer J. Llewellyn states how, from the late 1800s until the 1980s, the federal government of Canada sought to provide education to Indigenous children through a system of residential schools. As the result of an agreement with four of Canada’s Christian churches, the schools were administered throughout most of this period by various church organizations. 

While those church organizations, for the most part, oversaw the day-to-day operations of the institutions, residential schools were the primary tool used by the government in pursuance of their policy of assimilation. But they caused incredible damage by taking children away from their culture, homes and families, and instilling  trauma and fear in the young students through abuse. 

Wanting to solve the “Indian Problem,” as described in Llewellyn’s research, the government’s solution was to “get rid of the Indians by assimilating them into Canadian society. Residential schools were the means through which this goal was to be achieved.” The government wanted to take control of the Indigenous population by starting with the children. “If it were possible to gather in all the Indian Children and retain them for a certain period, there would be produced a generation of English-speaking Indians, accustomed to the ways of civilized life, which might then be the dominant body among themselves, capable of holding its own with its white neighbours; and thus would be brought about rapidly decreasing expenditure until the same should forever cease, and the Indian problem would have been solved,” states Llewellyn in her 2002 research paper.

Intergenerational trauma 

Jackie Lauren, who is a current PhD student at Carleton University and does research on Indigenous youth and families, says that her grandma was also a former residential school survivor but “she literally would not talk about it.” 

For the longest time Lauren didn’t even know she was Indigenous. “It was easier to pretend that we were white because of what’s happened,” she says. 

Through her research and life experiences, Lauren noticed a lot of intergenerational impacts caused by residential school. She says many survivors not only had difficulty talking about their experiences, it affected their ability to raise their children. “Even for myself, that’s very much a reality from my own life,” she said.

Most residential school’s “parenting model” involved a lot of control, physical abuse and both physical and psychological punishment, which resulted in adults ill-prepared to nurture their own children. This intergenerational trauma wasn’t always recognized, and “the emotional impact of exposure to trauma on children is often unappreciated and therefore untreated, and yet the impact of exposure to disaster and violence is profound and long-lasting,” suggests an article in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. 

“I think most of us were not aware that we were traumatized, just by being taken away from our parents, grandparents, extended families… in my mind we were not aware that we were traumatized. And then of course the abuses that also occurred that would traumatize individual students.”

Eric John Large

In a 1990 book written by Maggie Hodgson, Impact of Residential Schools and Other Root Causes of Poor Mental Health,  she states how residential schools are one of the main causes of intergenerational trauma. “If you subject one generation to that kind of parenting and they become adults and have children; those children become subjected to that treatment and then you subject a third generation to a residential school system the same as the first two generations. You have a whole society affected by isolation, loneliness, sadness, anger, hopelessness and pain.”

She adds how many survivors are still not comfortable talking to their spouse, their kids or anyone around them about the abuse they went through. 

“The skepticism that a lot of survivors have been met with and we can see this through elected officials, where they talk about the benefits of residential schools in the media. […] How could a survivor comfortably talk about that stuff and feel safe? Or you hear from people; why don’t they just get over it, it happened so long ago,” says Lauren. 

Lauren explains that many survivors are now regaining their Indigenous status despite the horrific past they and many of their family members have been through.

“People say that Indegenous population is one of the fastest growing population in Canada, and it not because we are birthing a lot, but because a lot of Indigenous folks are regaining their status.” 

Larges adds: “There are things that people still don’t know, it goes back to the intent again, what was the federal intent from 1857 there was an enfranchisement act, The Gradual Civilization Act, that was the intent. But at the same time they controlled the natives.” That legislation was introduced in 1857, and established a process for First Peoples to become full Canadian citizens by virtue of surrendering and denying their ancestral identities. 


When it came time for Large to graduate, as much as the intent of residentials school was to prepare him for a life of assimilation, he didn’t know what to expect. 

“I did not know what was ahead after grade 12,” he said. “We were not prepared. The irony was that we were supposed to be assimilated to the outside culture and yet we were cooped up in residential school.”

Many students never left the facility to go into town or never saw people from town. The opportunity to see non-natives and connect with others was only on very rare occasions and sometimes never.  “But yet the long term policy was to integrate us, it’s a very unusual experience for all of us,” Large says.

An unusual experience because they were locked up in the residential school 24/7, despite what the government was saying about getting them to integrate into settler society. 

Even though he didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduation, the first step for Large was to look for a job. Large describes his story as an ”unusual” one. Between grade 10 or 11, he’s not sure of the exact year, Large says he went into one of the banks in St. Paul to see if he could start working for them. “So I talked to the manager, and he just said, ‘Go back to school and finish your grade 12,’” which was exactly what he did. 

Large keeps his graduation picture on his living room wall, and it shows the boys in black suits, black ties and white button-up shirts, and most of the girls in white, all posing together just in front of the stage in the school’s gymnasium. “A bench was placed, so we could, the boys stand on it, the girls had these flower corsages on their chest, the flowers show up yellow and some pink roses,” he recalls. 

“I think most of us were not aware that we were traumatized, just by being taken awake from our parents, grandparents, extended families… in my mind we were not aware that we were traumatized. And then of course the abuses that also occurred that would traumatize individual students.”

 Colorized photo of the Racette School graduating students and farewell ceremonies in St. Paul, Alberta May 14, 1965.

After graduating, Large went back to his dad’s house and would sometimes see his grandmother. And it was over the summer of 1965 that he got the news from the bank of a job opportunity. 

“I did manage to have a suit from my graduation and at least one shirt. [I] managed to show up and the same manager was there, with an employee form.” Large describes his outside world experience “quite different” from others, as his opportunities came faster than he had expected. 

After working for five and a half years in different locations such as Bonnyville, where he learned more about accounting and loans, he got his very first promotion when he was transferred to the town of Vilna and named administrative officer. 

“The hardest part was to hear my fellow students too,
divulging to the point of tears.”

Eric JOHN Large

Large attended the University of Alberta from 1971-72, 1973-1976, and 1978 and received a Bachelor of Education degree. He also had the opportunity to go to the United Nations in New York City in 1992 and to the UN in Geneva in 1999 and 2000. On those last two occasions, he made presentations on Native children apprehensions in Canada and on articles of the draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Working at multiple jobs, such as being a driver and transporting students and seniors, he then became a councillor (five three-year terms) and chief (one three-year term) with the Saddle Lake Cree Nation from 1989 to 2007. In 2007, he became an Indian Residential School Coordinator and Resolution Health Support Worker. 

During the time he was a Resolution Health Support worker, Large and fellow former students would give tours in the residential school to high school students and anyone that was interested in visiting the old building. Large and other “tourist guides” would get up to 40 per day periodically coming from different places in Alberta and at times outside the province. And sometimes Mennonite  groups would come and visit, or as Large calls them “unusual tourists.” 

Bachelor of Education degree granted to Large May 29, 1978.
Truth and reconciliation

Large explains how it was the idea of truth and reconciliation, for the former students to be able to educate the newer generation about the actual history of residential schools. But he didn’t much appreciate putting the cost and responsibility on Indigeous Peoples.  “We get asked to try to educate the public at our own cost, to me that’s not right. We did not ask for this policy of residential schools.” 

It was not so long ago that the government officially declared Sept. 30 the national day for Truth and Reconciliation across Canada. According to the Government of Canada, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report is a testament to the courage of each and every survivor and family member who shared their story.” The government also pledged to continue to work with leaders “to design a national engagement strategy for developing and implementing a national reconciliation framework, informed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations” while still understanding that reconciliation “goes beyond the scope of the commission’s recommendations.”

Having former students explain and tell their own story of residential school is another way to trigger past trauma. Revisiting the places and talking about the same situation over and over again to the “outside” world does not help people get relief  from that trauma, but causes them to re-experience it. Even for Large, on many occasions his memory would trigger strong emothions, to the point where his legs started to shake during tours. 

“The hardest part was to hear my fellow students too, divulging to the point of tears.”

In 2011 a gathering was hosted at the Blue Quills former residential school, known at that time as Blue Quills Education Centre and Blue Quills First Nations College (BQFNC) (today it’s called Blue Quills University). At that event, Large and other former students witnessed a woman going through a re-traumatization experience. “We were almost finished. We were coming from the west side of the building, the fourth floor where the dormitories used to be. We went through the boys side and just before we went through the dormitories, there’s a step going down.” Right at those stairs, the woman shouted. 

“She just freaked out. Nobody knew what to do and then she ran down the stairs and kept going,” he said. After the woman had calmed down, she explained that the spot where she screamed was where her father witnessed a supervisor throw a boy down on the stairs. He landed on the bottom of the staircase, he hit his head, and died. Sadly, this is one of many cases we’ve heard about at residential schools over the past years. There have been discoveries of unmarked graves in the last six months all across Canada, 215 in a residential school near Kamloops, and 751 in Saskatchewan. These numbers continue to increase as more and more unmarked graves get discord by Indigenous Peoples in other parts of the country. 

That was not the first experience of re-traumatization Large witnessed in his career as a support worker. That story was one of many. Large says many Indigenous people face re-traumatization on a daily basis,  by constantly educating and talking to others, including non-indigenous people, about their past. 

The cover of Selected Contemporary Native
Issues In Canada – Observations. 

As a support worker, Large had resources to support mentally and emotionally every residential school survivor he met. In most cases he would support them during settlement trials or class action out-of-court settlements.

In many cases Large would assist former students during their abuse hearings, also known as the independent assessment process, where many students could reveal details of their abuses in support of their abuse claims. Despite not being able to help them in court, Large would always attend their hearings. Not only was he a support for them, but he would also give them advice before and after going to court. In many cases, Large explained how many students felt like they were not getting what they deserved or they felt they were not being heard. 

“A lot of times when I became a health support worker, they would tell me my lawyer is not believing me, I’m not being believed by the adjudicator. And as much as they were telling several people their story, nothing was ever changing,” says Large. 

Before retiring in 2016, Large published his book in 2012 titled Selected Contemporary Native Issues In Canada – Observations which talks mainly about First Peoples and the Canadian government, including statements, press conferences and memoranda written by Large during his public career, as well as five short chapters of original prose. 

Still living in Saddle Lake (Cree Nation) in Alberta and after more than thirty years serving and helping First Nations people as a chief, counsellor and support worker, Large continues to spread and share his story to many such as journalists, like myself.

Eric John Large