Lost Generations: The Dark Past and Hopeful Future of Canada's Indigenous Populations

Tyler Eagle, Waswanipi First Nation. Paired with sweetgrass, one of the four sacred plants (cedar, sage and tobacco are the other three) used in First Nations rituals and ceremonies. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Crystal Lavallee, Cree and Ojibwe. Paired with the Haldimand Proclamation, a treaty granting land to the Six Nations (Iroquois) for having fought with the British in the American Revolution. Today, Six Nations is the largest band in Canada. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Gary Edwards, Lac La Ronge First Nation. Paired with Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. About 14% of the Downtown Eastside's residents identify as indigenous, though they make up about 2.6% of Canada's overall population. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Cliff Standing Ready, Lakota. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Eugene Harry, Malahat First Nation. Paired with the Mohawk Institute Residential School, one of the few original school structures remaining. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Suzanne Smoke, Alderville First Nation. Paired with birds sitting on a telephone wire near Alderville First Nation in Ontario. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Rodney Little Mustache, Piikani Nation. Paired with the sacred fire from a sweat lodge in Saskatchewan. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Archie Weenie, Sweetgrass First Nation. Paired with clouds just off Canada's east coast. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Graham Paradis, Ojibwe and Métis. A letter from the Department of Indian Affairs, dated Dec. 15, 1921, that starts, "Sir — It is observed with alarm that the holding of dances by the Indians on their reserves is on the increase, and that these practices tend to disorganize the efforts which the Department is putting forth to make them self-supporting. I have, therefore, to direct you to use your utmost endeavours to dissuade the Indians from excessive indulgence in the practice of dancing. You should suppress any dances which cause waste of time, interfere with the occupation of the Indians, unsettle them for serious work, injure their health or encourage them in sloth and idleness." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Doreen Bellaire, Nipissing First Nation. Paired with a view of North Bay, Ontario, the town adjoining the Nipissing First Nation. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Ellie Kay, Cree and Sioux. Paired with the Pacific Spirit Regional Park, which is still claimed by the Musqueam Indian Band. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Tom Janvier, Dene Sułiné. Paired with traditional jingle dancers performing at the monthly Alderville Drum Social. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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In the 1840s, the Canadian government established the Indian Residential School system, a network of church-run boarding schools created to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into the dominant culture of Canada.

The children who attended these facilities — coming from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities — were punished for speaking their native languages or observing indigenous traditions. They were routinely physically and sexually abused, both by the teachers who ran the schools and by older students who had typically been assaulted themselves. In some extreme instances, students were subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization by teachers and school administrators.

The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008.

Still, the lasting impact on Canada's indigenous populations is immeasurable. At least 4,000 children died while in the system — so many that it became common for residential schools to have their own cemeteries.

Those who did survive, deprived of their families and their own cultural identities, became part of a series of lost generations. Languages died out; sacred ceremonies were suppressed and even criminalized. First Nations elders have called the residential school system’s practices a cultural genocide.

In the fall of 2014, I spent a month documenting the school system’s terrible legacy through photography. Much of this project focuses on the literal impact of what it means to lose one’s identity. A disproportionate number of residential school survivors and their immediate families struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and substance abuse. First Nations peoples are also excessively marginalized in the public health system, and at least 1,200 aboriginal women have been reported missing or murdered over the past 30 years, further highlighting the well-being gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

The social injustices that continue to affect Canada’s native populations need to be recorded and shared in order to prompt change.

But one of the many problems with images depicting drug use, alcoholism and poverty is that they can do more to shame and stigmatize the subjects than shed light on the sources of their suffering. In an attempt to overcome that challenge, I created multiple-exposure portraits to look at the causes, rather than the effects.

I paired individuals with sites where residential schools once stood, government documents that enforced strategic assimilation and places where First Nations peoples now struggle to persevere. Each double exposure contains an echo of trauma, which lingers even during the healing process, as languages and traditions return.

Most importantly, these images are meant to not only reveal the past, but also to look to the future — one in which Canada's indigenous peoples can hopefully find peace.