Indian Day Schools Community Support: The challenge of trauma-informed communication

In March 2019, the Government of Canada announced a nation-wide class action settlement agreement to compensate an estimated 140,000 people who attended federally run Indian Day Schools (IDS) from the late 1800s to the year 2000, where many experienced physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.

Former students have until July 2022 to apply for compensation; they must fill out a complex 15-page claim form with a detailed description of the harms they experienced. After community feedback expressed the need for greater support and access to the process, the Court appointed Argyle to providing claimants with culturally appropriate, trauma-informed assistance.

In building the Community Support Program in a trauma-informed way, we wanted to make sure the principles of awareness, safety, collaboration, support, choice and empowerment are reflected in our program.

So how do we deliver support in a trauma-informed way?

We start with our own learning and understanding. Training on trauma-informed principles and the legacy of colonialism for all staff — from logistical leads to front-line claims assistants — is foundational to all aspects of planning and delivery.

Building awareness is our next step. We strive to support claimants in feeling comfortable by ensuring they understand who we are and what to expect in a community support session. We begin every appointment with a full overview of our process. Claimants can also connect with us by phone, review our website or walk into our in-person sessions to learn about how we can offer support before booking an appointment.

We infuse choice and collaboration into our program by meeting claimants where they are in their journey, whether that is starting a personal claim form, beginning a claim form for a deceased relative or inquiring about the status of their submission.

We also take our lead from the claimant when asking questions and writing down the details of their experience, paying attention to cues and suggesting breaks or adapting questions to match their emotional readiness. Claimants also have the choice to access local cultural and healing supports, including Elders and mental health experts before, during and after their session. It is their appointment, and we want to make sure it feels that way.

What have we learned?

The greatest lesson we’ve learned is that where there is a barrier to taking a trauma-informed approach, there is always a solution. Three of our most notable challenges and solutions emerged when tackling reach, capacity, evaluation and, of course, COVID-19.

Challenge #1: Balancing our trauma-informed approach with reach and capacity

We provided as much time as a claimant needed to share their story and complete their claim form. This decision, while empowering, took a toll on the number of claimants we could serve as well as the emotional capacity of both claimants and claims assistants.

Solution: Flexible options based on the claimants’ needs

Claimants decide how much time they will need to share their story, and when needed, that support may be provided over a series of appointments. By setting a maximum length for each appointment, we can establish the initial one-on-one relationship with a claimant while expanding our reach to other claimants and ensuring that the emotional capacity of survivors and staff is not overextended.

Challenge #2: COVID screening in a trauma-informed way

Keeping claimants and communities safe is one of our top priorities. This means ensuring claimants are immediately screened for COVID-19 upon arrival at our in-person sessions. Screening involves a series of questions and a temperature check. Even with the common implementation of screening practices in communities, we were concerned about imposing such an intrusive process as our first interaction with claimants.

Solution: Introduce a friendly face

In collaboration with our community contacts, we were able to engage local youth as greeters to support us with our screening process. This approach positioned a familiar face as the first point of contact. It removed the risk of compromising our ability to build rapport with claimants following any potential discomfort experienced through screening.

Challenge #3: Evaluating our trauma-informed approach

We define success as delivering a safe and supportive experience for every claimant we serve. We can apply trauma-informed principles to our planning, but only the claimant can decide if their experience was safe, collaborative, empowering and supportive. Recognizing that some claimants make high emotional investments in completing their claim forms, it was a challenge finding the appropriate method to ask for their feedback.

Solution: Make feedback simple

We designed a simple evaluation station that we position at the exit of our sessions. The optional, private station asks one question: Did you feel supported today? Claimants can respond by selecting one green, yellow or red card, each respectively stamped with a smile, neutral expression or frown. Additional comments can be written on the card or simply inserted in a ballot-style box. Many claimants have given feedback cards and comments, giving us valuable insight into how our sessions feel on the receiving end.

Feedback card.

Feedback card.

Providing trauma-informed programming requires constant switching of hats to try on as many alternate perspectives as possible for any given situation. We try to ask ourselves whether our sessions feel safe, whether they meet needs, whether they allow claimants to have ownership of their session.

success factors in trauma-informed support will be different for each claimant and community; we are committed to continuing to learn and adjust based on feedback from the most important voices: those of the claimants.

Learn more about the Federal Indian Day Schools Community Support Program by visiting

About the Author

Jill McLean

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