Intergenerational Trauma

“Coming for all of the children for over 120 years”  

1. Opening for all gatherings.

2. Introduction of the theme by Facilitator

The accumulation of traumatic experiences endured by residential school survivors as well as many others in the Indigenous communities have been called “soul wounds.” It is impossible in 10 or 15 minutes to describe adequately all these wounds. We invite you to visit the ‘resources” section of our website, where you can access and reflect upon the 16 page document entitled: “The soul wounds of the Anishinabeh people; the psychological and intergenerational impacts of the Indian Residential school,” prepared by the Union of Ontario Indians.     

Yellow Horse Brave Heart (1999), the first to apply the term historic trauma to Indigenous people, describes it as follows:

With the break-up of the extended family, many indigenous women found they had no role models to teach them parenting skills. As many Native people were raised in boarding schools, the traditional roles and ways of parenting by both Native men and women were lost. The attitudes and norms, which then sprang up in parenting styles, such as harsh physical punishment, emotional abandonment, lack of parental involvement, and insensitivity to children’s needs added to imbalance in the family. As generations continued with these ways of parenting, the trauma was passed down until many believe it has become a cycle of despair and desperation (1999:70).

Current conditions such as the disproportionate apprehension of Aboriginal children by child-welfare agencies and the disproportionate imprisonment and victimization of Aboriginal people can be explained in part as a result or legacy of the way that Aboriginal children were treated in residential schools and were denied an environment of positive parenting, worthy community leaders, and a positive sense of identity and self-worth. When current traumas such as racism and discrimination are added, they perpetuate colonialism. This interaction of historic trauma and current traumas is sometimes called colonial trauma response.

So the impacts of the legacy of residential schools have not ended with those who attended the schools. They affected the Survivors’ partners, their children, their grandchildren, their extended families, and their communities. Children who were abused in the schools sometimes went on to abuse others. Many students who spoke to the Commission said they developed addictions as a means of coping. Students who were treated and punished like prisoners in the schools often graduated to real prisons. For many, the path from residential school to prison was a short one.

Children exposed to strict and regimented discipline in the schools sometimes found it difficult to become loving parents. Genine Paul-Dimitracopoulos’s mother was placed in the Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia at a very early age. She told the Commission that knowing this, and what the school was like, helped her understand “how we grew up because my mom never really showed us love when we were kids coming up. She, when I was hurt or cried, she was never there to console you or to hug you. If I hurt myself she would never give me a hug and tell me it would be okay. I didn’t understand why.” Alma Scott of Winnipeg told the Commission that as “a direct result of those residential schools because I was a dysfunctional mother.… I spent over twenty years of my life stuck in a bottle in an addiction where I didn’t want to feel any emotions so I numbed out with drugs and with alcohol…. That’s how I raised my children, that’s what my children saw, and that’s what I saw.”

In the words of the Commission, genuine reconciliation will not be possible until the complex legacy of the schools is understood, acknowledged, and addressed. Parliament and the Supreme Court have recognized that the legacy of residential schools should be considered when sentencing Aboriginal offenders. Although these have been important measures, they have not been sufficient to address the grossly disproportionate imprisonment of Aboriginal people, which continues to grow, in part because of a lack of adequate funding and support for culturally appropriate alternatives to imprisonment. Honouring the Truth, pp. 135-136

Transmission of trauma always takes place in a social environment, which is assumed to have a major impact on children. It is true that Aboriginal children of today did not witness the death, terror and suffering of their ancestors. However, it is also true that many of them witnessed rampant domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction of their parents who witnessed the lack of self-esteem and unresolved grief of their parents. According to Kellermann (2000), traumatized parents influence their children not only through what they do to them, in terms of actual child-rearing behaviour, but also through inadequate role modelling. As pointed out by Bandura (1977), children learn things vicariously by observing and imitating their parents. Children of traumatized parents may be assumed to have taken upon themselves some of the behaviours and emotional states of their parents. This matrix of unhealthy family relations frames the process of memory transmission and locates this social phenomenon on an individual level, thus affecting every person in Aboriginal communities and beyond. This is how universal trauma enters the lives of individuals. Chapter 3, page 76

To recapitulate: trauma transmission: the traumatic memories are passed to next generations through different channels, including biological (in hereditary predispositions to PTSD), cultural (through story-telling, culturally sanctioned behaviours), social (through inadequate parenting, lateral violence, acting out of abuse), and psychological (through memory processes) channels. The complexity of the transmission process, as well as the complexity of the “image of loss” that is being passed on, must be recognized in order to fully understand why unresolved grief and the residue of despair are still present in the Aboriginal people’s collective psyche. Ch. 3 p. 76

However, this healing process is long and tedious. Fragmented souls do not heal in a year. There is no quick, efficient band-aid-like remedy to correct extensive damages that have been perpetuated for so many years and, in the instance of Aboriginal people, generation after generation. After centuries of depersonalization, isolation from a sound culture and social milieu, with the group identity removed, all previous ideals and beliefs destroyed or stolen and being objects of ruthless exploitation, Aboriginal people became extremely vulnerable and almost naked in the face of their powerful oppressors. Being treated with utmost contempt and derision and being brutally stripped of every reminder of their previous cultural identity and their predictable social environment, they lost their strength as a people and as individuals. The almost complete destruction of their social context and their social identity left them unbearably anxious, tremendously uncertain and miserably subject to a new and uncertain world.

One must always remember that, in past centuries of mortal terror, the Aboriginal people’s intra-social structure was shattered.  Page 79

The trauma of residential schools was not the only indignity suffered by Indigenous people in Canada. They also endured the loss of territory, language, culture and heritage, children and far too many women and men to murder and suicide. Their Indigenous  governments and economies were disrupted, their spirituality distained. The intergenerational trauma continues. Adoptions outside the culture, pervasive foster care, often without concern for the cultures, and inordinate rates of incarceration perpetuate the trauma. Government policies, accepted by Canadians, have allowed poverty, poor educational opportunities, and poor health, polluted water and inadequate housing to dominate in many of their communities. The low self esteem that resulted has contributed to alcoholism, drug use and suicide.

But the story is not all doom and gloom. The commission affirms: The Survivors are extraordinary people; If theirs is a story of pain, loneliness away from their families, suffering and abuse, it is also a story of extraordinary courage, resilience and endurance. It is they who have not allowed us “to kill the Indian in the child” to quote the words recalled by The Prime Minister in his formal apology. Over 6,750 people gave recorded statements to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They are the ones who have demanded that we face our history. Truth about our history comes before reconciliation.  If we listen, we will hear that they are generous in their forgiving, they are wise in their judgements, they are hopeful in the future.

3.    Talking Circle

4.    Determination of theme for next meeting and reader

5.    Closing for all gatherings


Major sources for this theme:

Historic trauma and aboriginal healing,  prepared for the aboriginal healing foundation, by Cynthia c. Wesley-Esquimaux, Ph.D., Magdalena Smolewski, Ph.D.

Aboriginal peoples and historic trauma: the processes of intergenerational transmission, by William Aguiar and Regine Halseth, National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health

Reconciliation: a spiritual process, by Maggie Hodgson

Intervention to address intergenerational trauma: overcoming, resisting and preventing structural violence, University of Calgary

Andrew Woolford, This Benevolent Experiment, Indigenous boarding schools, genocide and redress in Canada and the United States.  University of Manitoba Press, 2015.