Intergenerational Trauma, Healing, and Resiliency

Leaving Home

“I still remember the smell of the cold metal inside the float plane. It took me far away from home and I was never the same after that . . . They took my culture, they took my language, they took me from my family, my people, the animals, my land, everything I knew and loved.” In a sharing circle of other residential school survivors, this man spoke his truth for the first time in a room filled with family members, health supports, and the public.

It was a hot, sticky afternoon in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, in late June 2011. We were at the Truth and Reconciliation Northern event. In painstaking detail, this soft-spoken man recounted how the school had impacted him. In a barely audible voice, he made a heart-wrenching apology to his three children for how he had treated them over the decades. All of us in the room were witnessing firsthand the intergenerational harm and traumatic legacy of residential schools in Canada.

I have attended several of these national events and many local hearings as a therapist and health support. Although the stories vary, grief and loss are dominant themes. So is the “soul wound” felt by many survivors as they come to grips with the impact of their own experience on their children, family members, and community.

Truth and Reconciliation

Sometimes it takes a large collective voice to bring attention to a significant issue that is not in the public eye. Six years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was formed. It was one of the provisions of a massive out-of-court settlement brought on by former Indigenous residential school survivors in the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history.

The TRC created a vehicle for former students – then children, now adults – to tell us about their experiences at residential school and the impact the schools had on them, their families and their communities. The TRC helped bring to public awareness a set of government policies that targeted and affected whole generations.

By the 1960s, many thousands of Indigenous children had been forcibly removed from their parents and placed into government-funded, church-controlled, residential learning institutions, among unfamiliar people, customs, and languages. Many children suffered horrific abuse and parents and communities were traumatized. After two or three generations of families had experienced this traumatic disconnection and loss, any sense of trust or feeling of belonging to family, community, and culture had been broken.

Intergenerational Trauma

The experiences of residential school survivors clearly highlight intergenerational trauma. Kevin Berube, Director of Mental Health and Addictions at Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre, described intergenerational trauma in a 2015 Globe and Mail article:

“Untreated trauma-related stress experienced by survivors is passed on to second and subsequent generations. The trauma inflicted by residential schools…and the scope of the damage…wouldn’t be truly understood until years later.”

Intergenerational trauma is usually seen within one family in which the parents or grandparents were traumatized, and each generation of that family continues to experience trauma in some form…Direct survivors of these experiences often transmit the trauma to later generations when they don’t recognize or have the opportunity to address their issues. Over the course of time these behaviours, often destructive, become normalized within the family and their community, leading to the next generation suffering the same problems.

“Many self-destructive behaviours can result from unresolved trauma. Depression, anxiety, family violence, suicidal and homicidal thoughts, and addictions are some of the behaviours our mental health therapists see when working with clients who have experienced direct or intergenerational trauma. In most cases, the self-destructive behaviour exists because the client is having a difficult time dealing with the pain of remembering the past, or trying to survive an abusive situation now.”

Coming Home: Healing and Resiliency

So what helps heal intergenerational trauma?

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation has done tremendous work on historic and residential school trauma. They identify three pillars of healing that lead to healing and resiliency:

  • Legacy Education – connecting past history to present reality
  • Cultural Interventions – re-centering the experience and voices of Indigenous peoples as integral to the history of this country; traditional teachings and healing; cultural activities
  • Therapeutic Interventions – individual and intergenerational family therapy; community healing events

A 2012 review of healing practices, Intergenerational Trauma and Aboriginal Youth, makes similar recommendations:

  • Integrate Indigenous world views into interventions
  • Strengthen cultural identity as a healing tool
  • Build autonomous and self-determining Aboriginal healing organizations
  • Integrate existing, but isolated interventions into mainstream health services
  • Involve mainstream professionals in learning more about Indigenous approaches to healing

The TRC came to a formal close on June 3rd, 2015 in Ottawa, but the reconciliation process continues.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Elizabeth Shein

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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