Earlier this month, at least 160 unmarked graves were confirmed at the former Catholic-run Kuper Island Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Colloquially referred to as “Canada’s Alcatraz,” the “school,” which operated between 1890 and 1975, was known for being particularly horrific to the Indigenous children who attended. A former staffer there was criminally convicted for sexually abusing students, one of the country's few convictions for abuses at residential schools. Survivors have recounted how they were starved and their classmates disappeared; teachers walked around with belts and five-foot-long wooden rulers to punish children who spoke in their Indigenous languages. It’s believed two young girls died while attempting to escape from the school by boat.
But the horrors didn’t end there; they’ve lasted for generations. In a moving testimony published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which investigated Canada’s residential school system and its ongoing legacy, a Kuper Island survivor told how residential schools have had a devastating reach that’s extended well beyond school grounds.
“My parents went to residential school system, and they didn’t know how to parent and suffered from alcoholism. There was physical abuse at home, just the chaos of an alcoholic home,” the survivor said.
Various degrees of disrupted family life are examples of the intergenerational consequences caused by residential schools, the TRC confirmed. Intergenerational trauma, as it’s widely referred to, is complicated because it can manifest in several ways.
What is intergenerational trauma?
Intergenerational trauma, also known as generational or transgenerational trauma, happens “when the stressful and traumatic experiences faced by one generation impact the health, well-being, and experiences of the next generation,” said Dalhousie University professor Amy Bombay, who’s studied intergenerational effects of residential schools and is a member of Rainy River First Nations. It also explains how news of unmarked graves at former residential schools has often been triggering or distressing not only for survivors but also for their families.
In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed that 215 unmarked graves of children were buried at a former residential school, although that number has since changed to 200. Other sites like it have already been confirmed—with many more expected.
The Canadian government, along with churches, the majority of them Catholic, ran residential schools to forcibly assimilate 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children—to “kill the Indian in the child,” a famous phrase endorsed by several residential school architects, including Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. Physical and sexual abuses were common, as were malnutrition and disease. Thousands of children were killed, while others were left with incomprehensible trauma. The system has been called genocide.
The trauma didn’t just afflict the children forced to attend; it also afflicted parents who had their children taken away as well as the children of survivors, and communities, said Marlene McNab, a Nêhiýawak citizen of the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, assistant professor at the First Nations University of Canada, and an Indigenous social work expert.
“We’re talking about multiple generations that had this shock, trauma experience,” said McNab, who, along with her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents was forced to attend residential school.
Is intergenerational trauma new?
Intergenerational trauma was first coined after researchers noticed that children of Holocaust survivors were displaying signs of distress. A 1988 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, found that grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were 300 percent more likely than the general population to require psychiatric care.
Studies have since found that trauma experienced by one generation is often passed down to the next until the cycle is broken. Trauma in parents is associated with higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and mood disorders in their kids. There’s emerging research that suggests your environment and behaviour can even cause changes to the way your genes work, meaning that trauma can alter a person’s DNA and children can inherit its effects.
Researchers have specifically noted how residential schools, along with other racist and colonial policies, such as the Indian Act (legislation that strictly controls Indigenous identity, communities, and governance) and the Sixties Scoop (an era when apprehensions of Indigenous children hit an all-time high) have resulted in intergenerational trauma.
The outcomes are not unique to Indigenous peoples. Every person who experiences chronic childhood abuse and trauma is at greater risk of a number of trauma responses, Bombay said. “Virtually every negative social and psychological and physiological outcome has been linked to chronic childhood trauma,” she said.
What does intergenerational trauma look like?
Trauma that’s passed down can take on many forms: in its most extreme, it can result in parents abusing or neglecting their children the way they were abused or neglected. Traumatized people are also more likely to suffer from suicide, homelessness, and addiction—outcomes that have been linked to residential schools and the foster care system. Intergenerational trauma can lead to anxiety, distress, low self-esteem, or depression in younger generations.
As a small child, Ek-kanakii slept with her relatives most nights because they lived in a small home, often curling up with her grandma when she needed care. So when Ek-kanakii was a 6-year-old at Old Sun, an Anglica-run assimilative school in southern Alberta, she and her twin found their older sister, also at the school, and crawled into her bed at night—they were scared and wanted comfort, just like at home.
In the morning, school staff found them and beat them.
Years later, when Ek-kanakii had her own children, and then grandchildren, she felt it taboo to cuddle up with them. “It was hard to sleep with my kids and grandkids even though I know it’s not bad, and my grandkids always want to sleep with me,” she said. “That’s how the schools brainwashed you.”
Residential schools and other institutions actively prevented children from expressing their cultures and speaking in their languages. As a result, parents and peers sometimes passed on the shame they felt for being Indigenous to others.
One way they instilled shame at Old Sun, Ek-kanakii said, was by corralling the women in the showers, naked. While Ek-kanakii and her classmates washed themselves, matrons would stand around and watch while yelling degrading comments. If a girl was caught looking at another, she’d be accused of being “dirty” and “horny,” she said. Later, older students started mirroring the matrons, often making similar comments to younger students.
“What you’ve learned from childhood is what you teach your kids,” Ek-kanakii said.
While attending residential school in Canada in the early 1970s, McNab, who was 6, and other children were forced to wake up early on Saturdays and clean the building “from top to bottom.” They scrubbed, waxed, and polished the linoleum floors, and washed massive staircases that led up to the girls’ and boys’ dorms.
Beds had to be made meticulously—like in a military movie when a soldier bounces a quarter off the sheets in his barracks, McNab said. “If it wasn’t, you had your bed stripped in front of everyone and you were forced to do it again. It was humiliating.” Physical punishment was also common.
After the cleaning was done, the kids would line up and get sweets. “The minute sugar hit our blood it was like, ‘Yes, this is the reward,’” McNab said, “Our drug to feel better.”
Fast forward to the 90s, McNab, no longer a student, had children of her own. She’d wake them up every Saturday and get them to clean the house from “top to bottom,” until they finished at about 2 p.m. Then, she’d reward her kids with an allowance.
The routine lasted years, with her oldest child doing it from the ages of 6 to about 12.
“I was a grouch. I was like, ‘Do this over again.’ I had a very driven type of energy about me,” McNab said. “I realized I passed that pattern along to my children.”
Can the cycle be broken?
Lack of communication about residential schools and colonialism is another pathway for passing trauma down, according to Bombay. When parents opt out of sharing stories about their trauma, but children can sense it anyway, it can result in depressive symptoms in the children, Bombay said.
“We need to research how to talk to the next generation about this in ways where we pass on the truth, but ways that are age-appropriate and aren’t retraumatizing as much as possible,” Bombay said. “We need to know about it and learn about it and understand how it fits into colonialism… But it also needs to be accompanied by resilience and strength and hope.”
McNab, who had grappled with addiction as a result of residential school abuse, said she started healing in the early 1990s, when she was in her 20s; her university education, in particular, helped her come to terms with the past and openly discuss her residential school experience, something many others weren’t comfortable doing.
“By 24 I was clean and sober,” McNab said, so she started to think intentionally about the harmful patterns she had learned at residential school—like Saturday morning cleaning. “I could wake up on a Saturday and be so happy, and once I moved to cleaning mode, my whole character changed,” McNab said. “It was robbing me of my serenity and peace, and it was affecting my relationships with my kids.”
McNab cut the practice by the time she was 28, with her third child, and has since encouraged her kids and grandkids to avoid cleaning on Saturdays. “I was like, ‘Pick a different day; break the cycle,’” McNab said. “You can unlearn behaviours and I’m pointing it out to my grandchildren so they don’t have to carry that burden.”
People grappling with trauma break the intergenerational cycle all the time, whether we’re talking about addiction or day-to-day routines.
While trauma can be passed down through generations, so can healing. Today, when Ek-kanakii’s grandchildren want to cuddle with her, they do. But Ek-kanakii said she’s spent many years healing and reconnecting with Siksika ways to overcome behaviours pushed on her at Old Sun, which she attended until 1971.
“People have intergenerational resilience, too,” said Sharon Foster, a mixed-Indigenous counselling therapist. “I have the trauma, yes, but I also have the resilience, right? Because I’m alive.”
How does healing work?
Foster emphasized the need for Indigenous peoples to reconnect with their cultures, including their languages and ways of knowing and relating to the world. “When you control language, you control the mind,” Foster said.
Ek-kanakii recalled the story of a Siksika woman who got angry and yelled at her children in English, only to have her dad walk in and, in Siksika, say, “Don’t get mad at my grandchildren again… But if you’re going to get mad at them, get mad at them in our language.”
“He said that because you cannot get mad at kids in our language,” Ek-kanakii said. “There are just no words to get mad at our kids.”
Learning Siksika language and teachings, and attending ceremonies, helped Ek-kanakii heal after experiencing the well-documented horrors at residential school. She credits her grandmother for holding onto culture and passing it down. “My grandma taught us well and if I didn’t have that, I don’t think I’d be here today,” Ek-kanakii said.
McNab also attributed reconnection with healing.
“There’s so much that we have done as a people to break cycles and get better and move forward and change things for generations that are here and the ones to come,” McNab said.
“It’s also about celebrating where we’re at today… I’m so happy to see so many of our people embracing our Indigeneity.”
How can we fight intergenerational trauma?
According to Bombay, a combination of Indigenous and Western approaches, including PTSD treatments, can combat intergenerational trauma. “A lot of people describe using both, and some people who use both said it’s the traditional approach that’s been key,” Bombay said, adding that rebuilding pride and belonging with your culture promotes positive outcomes and protects against negative ones.
Foster said Western approaches to psychology have limitations because they focus on the mind and body, but “don’t consider the spirit, which is everything for Indigenous people.” Indigenous psychologist Eduardo Duran described the trauma colonialism has caused as a “soul wound,” she said. For Duran, the mind, body, and spirit connections have to be in harmony for the soul wound to heal.
Ek-kanakii said Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program, which seeks to provide various supports to residential school survivors and their families, doesn’t go far enough—it mainly covers therapy from “eligible providers” that have Western training and accreditation.
The government needs to go beyond “one-time funding for certain programs” and commit to sustained programming that’s culturally appropriate and Indigenous-led, Bombay said.
What can I do to help?
Systems riddled with racism, including foster care, health care, and the courts, continue to harm Indigenous folks and disproportionately punish them for realities they did not cause in the first place.
“Social and economic determinants that we Indigenous people experience across Canada and the world are attributed to the long-term effects of intergenerational trauma,” McNab said.
In Canada, Indigenous children make up about 8 percent of the population under 15, yet 52.2 percent of all kids in care. VICE World News previously reported how the foster care system is an extension of residential schools: many people who aged out of residential school re-entered their communities without having been taught child-rearing skills based on kinship and Indigenous knowledge. When social workers got involved, they again removed children from their communities, rather than fostering environments where communities could rebuild.
Canada needs to own up, McNab said.
“For healing to occur, it’s really important to remember that the government is accountable. They need to be held accountable for the ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma,” McNab said, adding that non-Indigenous people need to address the anti-Indigenous racism plaguing institutions and, in many cases, their families.
Since May, there’s been a push, spearheaded by 15 Indigenous and non-Indigenous lawyers, for Canada to face trials for crimes against humanity and genocide for its role in residential schools. The International Criminal Court is currently considering whether to open an investigation.
When a person or community heals, it creates a ripple effect; healing for everyone else becomes easier.
When Ek-kanakii was 18, no longer in residential school, her twin sister graduated from high school. “I was dumbfounded,” said Ek-kanakii, who had a child at the time. “I said, ‘How did you do that? We’re supposed to be stupid!’ That’s how brainwashed we were.” A guidance counsellor had told Ek-kanakii’s twin that she could do whatever she wanted, so Ek-kanakii decided she could, too. Ek-kanakii became a social worker and teacher, and she’s worked as a social worker, healer, teacher, and therapist since.
“My education helped me heal; it was so powerful, loving myself,” she said. “All my grandma’s teachings came back and I was like, ‘Hey, we aren’t bad.’”
Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7.
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