How trauma reverberates down through generations and affects kids

As a kids’ book author, I’ve travelled all over Canada, talking about the history of FNMI people and the residential school system. I’ve witnessed the impact of the trauma firsthand. Many kids share that their families don’t talk about their experiences. The shame of their abuse still haunts them.

Photo: Cree students at their desks with their teacher in a classroom, All Saints Indian Residential School, Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, March 1945 Source: Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada fonds/e010962313

I’ve been on the receiving end of some very questionable comments. I’ve had people tell me that I was “lucky” I’m so pale and “don’t look like an Indian.” I’ve had someone laughingly point out a man sleeping in a park and refer to him as a “drunk Indian” before saying “no offence, I know you’re not like that.” And then on my wedding day, there I was mingling with guests when a woman came up and introduced herself. “I heard you’re a writer,” she said “And you’re First Nations?” “Partly, yes,” I replied. She went on to tell me about all the time she’d spent on reserves working with First Nations people. Then she said this: “You know the whole residential school thing? Why can’t they just get over it?”

Get over it? Get over kids being taken from their homes and families? Get over having their identities erased? Get over centuries of abuse? If only it were that simple.

Many Canadians believe that what happened to Indigenous kids at residential schools was so long ago it can’t possibly be affecting anyone now. Since we weren’t taught that the schools even existed, it can seem very far removed from us. But the last school only closed in 1996, and this is only the second year that the new curriculum is being taught in public schools.

The guest’s question left me speechless. I’ve come up with countless intelligent replies since then, but in that moment, I felt attacked. She had no way of knowing my grandfather was a residential school survivor. She couldn’t possibly know about the abuse he suffered, how ashamed it had made him feel and how that affected his family. But should that have mattered?

A comment like that reveals how little understanding there is about how trauma can build into a multi-generational tragedy, and the shame that comes with it. My grandfather almost never spoke about his life before he was adopted. I say “almost” because there was an exception. He’d talk about his past when he’d been drinking heavily. It was an odd riddle for a granddaughter to try to decipher when even his kids had no idea what he’d been through. How could they, when he dulled the pain of years of trauma with alcohol? How could any of us possibly understand when he kept it bottled up inside? My grandfather never experienced any healing. He completely disconnected from his culture and, as a result, my family was disconnected as well. I’ve since learned that my story is far from unique.

Amy Bombay, an assistant professor in psychiatry at Dalhousie University, is one of several researchers studying how trauma reverberates through generations. She’s found that when a child experiences abuse and doesn’t get the chance to heal from it, the resulting behaviours are often passed on to their kids and grandkids. “Those who had a parent or grandparent who went to residential school seem to be at increased risk for psychological distress, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts,” she told the CBC. Research shows these effects can accumulate across generations—which means if nothing is done to address these intergenerational cycles, the effects are only going to continue to spread.

The destruction of families that often occurred under the residential school system and colonial institutions is still happening. Presumptive incentives built into child care services mean that First Nations, Métis and Inuit children are being taken from their families and placed in care outside of their communities. Kids by the thousands are losing their connection to who they are: Of the 11,000 children in foster care in Manitoba, 10,000 are Indigenous. Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has called it a humanitarian crisis, saying, “We have to disrupt that system, and the sooner we can do that the better.”

It’s hard to know what to do in the face of something so dire. I’ve found that sharing stories is one of the best ways to raise awareness—if we don’t talk about it, the stigma of abuse will never be erased. As an author of books for children and teens, I’ve had the honour of travelling all over Canada, talking about the history of FNMI people and the residential school system, and I’ve witnessed the impact firsthand. Many kids share that their families don’t talk about their experiences. The shame of their abuse still haunts them.

On one school visit, there was a girl who waited until almost everyone had left the library before approaching me. With tears in her eyes, she quietly told me she was constantly bullied by kids who called her names because she was First Nations. As a result, she was abandoning her culture—she’d learned to bead but stopped because other kids thought it was weird. She was afraid to speak up in class when they discussed Indigenous issues. We spoke for as long as she could stay, and I struggled to find words that might help her. It felt like far too little.

Stacey's daughter dressed in her Indigenous dancing regalia How adopting my daughter helped me reconnect with my rootsAfter another school visit, a boy shared that he was in foster care and living with a white family. He said he felt like he didn’t belong anywhere—he felt disconnected from his Indigenous culture but didn’t belong with his foster family either. I watched him break down when he described how lost he felt. I know what that feels like. I’d felt it myself. I grew up knowing nothing about my grandfather’s history or culture. Where do I come from? Where do I belong? Who would I be now if I’d been able to learn from my grandfather? If I had a connection to his home, would people be more accepting of me?

While painful and difficult, these stories must be told. We have a responsibility to share even the shameful parts of our history with our kids and tell them that the survivors of residential schools were kids just like them. We have a responsibility to share stories of kids who are going through trauma now. And we need to listen and learn from them.

Things can change. I don’t know what happened to that boy in foster care, but I hope he started reaching out to other FNMI people at school, like the girl who was being bullied. I’ve heard from her since and she’s now writing about issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women so she can educate her peers. Taking that step—showing other kids she’s proud of being First Nations—has inspired her to start beading again. We are raising an entire generation who want to see change and are seeking it out.

On a recent school visit, the students sat quietly while I rambled on for an hour about residential schools and the intergenerational impact and what little had been done toward reconciliation. A boy who I wasn’t sure had actually been listening raised his hand. “So what now?” he asked. “You told us things need to change. What do we need to do to change them?” The other students were nodding and calling out “yes!” and looking to me to tell them what to do.

“Tell people,” I told him. “Go home and tell your family what you’ve learned. Tell your friends. Talk about issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women and the suicide epidemic on reserves. Talk about FNMI kids being cut off from their culture in foster care. Talk about the lack of clean water on some reserves and the intergenerational trauma of residential schools. Talk to them about the positive contributions Indigenous people make in society. Ask teachers to include authentic representations of Indigenous cultures in your learning. Knowledge really is powerful.” It may be a small start, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Read more:
When will they stop acting like our children are disposable?
Kids shouldn’t go to schools named after John A. Macdonald

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