Why Aboriginal Peoples Can’t Just “Get Over It”

Understanding and addressing intergenerational trauma

Jeffrey J. Schiffer, PhD

Reprinted from "Indigenous People" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (4), p. 7

The political climate of Canada is changing. Shortly after the historic release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015, Canadians elected a new prime minister committed to repairing the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state. Within the past year, there has been a significant shift in the status quo—from deeply rooted attitudes and stereotypes that question why Aboriginal peoples can’t simply “get over it” to an understanding of the intergenerational impacts of colonization and a commitment to truth and reconciliation as a national project for all Canadians. In the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.”1

The colonization of North America attempted to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into the settlers’ European ways of living. Settler policies and attitudes meant that Aboriginal peoples were cut off from their traditional culture, languages, spirituality, economies, systems of governance and other important parts of their identity.2 Understanding Canada’s colonial history and debunking the racist myths that run through Canadian society is an important part of the truth and reconciliation process.3

Unfortunately, discrediting myths and negative stereotypes is not the only challenge we face. The legacy of colonization has affected the daily lives of millions of Canadians across many generations—and continues to affect the practical, everyday existence of millions today. Increased understanding does not necessarily provide us with the concrete tools for making change.

Research shows that the consequences of trauma are not limited to the person immediately exposed to the traumatic event.4 People close to the individual may experience vicarious trauma, which can have impacts similar to the impacts of personally experienced trauma. The concept of vicarious trauma emerged in the 1960s from studies of the prolonged effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their families. This area of research now includes survivors of natural disasters, Japanese internment camps, war, Indian residential schools and child abuse.5 Intergenerational trauma is any trauma, including historical oppression, that has an impact across more than one generation. This impact includes shared collective memories that affect the health and well-being of individuals and communities and that may be passed on from parent to child, and beyond.

The Indian Residential School System is one of the better-known examples of an intergenerational colonial system with impacts that still reverberate today. The schools were designed primarily to ‘re-educate’ Aboriginal children to conform to the colonizer’s world. Children were taken from their families and forced to live in unfamiliar, hostile environments, where beatings and other forms of ill treatment were the norm.6 At the height of this practice, more than 100 residential schools were in operation across the country, attended by some 100,000 Aboriginal children. Over 25% of these schools were located in British Columbia. The last residential school was closed only in 1996.2

As residential schools began closing their doors, provincial and territorial systems of child welfare emerged. The “60s Scoop” continued the residential school tradition of taking Aboriginal children from their families, but instead placed them in foster homes or on adoption lists.7 The stark overrepresentation of Aboriginal children and families in the child welfare system continues today. In 2015, more than 50% of youth in care in British Columbia were Aboriginal.8 There are similar overrepresentations of Aboriginal peoples reflected in statistics concerning the corrections system, the education system, employment and health, and poverty and homelessness rates.9-11

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin labeled Canada’s actions as “cultural genocide” against Aboriginal peoples.12 The impacts of such policies echo across the generations. Aboriginal children in residential schools were forbidden to speak their language, practise their culture or engage in their spirituality.6 Many were subjected to heinous abuse and experimentation.13 After the release of the TRC final report, Justice Murray Sinclair—the TRC chair—revealed that no fewer than 6,000 Aboriginal children had died in residential schools, with the caveat that, as day schools and other institutions were not included in the TRC, the actual number of deaths could be as high as 10,000.14

When those children who had survived the residential schools returned to their communities, the impact of their experiences on attachment and family dynamics was profound. Many survivors report that not only did they return to their communities with a high degree of trauma but they had few resources to help them cope with their experiences. They had missed out on learning their own cultural ways of coping, and practising good health, wellness and parenting. Many survivors were later targeted by the child welfare system for conditions of poverty and neglect that were a direct result of their experiences in these institutions. A great many children from successive generations were taken from the family home and placed in the child welfare system. Many of the abuses and racist discourses that underpinned the Indian Residential School System continued within the child welfare system.15

In Canada in recent decades, several Indigenous models have emerged to address intergenerational trauma within Aboriginal families and communities. For example, Shirley Turcotte’s Aboriginal Focusing-Oriented Therapy (AFOT) program demonstrates that intergenerational trauma is something both uniquely individual and inextricably collective, bleeding across generations. AFOT moves beyond cultural competence towards culturally restorative land-based practice. The program focuses on restoring the cultural practices and relationships that historically promoted wellness in Aboriginal cultures and societies, many of which are connected to land through ceremony, collection and use of medicines, and other activities.16

Trauma is overrepresented within Aboriginal families and communities in Canada. The exclusion of Aboriginal peoples from their lands and resources, the imposition of foreign land use and governance systems (including the reserve system and band form of governance),2 the Indian Residential School System and the Aboriginal child welfare system have each left legacies of intergenerational trauma.17

Canada’s colonial history, the racist attitudes and assumptions that are a part of Canadian society, and today’s statistical realities are complicated. For those seeking immediate and practical solutions for our national project of truth and reconciliation, the legacy of the past is daunting. However, we can see the possibilities for reconciliation in restorative practices that shift relationships. Intergenerational trauma brings to light the ways that resilience, adaptation and innovation are shared across generations. Restorative practices and approaches, whether they are used in the context of social work, education, health care or elsewhere, can be helpful for Aboriginal peoples if they:

  • are grounded in the intergenerational Aboriginal knowledge systems, worldview and culture of the individual, family or community being served

  • are framed within an awareness of and engagement with colonial history

  • are strength-based and holistic rather than punitive and isolated, and

  • result in measurable positive change for the individual, family or community being served18

Restorative practices and approaches provide a concrete means to address colonial history, while recognizing the complexity of intergenerational trauma and working toward the mutual understanding and respect that truth and reconciliation requires.

 
About the author

Jeffrey has Métis and German ancestry and holds a PhD in anthropology and education from Columbia University. He has worked in program development, community-based research and Aboriginal child welfare. Currently Program Director for the Office of Indigenization at the Justice Institute of British Columbia, Jeffrey is also an adjunct faculty member at UBC

Footnotes:
  1. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). “What we have learned: Principles of truth and reconciliation,” 113.

  2. Steckley, J.L. & Cummins, B.D. (2008.) Full circle: Canada’s First Nations. Toronto: Prentice Hall.

  3. TD Economics. (2012). Special report: Debunking myths surrounding Canada’s Aboriginal population. June 18. www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/sg0612_aboriginal_myth.pdf

  4. Dekel, R. & Goldblatt, H. (2008). Is there intergenerational transmission of trauma? The case of combat veterans’ children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78(3), 281-289.

  5. Frazier, K.N., West-Olatunji, C.A., St. Juste, S. & Goodman, R.D. (2009). Trangenerational trauma and child sexual abuse: Reconceptualizing cases involving young survivors of CSA. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 31(1), 22-33.

  6. Milloy, J. (1999). A national crime: The Canadian government and the residential school system, 1879–1986. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

  7. Hick, S. (2006). Social work in Canada: An introduction (2nd ed.). Toronto: Thompson Education Publishing.

  8. Aboriginal Children in Care Working Group. (2015). Aboriginal children in care: Report to Canada’s premiers. July. Ottawa: Council of the Federation Secretariat. canadaspremiers.ca/phocadownload/publications/aboriginal_children_in_care_report_july2015.pdf

  9. CBC News. (2013, March 7). Aboriginal corrections report finds “systemic discrimination.” www.cbc.ca/news/politics/aboriginal-corrections-report-finds-systemic-discrimination-1.1338498

  10. Richards, J., & Scott, M. (2009). Aboriginal education: Strengthening the foundation. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Network.

  11. Patrick, C. (2014). Aboriginal homelessness in Canada: A literature review. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press. homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/AboriginalLiteratureReview.pdf

  12. Fine, S. (2015, May 28). Chief Justice says Canada attempted “cultural genocide” on aboriginals. Globe and Mail. www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/chief-justice-says-canada-attempted-cultural-genocide-on-aboriginals/article24688854/

  13. CBC News. (2015, July 29). Residential school nutrition experiments explained to Kenora survivors: Historian Ian Mosby shares evidence First Nations children being intentionally malnourished. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/residential-school-nutrition-experiments-explained-to-kenora-survivors-1.3171557

  14. CBC News. (2015, June 2). Truth and Reconciliation Commission: By the numbers. Summary report is only one step in reconciliation. www.cbc.ca/news/aboriginal/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-by-the-numbers-1.3096185

  15. Laskoski, S. (2014). Aboriginal children and child welfare policies. Law Now Magazine, 38(6). www.lawnow.org/aboriginal-children-child-welfare-policies/

  16. Turcotte, S. & Schiffer, J. (2014). Aboriginal focusing-oriented therapy. In Greg Madison (Ed.). Emerging practice in focusing-oriented psychotherapy: Innovative theory and applications. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications.

  17. Fournier, S. & Crey, E. (1997). Stolen from our embrace: The abduction of First Nations children and the restoration of Aboriginal communities. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre.

  18. Schiffer, J., Cook, P., Spence, B. & Cook, M. (Forthcoming). Restorative Aboriginal child welfare in diverse urban spaces. Journal of Social Work.

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