I sit among the trees with my tears, my rage and my shame, feeling the pain of what has been done to the Indigenous people in my country.
On May 28, 2021, the precious remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, were discovered on the grounds of what was once Canada’s largest residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.
As the news broke, so did the hearts of the families and communities in the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation who have wondered whatever happened to their children who never came home.
The dark history of colonialism and the ways in which the church devastated the lives of Indigenous people in Canada are unfathomable.
I have struggled to write this column.
My heart also broke that day as it has many times that I have sat and listened to the stories of Residential School survivors. My outrage, shame and pain at the horror of this discovery left me stunned and overwhelmed.
As a trauma therapist, I am all too familiar with the ways in which trauma is passed down through the generations; this is certainly true within the Indigenous communities in Canada.
As a white settler living as an uninvited guest on the traditional and unceded territory of the Stó:lō people, I am also acutely aware of how the ripples of Canada’s dark history continue to be made manifest. The generations cry out and rightly so.
The reverberations of transgenerational trauma and the pain and suffering that is still present in the lives of Canadian Indigenous people today are loud and strong.
Intergenerational trauma (also known as transgenerational trauma or historical trauma) is trauma passed down through generations. In other words, if an experience is overwhelming, unresolved or significantly impacts one’s life, it can be transmitted to one’s children and then their children for generations.
This transmission can occur through experiencing and witnessing the expression of trauma within a family system and is also transmitted genetically and is continuing to be explored in the field of epigenetics.
Within the Indigenous communities here in Canada, this transgenerational trauma has been made manifest in a disproportionate number of First Nations People experiencing addiction, violence, poverty, significant health concerns, family breakdown and myriad other social issues.
Seven generations of First Nations people went through the residential schools. If the science is right, if trauma can be passed down, there could be a cumulative effect of the trauma.
Amy Bombay, assistant psychiatry professor from Dalhousie University, is Anishinaabe kwe (Rainy River First Nation).
She states from her years of research, “We know that across the lifespan, these epigenetic modifications can accumulate. If it does pass through the germ line and into the next generation, absolutely that same marker can be passed on and those same implications of that marker can also be passed on.
“We compared those whose families had not been affected by residential schools to those who had only one generation who attended, so the parent or a grandparent. We compared those who had two previous generations who attended, a parent and a grandparent,” she explained. “And we could see the cumulative effects; the more generations in your family who attended, the greater at risk you were for psychological distress.”
The journey is long. There is much to be answered for by those in power both in government and in the church.
I find myself asking how the generations can heal.
While overwhelmed, I also hold onto the hope that as I and others learn to walk in humility and try to understand the long reach of this trauma in generations that have gone before and in the generations that are to come that perhaps the path to wholeness can be found.
The echoes of trauma reverberate throughout the hearts and lives of the Indigenous people and within their land.
The generations cry out. Will we listen?
Founder and clinical supervisor at Drader and Associates, she is a registered clinical counsellor spiritual director, group facilitator and dynamic speaker.