The First Peoples of Canada: Intergenerational Trauma

In Canada, the first people are called Aboriginal, Indigenous, Indian, Native, and First Nations. There is no single term that is consistent, though ‘Indian’ is least often used and most associated with an oppressive colonial past. For this article's purpose, I will use the term ‘First Nations’ when referencing the peoples who lived for 10,000 years before contact with Europeans and the ultimate colonization of the country we call Canada. The name ‘Canada,’ itself the First Nations word, “kanata,” means village or settlement.

First, some context. I am a retired theatre arts teacher. Post-retirement, I developed an anti-bullying program for schools, which uses invisible theatre to model safe bystander intervention. I presented the program in a series of workshops at a national conference of First Nations educators. As a result of that conference, I was contracted to present the program school-wide at two First Nations secondary schools in northern Ontario and in northern British Columbia. Since then, I have continued to support the First Nations communities in northern British Columbia. 

For eight years, I have made the journey north several times a year to teach in these isolated communities, and it is only the restrictive nature of COVID-19 that has interrupted these trips. My support during the pandemic is now via Zoom, which is far from ideal but better than nothing.

My support has evolved to focus on wellness and mindfulness. I became certified to facilitate a stress management and resiliency mindfulness program called SMART (Stress Management and Resiliency Techniques Education), developed by the University of British Columbia’s Education Department, to address teacher dysregulation. The 20-hour experiential curriculum was designed to teach self-regulation and to build resilience. 

Teaching is a highly stressful occupation, and the success of any class depends, to a great part, upon how the teacher is able to self-regulate and model mindfulness. Teaching in isolated communities ravaged by seven generations of trauma is even more challenging and stressful. 

I assist teachers in implementing mindfulness into their daily routines and over the course of the last eight years, have facilitated mindfulness programs with parents, teens, elders, and daycare children. Next week, I begin to facilitate the  program online for teachers from three in-community First Nations schools. Without exception, I have been welcomed in the communities. I continue to build upon the foundations of mutual trust and respect, and I am forever grateful. 

For years now, I have been immersing myself in week-long summits that address the physiological and neurological effects of trauma, personal and collective, and the polyvagal somatic approach to the healing of such. I am trauma-informed but an expert only as a secondary school theatre teacher.  

Through the privileged eyes of a white settler, first-generation Canadian, I have come to understand the complex intergenerational trauma that colonization and cultural genocide have inflicted upon the First Nations people. The manifestation of this torture was prolonged and soul-crushing. It ripped families apart and amputated people from their culture, role models, and language. I can hardly imagine a torture more devastating than systematically kidnapping children. The goal: to “take the Indian out of the child.” 

Over 130 years, 150,000 children were forcibly taken from their families to church- and state-run residential schools, where they were systematically physically, sexually, and psychologically abused — torture enacted by the very people sworn to protect them. The kidnapped children were warehoused, beaten if they spoke their languages, and so grievously treated that seven generations of children lost their language, their connections to family and culture, their sense of safety and belonging, and their sense of self. 

Canadian First Nations people were told their way of life was wrong, savage, sinful. Ceremonies were outlawed, and regalia burned; whole villages were plundered for cultural artifacts. The people who lived for millennia on the land, with a rich and complex culture and system of self-government, were devastated in every way. Such trauma is inconceivable to those who have not experienced it. The repercussions of that cultural genocide and the systematic torturous treatment of seven generations of children manifest today in First Nation communities throughout Canada. 

Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, wrote: “The legacy of the schools is evident today…. High poverty rates, a large number of aboriginal children in foster care, a disproportionate number of aboriginals in jail, and hundreds of missing and murdered women can all be traced back to residential schools.…”

For years, I have worked in First Nations schools' classrooms for an average of 30 days a year, and I have observed their significant challenges. My work has mostly been in elementary schools, and there I have observed the struggles: children sleeping in class, exhausted by staying up late playing video games, or unable to sleep in noisy and crowded households. 

I have observed children’s hunger and the low nutrient, high sugar/ salt/ fat food that fuels them during snack and lunchtime. It is difficult to get groceries when the nearest grocery store is two hours away by car, and healthy food choices are more expensive than the packaged, processed high carbohydrate fare. Poor nutrition, obesity, and chronic poor health are symptoms of poverty, not consciously bad parenting. 

I have observed children so overactive and so anxious that their bodies are not able to settle enough to learn, or conversely, so shut down and disconnected that they block out the world around them. Trauma has affected their ability to self-regulate and feel safe. Not all children are so challenged, and again I pass no judgment, but the specialized needs of First Nations school classrooms are many. Some children arrived on time to school, homework done, a belly full of breakfast, and refreshed by a good night’s sleep. I did not perceive that to be the norm, however. Too many children miss too many days of school. Remote communities have a difficult time staffing schools, and with the present teaching shortages, First Nations children and their communities are regularly underserved. The role of the teacher is made exponentially more challenging by the number of students who exhibit disruptive behaviour, a fallout from trauma. No one can learn if one is tired, hungry, or feels unsafe. Those students who have not been traumatized are challenged to learn because of the often-chaotic learning environment. There are too few educational assistants to meet the needs of the students. And there are too few teachers on call to cover teachers who are sick or burned out, many of whom are struggling with their own trauma and anxiety. I have observed that teachers, who love their students, do their best each day to support them, teach them the fundamentals of literacy, numeracy, and develop social-emotional learning. Unfortunately, public education does not afford enough financial and trauma-informed support for these overstressed teachers and students. 

After having lost seven generations of healthy parenting models, it is understandable that First Nations parents — often young — lack basic parenting skills. Being consistent and setting boundaries is challenging for every parent but for parents struggling with physical and mental health issues and addictions. For so many reasons, education is the key to growth and opportunity, but a public school system born of a British colonial, patriarchal, and top-down pedagogy does not well serve the first people whose language and culture was never written down. 

More is being done to get students outside and connected to their land and cultural practices; however, many parents are not supportive of their children’s education. Because survivors of residential schools still remember their traumatic experiences with government-imposed education, it is understandable that there is a lack of support for the school. How then to motivate parents to support their school-aged children, and how can children be motivated to succeed in schools? There are no simple solutions, and until the underlying trauma can be discharged and healed, the progress will be exceedingly slow. 

I have observed village governments investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring facilitators, teachers, coaches, motivational speakers, and programs into the community. These outside resources are brought in to inspire, to support wellness and healing, to improve communication and commitment, and to help people move further along the path toward physical and emotional health and self-sufficiency. 

There is no individual who eschews those assets, but however much people desire to break free from the confines of their trauma circumstances, they are stuck. Desire and intention are often not enough. Trauma robs people of curiosity, imagination, playfulness, and choice. It rewires the brain and nervous system and interferes with healthy relationships and self-worth. It drives people to numb the pain with addictions, self-harming, risky behaviours, or disassociation. It’s not just what happened during the trauma, it’s what didn’t happen. 

This is a critical factor for young children who are traumatized for protracted periods of time. Many people who are homeless, in prison, mentally ill, or suffering from addictions are products of traumatic family backgrounds. First Nations people are over-represented in these populations because they have suffered at the hands of their oppressors over and over and over again. It is not because they are First Nations that they suffer such dysregulation; it is because they were brutalized from an early age for generation after generation after generation after generation after generation after generation after generation. Seven generations of systemic child abuse will crush any culture. 

I have observed those who wield power and influence in village government simply overcome by the effort required to face the seemingly never-ending needs of those who are so stuck in their trauma that they are dependent upon social services and the direct support of the village government. There is little critical mass of those who can adequately support those who struggle. 

Despite having experienced and survived this social and ethnic scorched-earth policy — more than 6,000 children did not; records of deaths were discontinued in 1920 because too many children were dying — I have witnessed amazing resilience. I have witnessed a deep desire to be reconnected to the land, to the rituals, and to rise above the “stuckness” of trauma. Every human being wants a healthy, successful and stable life for their children, but children who are raised “in the community”, often hours from public services and grocery stores, are particularly vulnerable to the manifestations of trauma: anxiety, depression, addictions, and chronic ill- health. 

Notwithstanding past circumstances and present manifestations, I have observed this amazing resilience in the First Nations communities. Those who are alive today represent seven generations of resilience. They keep getting up, they keep putting one foot in front of the other, and they keep trying. There are exciting growth and success in the teaching of First Nations languages. Connecting to the language is a critical part of reclaiming the culture and the wisdom of the ancestors, the deep and vital connection to the land.

School breakfast programs have been implemented, which help to nourish students and help them to get to school on time. In one northern nation, teachers and administrators in four schools are practicing and learning about mindfulness and developing skills to develop resiliency. 

The benefits will trickle down to the children, to the families, and to the community at large. The ripple effect is substantial. In an elementary school that describes itself as a mindful school, the language of mindfulness, compassion, anxiety, trauma, and healing is integrated into conversations and daily classroom activities. The conversations have started and are building momentum. It is encouraging that post-secondary educations are rising among people who identify as First Nations. It is said that it will take seven generations to heal and move forward from the trauma of residential schools. The last residential school in British Columbia closed in 1996. The path forward is still long.

So how can the outside world support Canada’s first peoples to heal from the trauma inflicted by our colonizing ancestors? By listening, by meeting people where they are, by offering trauma-informed education and support, by helping to address the exponentially more difficult teaching challenges in First Nations schools, and by offering templates for community peer support. First Nations communities need more funds, more outreach, more support, and more compassion. They are moving mountains to find a way forward. 

There is hope for reconciliation, but there must be unwavering and long-term support for First Nations. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave an opportunity for people to tell their stories. That was a beginning. The public education system in British Columbia now has incorporated First Nations Curriculum into every grade level. That’s a start, but facing the inherent trauma is the biggest step forward to autonomy, resiliency, and self-sufficiency. Until the personal and collective trauma can be healed, these proud and resilient peoples will be shackled and defined by a soul-crushing and violent past. Once the healing begins, there will once again be space for the joy of learning, creativity, playfulness, and connection. Once again, Canada’s First Nations will thrive.