Wabanaki Confederacy

Understanding Intergenerational Trauma

Thank you, Amanda, for “volunteering” us into this multigenerational story. This is a difficult topic for me as my own family is affected and because it continues to affect our young people today. Please feel free to contact me for copies of any of the references below.

Sharon Thira

The Basics

After the Canadian Indian residential school disclosures in the 1990s and early 2000s, researchers and educators began to catalogue the impacts of the residential schools, first as an educational process and later to assist with healing. To identify the best ways to help survivors, they first needed to understand and define the problem. They found that, despite not having attended the schools, many children of survivors exhibited traumatic responses ranging from depression, suicidality and anger, all the way to post-traumatic stress disorder. While some of this is expected as “learned behavior,” some of it could only be explained as inherited (innate) behaviours.

For Indigenous Peoples in Canada, intergenerational trauma has been passed on through generations. Today, it is embedded into the very fabric of some communities. Colonizers first created the harm and compounded the trauma by outlawing the Indigenous culture practices that could heal the harm done in the 1884 amendment to the Indian Act. Therefore, the impact from trauma occurs both as a result of the trauma itself and from the inability to undertake healing practices. What remained was the pain, the inability to heal and all of the accompanying impacts. Family structure, rather than being based on the kinship model where everyone had responsibility for everyone else (sisters and brothers) became based on the learned and conditioned behaviours associated with trauma.

Today, Indigenous communities have long journeys against this systemic trauma.

What can I do as an individual?

  • Consider that, in day-to-day interactions, it will not be obvious who is suffering from intergenerational trauma
  • Respond from a balance of respect and compassion
  • Be careful not to make assumptions, though
  • Take care not to be patronizing or overly sympathetic; boundaries are important to maintain an individual’s sense of dignity

What can we do as a College?

  • Consider sensitivity training for staff; what to look for but, most importantly, how to respond
  • Acknowledge impacts of colonization.Know that the pendulum swung towards complete denial of Indigenous ways of being and the pendulum may need to swing to the other end of the arc before balance is achieved
  • Include Indigenous identifiers on campuses to increase student sense of belonging and note the College’s authentic commitment to shifting the relationship
  • Incorporate indigenous learning styles and pedagogy in curriculum development


  • Intervention to Address Intergenerational Trauma: Overcoming, Resisting and Preventing Structural Violence: The University of Calgary developed this guide for healing children suffering intergenerational impacts of colonization.
  • This video presented by Sullivan & Associates Clinical Psychology from Canada explores the topic of Intergenerational Trauma and the root causes of the pervasive mental health concerns in Indigenous populations and communities:

A Deeper Look

Holocaust survivors helped unlock understanding of intergenerational trauma
Residential school researchers turned to research targeting the children of Holocaust survivors from the Second World War. Those children exhibited a similar phenomenon. Despite never having directly experienced the Holocaust, the children had similar patterns to their parents. Holocaust researchers called this phenomenon “intergenerational trauma”. Effects of parental trauma have since been proven to cause genetic changes that can be inherited by children.

Indigenous intergenerational trauma
Amy Bombay was one of the first writers about Indigenous intergenerational trauma Amy Bombay. She is an intergenerational survivor and Ojibway scholar who teaches at Dalhousie University. She continues to research and write on residential schools and intergenerational trauma.

Further reading:

Danieli, Y. (1985). The treatment and prevention of long-term effects and intergenerational transmission of victimization: A lesson from Holocaust survivors and their children. Trauma and its wake, 1, 295-313.

Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2014). The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the concept of historical trauma. Transcultural psychiatry, 51(3), 320-338.

Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2011). The impact of stressors on second generation Indian residential school survivors. Transcultural psychiatry, 48(4), 367-391.