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Understanding intergenerational trauma in Alberta’s Indigenous community

“I think the more people actually get to know what happened, where it went wrong, we can learn from it and hopefully become a better and stronger society.”

Imagine, for a second, that you lived in a society that hated you for things you couldn't control. A society that saw you as something that needed to be cleansed the moment you were born. An outright burden that required intense scrutiny and re-education. One that would pry you from the hands of your parents in order to keep you in an institution.

This institution would then brainwash you into believing you were inherently inferior; a villainous force that had to change your ways if you ever wanted to live in ‘normal society’.

It’s a terrifying situation to think about and it doesn’t leave a lot of hope to be had.

The unfortunate reality is many Indigenous people in Canada suffered through this terrible ordeal from the 1880s to 1990s. The residential school system operated within Canada’s borders for more than 100 years and attempted to assimilate countless Indigenous youth into colonial society.

Indigenous children would be forcefully taken from their parents and put into classrooms that outwardly shamed them for being dark-skinned and ‘savage’. The schools would often be run by nuns and priests who would abuse the children, both physically and sexually, without repercussions.

The children would then leave the school after they turned 18 with an immense amount of trauma and shame that left them confused and unable to form healthy relationships. This would result in survivors not knowing how to parent their children, which would have an adverse effect on multiple generations.

This is called intergenerational trauma and it is something that is not nearly talked about enough in today’s contentious society. It is the transmission of trauma from one generation to another that originated from a single traumatic event. It might sound complicated when put like that but, luckily, Eleanor van Gunst, a counselling therapist at the Edmonton Native Healing Centre, was able to give a more apt description.

“Intergenerational trauma is a trauma that may have occurred to a grandparent but now influences the next generations that follow,” van Gunst explained. “The way that it usually manifests is in the area of low self-esteem or there may be attachment disorders.”

It still might seem strange that a person who never experienced the hardships of their grandparents could have trauma that stemmed from those experiences, but van Gunst described how that trauma is able to spread from generation to generation.

“If a parent was never parented, they don’t know how to parent their own children – that puts the child at a greater risk of an attachment order. This means they could end up seeking affection and attention from those who don’t mean them well,” said van Gunst. “That kind of behaviour puts them at a higher risk for sexual assault.”

It doesn’t end in sexual assault. The risk factors associated with intergenerational trauma are far and wide. Among the most devastating include addiction, family violence and even suicide.

Research done by the Canadian Centre for Addictions found Indigenous people are three times more likely to commit suicide than non-Indigenous people. The same research saw 25 per cent of Indigenous respondents report personal problems with substance abuse. It also uncovered that Indigenous youth are nine times more likely to suffer from mental illness than non-Indigenous youth of the same age.

If you’re still struggling with the concept, don’t worry – you are not alone. The idea of intergenerational trauma is still fairly fresh when being talked about in connection to residential school survivors. Sometimes the best way to describe something like this is to hear it from someone who experienced it firsthand.

Shawna Yamkovy, a Métis woman who currently serves as the treasurer of the Aboriginal Congress of Alberta Association, grew up with a mother who survived residential schools.

“(My mother) went to residential schools from the age of six to 18,” said Yamkovy.

Her mother, Emerence Yamkovy (Lockhart), attended the St. Joseph's Indian Residential School in Fort Resolution, NWT, for the majority of her formative years. The school was run by Roman Catholic missionaries who ingrained traditional colonial norms on children, assimilating them into Euro-Canadian culture. It also deprived her mother of the day-to-day experience of being nurtured by her parents, except during the summer months.

“Growing up, she was a proud Chipewyan Dene woman and she held onto her traditions and Dene sųłiné yati language. However, she did not pass the language on to myself. For whatever reasons, she adopted the culture and customs of my father (who) was Ukrainian,” said Yamkovy. “She learned to cook Ukrainian dishes and although she retained her culture, she really self-identified with that.”

This lack of a solid individual identity is a common theme among people who go through this process, who get so beat down after years of mental abuse that they don't really know who they are. They were taught to forget their ancestry. This confusion and loss of identity could lead to mental illness, which led in turn to addiction and violence.

In Yamkovy’s case, she was fortunate not to suffer from a bad home life. Her family travelled extensively throughout the world. She does, however, see how intergenerational trauma has affected family members who chose to remain in their respective communities after leaving the system.

A chaotic home life has also had serious implications for many Indigenous youth. As van Gunst described earlier, these children are deprived of a normal childhood and are not able to experience a proper parental figure. This can lead to them falling prey to addiction and repeating the cycle with their own children who then repeat it once again in a perpetual cycle.

It is a horrifying aspect that is not widely known among the general populace. Even Yamkovy herself admits that, despite living with intergenerational trauma, she only learned of the concept fairly recently.

“I really didn’t learn about it until two or three years ago,” said Yamkovy. “My mom never spoke about her experience with residential schools with me. She really focused (her experience) as being religious and being a positive thing. So I didn’t understand it and things weren’t spoken about.”

Yamkovy sees a positive trend as more and more people to talk about the subject.

 “I think people are starting to open up about the blatant racism that happened.”

Emerence Yamkovy (Lockhart) passed away before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established in 2008, so she wasn’t able to properly share her story herself. Instead, her memory lives on through her daughter. Shawna is currently taking a Master of Arts in Global Leadership degree where her Capstone focus is to support the revitalization of the Dene sųłiné yati language that her mother spoke, but never taught to her children as a result of residential schools.

This is yet another implication of residential schools on the Indigenous community. While mental illness is a major component to intergenerational trauma, there is also the impact it has had on the practising of traditional Indigenous culture. Kelly Hawreliak, supervisor of the practices ceremony at the Bent Arrow Healing Society was able to talk about this aspect of Indigenous culture.

“I can speak firsthand from my own personal experience that I was not given the opportunity to grow up with culture because of residential schools,” said Hawreliak. “My grandparents went to residential schools and were taught that they should speak English and be Catholic and that they have to raise their family a certain way.”

This mindset of not raising your family with traditional Indigenous values and customs threatened to destroy the culture all together. One of the most important aspects of many Indigenous cultures that is on the verge of being completely destroyed is language.

Statistics Canada showed in a 2011 survey that only 17.2 per cent of the Indigenous population can communicate in an aboriginal language. Furthermore, a 2019 report by the United Nations Human Rights office stated linguists estimate a language is going extinct every two weeks in what they call ‘a time of mass language extinction.’

The answers to these problems are not simple or clear-cut. The Canadian government has made some strides in reconciliation in the last few decades, establishing the TRC and reaching a settlement with those who suffered during the Sixties Scoop. Equally as important as government support, however, is the adoption of grassroot initiatives like the aforementioned Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society in Edmonton. Established in 1994, the society acts as a support centre for Indigenous people to reconnect with their culture.

“We have up to 21 programs running and they range from working with pregnant and young parents through our home visitation program, to a number of employment programs so people can come to a class where they can get different tickets to be able to build up their resume,” Hawreliak described. “We have culture woven into the programs that we have.”

The diverse nature of the society is extremely valuable. This is a complex issue that is not going to be solved by one overreaching program. Bent Arrow’s ability to split up multiple programs so that they can focus on some of the community's biggest challenges is a strategy that has potential to do a lot of good.

“Not only do we provide cultural services for the programs we work for but, we also contract out to other agencies that work with people and help them make their spaces more friendly and welcoming for Indigenous people,” said Hawreliak. “One of our main goals is to have smudging available for people wherever they go.”

Smudging is a sacred Indigenous ceremony that involves burning cedar, sage, tobacco and sweetgrass. The smoke produced by this burning is thought to have a purifying effect on the person performing the ceremony and the location in which it is taking place. It is a practice that is becoming harder to do because of the decline of Indigenous culture over the last century.

“It is the way the first people of this country show their spirituality, and we don’t really have a place to worship, so one of the things we tell people is that there are churches, mosques, temples and all these different places in every community but there is no place for Indigenous people,” said Hawreliak. “We want to make sure people can smudge when they need to.”

So where do we go from here? Canada has seen high-profile racist events recently, such as the 2020 clash between commercial fishermen and Indigenous lobster fishers in Nova Scotia. That situation escalated to a point where some were advocating for the return of residential schools.

van Gunst thinks a higher level of education on Indigenous issues is needed for the general population to understand the concept of intergenerational trauma.

“Most of those viewpoints are due to sheer ignorance, and that’s not to say that they are ignorant people but that they lack the education and the knowledge of what occurred,” said van Gunst.

“I think the more people actually get to know what happened, where it went wrong, we can learn from it and hopefully become a better and stronger society.”

Education is key if we want to attain a society that is free of racism. For far too long have the Indigenous community been cast to the side and forgotten about. We are now at a critical point in history where society can learn from our mistakes and help build up a future where intergenerational trauma is a thing of the past.

Preston Hodgkinson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Great West Newspapers. This story was funded by the Google News Initiative.  

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