Transgenerational trauma, or historical trauma, is often referred to when people talk about the effect of colonization on the indigenous people in Canada. And it’s often an issue that people find difficult to understand.
We think that these things happened a long time ago, so why are people still affected by them? Why have they not gotten over this?
Trauma of the Indigenous People of Canada
What we fail to see is how events that took place systematically affected, in violent and drastic ways, the entire culture of the people and also family structure and relationships. They were damaged in a way that the repercussions would echo down through the generations, visiting the pain over and over again on subsequent generations.
The very structures that sustained the culture were ripped away and outlawed. Family relationships were destroyed by ripping the children from their parents and forcing them to be taken from their culture. And then taking these childrens’ culture, their language and their ways from them so that they would forever be strangers to their own people. They were beaten and sexually abused so that their sense of safety and resilience was taken from them, and their inner sense of self was destroyed. Eventually only alcohol or drugs could silence the nightmares that chased through their minds. Their land was stolen and they were forced into poverty, leaving them with lives in which there was no possibility of a future.
They could not make sense of what had happened to them. Why had their parents allowed them to be taken? And now that they had returned there was nothing for them and they no longer belonged. There was no way for them to understand what the government had done, that if the parents had not complied, they would have been imprisoned.
This set one generation against the other through a sense of betrayal and by the return of what appeared to be strangers who no longer spoke their language nor knew their ways. The stain of both sexual and physical abuse, and the need to self medicate with drugs and alcohol, would leave generations with no knowledge of how to raise their children without imparting the same abuses.
This is the legacy of transgenerational trauma.
This travesty took place over a period of time in the forced removal of indigenous children to residential schools and then again in the 60’s scoop. It went on long enough to have devastating consequences for generations to come.
Today we see youth suicide rates in the northern indigenous communities of Canada which are so alarming as to cause emergency responses to try and stem the trends. These indigenous people are living in conditions that are lower than those in many Third World countries. Housing needs are at an alarmingly high level. The number of families living in one home is suffocating. People are dealing with poisoned water supplies. These are just some of the issues that are added to the problems of transgenerational trauma.
And these are our country’s First Peoples. The indigenous people of Canada are treated like they are somehow unentitled to be in this country despite the fact that the Government took their land, stole their children, and destroyed their way of life.
Transgenerational Trauma in Another Group
"World Ferility Rates: Indigenous Family in Viet Nam" by United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Sometimes looking at an issue as it occurred in other places or cultures can help us to understand it better. So let’s look at transgenerational trauma as it occurs in another group.
The Holocaust was sure to have produced transgenerational trauma in the Jewish people. Six million Jews were murdered in a horrendous way by Hitler and the Germans during the Second World War. There’s no way that the Jewish people would not have felt the effects for generations afterwards.
The Nuremberg Trials would keep those memories alive and vivid as each of those who tried to hide from conviction was found and put on trial, and those who had survived testified. The horrors were captured in photos. What family was not affected? Who had not lost someone? The nightmare could not ever end.
The events of that war had scarred an entire people. Long after the last tattooed arms had been laid to rest, the family genogram would still have too many blank spots because of the many missing family members who never made it home. The children, the grandchildren, and the great grandchildren would feel the darkness of the shadow from that war forever following them into their futures - like the black soot that coughed out of the ovens that burned away their family members.
My Own Story of Transgenerational Trauma
I listened to a CD that I got when I took part in a walk for indigenous reconciliation. It had a number of songs that indigenous people had written and performed about their experience of the effects of losing their culture and their connections. In one song the singer asked what had happened to the love of his mother, because she was unable to love him. I remember wondering to myself what had happened to the love of my own mother because, she too, was unable to express her love.
This question sent me on a journey that I hadn’t expected, but it would be a journey that would explain so much to me. I decided that I would do a search on Ancestry to find out about my family’s people. I knew my mother was an Irish Catholic and that this had been very important to her. Little did I know then that this quest would lead me all the way to Ireland where I would find out why that man’s song had resonated so much with me.
My Irish Roots
I ended up deciding to complete the family tree as a gift for my family. While doing this I thought I should at least give them some history about Ireland, and so I did some research. I found out that the Irish people had been an indigenous people who spoke Gaelic, and who originally had a pagan faith which followed a belief in nature. They had been indoctrinated into Catholicism by St Patrick, but still retained some of their pagan beliefs.
At some point the British decided that they wanted to claim Ireland and they invaded and killed off many of the Irish and took their land. They brought in Protestant English and Scottish people to hold the lands they had taken. They pushed the Irish onto lands that were unsuitable for farming, leaving them with only one option for planting - potatoes.
The British then heavily outlawed the Irish. They were not allowed to speak their language, practice their religion, raise their children in their faith, or educate them. They couldn’t own land, lease land, or sell land - up to the point where they could not succeed at all. When all their potato crops failed due to a fungus, it spelled death. Without anything to trade or to pay their rent with, they were thrown out of their homes, their homes were burnt, and their animals taken.
This led to the great famine that would eradicate 1.5 million Irish people. People became the walking dead, skin and bones, dying along the roads. No mercy was shown. A great many Irish tried to leave Ireland on boats bound for America. Many died on the voyage, too weak to survive. In total over one million people left. During this time the British also engaged in shipping many children to Barbados, Jamaica, Australia, and America as slaves for plantations, prior to the rise of the black slave trade. The children would be expendable because they could not manage well in the Southern heat. They were often called red legs because their legs would burn in the plantation sun.
At some point my ancestors also left Ireland and came to Canada. They settled in Ottawa where many Irish Catholics did, and a lot of them worked on building the canal. Many also died building the canal. They settled in particular areas of Ottawa because they were poor and Catholic, just like the French Catholics. The prejudice against them would follow them to the new country. My mother lived in those same areas and we grew up poor. All her family would love to drink. It's what I remember most about them.
Understanding myself, my family and others
I had no idea of any of the history of the Irish people. I never understood why the Irish fought over Catholicism versus Protestantism because it just didn’t make any sense to me. My mother had those same prejudices, but she never explained them to me. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know if she knew any of this. I watched some documentaries and found out that some of the Protestants in Ireland don’t even know that their ancestors didn’t live there originally.
What finding out this history did for me was to help me understand my mother and all of her siblings, because they were all alcoholics. They were drinking to medicate something and when they drank, they all became very angry. Most of all, I found out why my mother couldn’t love. I also understood, at a more personal level, what had happened to indigenous Canadians.
I owe that indigenous singer an awful lot. If I hadn’t heard that song he wrote in which he asked why his mother was unable to love him, I wouldn’t have asked the same question and found out all I did about my mom and my people.
There are many cultures that suffered their own historical traumas and many of their descendants might have lost those stories by now. I only found out because I searched. My grandmother was Scottish, and I also went to Scotland where I heard some of what the Scottish had suffered at the hands of the British. At the Battle of Culloden the fallen Scottish were left on the open ground and guarded so that their families could not bury them. I remember feeling something very strong there and later found out that some of my grandmother’s kin were in that battle and no doubt died and were left unburied there.
Whether we remember or not, the trauma comes down through the generations and we are impacted by it. These are the stories of our people. They make sense of who we are. Sometimes they can also help us understand why our families may be wounded.