Imagine a knock on your door. You open it and are met by strangers accompanied by a police officer. These people are speaking a different language so you don't understand what they're saying. Eventually, you come to the surreal realization that they've come for your children. There is some time given to pack clothes and say goodbye. Any resistance is met with the threat of arrest by the police. You're not sure where your children are going or if you will ever see them again. You're wondering what you did wrong. You have no idea what is happening as you helplessly watch this nightmare unfold before your eyes.
How does an event like this affect the child? The parents? The community?
This sounds like something that happened long ago, somewhere far away, but this was the reality only a half-century ago with the residential-school education project across Canada and the Sixties Scoop – the "scooping up" of First Nations children by the planeload for adoption, under the guise of protection, unbeknownst to their family and community across North America and Europe.
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Can communities simply learn to move on, or will these two remarkable events in Canadian history reverberate through future generations – and for how long?
Many years after the last residential school closed its doors and most of the First Nations children taken from their homes through child welfare removal were returned, these events continue to have an impact on individuals, families and communities.
Intergenerational trauma, or transgenerational trauma, is what happens when untreated trauma-related stress experienced by survivors is passed on to second and subsequent generations. The trauma inflicted by residential schools and the Sixties Scoop was significant, and the scope of the damage these events wrought wouldn't be truly understood until years later.
Intergenerational trauma is usually seen within one family in which the parents or grandparents were traumatized, and each generation of that family continues to experience trauma in some form. In these cases the source can usually be traced back to a devastating event, and the trauma is unique to that family.
What makes the intergenerational trauma in the case of First Nations people different is that it wasn't the result of a targeted event against an individual – it was a set of government policies that targeted and affected a whole generation. Children were traumatized when they were taken from their parents and placed into either government-funded, church-controlled, residential learning institutions or into foster homes. Many children suffered horrific abuse while in these homes and institutions. And parents and communities were traumatized when their children were taken away from them with little or no idea if or when they would return.
Direct survivors of these experiences often transmit the trauma they experienced to later generations when they don't recognize or have the opportunity to address their issues. Over the course of time these behaviours, often destructive, become normalized within the family and their community, leading to the next generation suffering the same problems.
Many self-destructive behaviours can result from unresolved trauma. Depression, anxiety, family violence, suicidal and homicidal thoughts and addictions are some of the behaviours our mental health therapists see when working with clients who have experienced direct or intergenerational trauma. In most cases, the self-destructive behaviour exists because the client is having a difficult time dealing with the pain of remembering the past, or trying to survive an abusive situation now.
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Talking with a mental-health therapist can help break the cycle of trauma. Family therapy may also be required to prevent behaviours continuing among the younger generation. The goals of the therapeutic relationship are to acknowledge the negative behaviour; help the individual and their family make the connection between the behaviour and the historical trauma; introduce healthy alternatives and coping mechanisms; and provide support and feedback to the individual and family as they carry on with their lives.
People reaching out for help may seek the support of traditional healers to assist them on their healing journey. Traditional healing, along with conventional therapeutic methods, have been effective tools in addressing intergenerational trauma. We must always be mindful to put the individual at the centre of the healing plan, critical not just in working with trauma survivors, but in the development of any patient plan that is going to yield the best outcomes. We need to recognize that patients know themselves better than anyone, and services should work together to consider their holistic needs.
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Kevin Berube is director of the Mental Health and Addictions Program at the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre, which provides health services to 30 First Nations communities in Northwestern Ontario. A band member of Flying Post First Nation, he has more than 20 years of experience in child welfare, mental health and addictions working with First Nations communities.