Intergenerational Trauma of Residential Schools in Canada


Indigenous people’s well-being was significantly affected by colonization, and even now, residential schools as one of the colonization’s legacies continue to influence the aboriginal population of Canada. Thus, traumatic events took an enormous toll on the mental and physical health of people and caused repercussions endurable for many years by the survivors. Any trauma can occur at any level (personal, family, or collective), and the responses differ from person to person.

The effect of trauma is transmitted from generation to generation, affecting parent’s offspring, thus endangering them to be victimized in different ways. The purpose of this paper is to identify the impact of the intergenerational trauma of residential schools on aboriginal women and children living in Canada and to establish an understanding of trauma and its development.

Historical Background

Aboriginal groups dwelling on the lands of North America were independent and owned their philosophy towards each sphere of life before the Europeans penetrated their territory. First contacts between aborigines and Europeans took place in the 16th century when Europeans tried to undermine their beliefs and fundamental practices by conversion. The Royal Proclamation was signed in 1763 and established Indian reserve lands promising some rights, which were soon diminished due to the social pressure distress (Bombay, Matheson, & Anisman, 2009). The area had been capitalized, thus making First Nation communities conform to new orders (Bombay et al., 2009). The Indian Act issued in 1867 controlled the rights of Indians and set a particular set of policies they had to comply with.

Consequently, the indigenous population was subjected to experiencing stressful life circumstances, violence, discrimination, reduced level of employment, and education, which generally led to historical trauma that still impacts this community. Past trauma caused not only the physical but also mental disorders and some other ramifications such as loss of culture or languages, identity, kinship, etc. Therefore, it is necessary to probe the mechanisms of trauma to prevent the intergenerational spread of it.

The Impact of Residential Schools

These experiences greatly affected the indigenous people of North America, including Canada. Two Canadian governmental policies influence the majority of the First Nation population: forcing aboriginal children to attend residential schools and the Sixties Scoop policy. Indigenous people were seeking for ameliorating their conditions, and in 1807, indigenous leaders expressed the need for education, so the government established residential schools for them in 1883 (which existed till the 1990s). The Sixties Scoop (1960s) law implies placing the aboriginal children into non-native families.

The principal goal of residential schools was sustaining safety and protection; however, they did not provide the high-quality of education. “The explicit purpose of residential schools was to assimilate Aboriginal children into mainstream Canadian society” (Roy, 2014, p. 9). When the children reached the age of 3, they were compelled to leave their families in favor of living in the boarding schools. The researches carried out the expertise according to which many cases of sexual and emotional abuse, the increase of morbidity, and mortality occurred in the residential schools (Bombay et al., 2009).

The residents of the boarding schools were devoid of adequate food provision, medical care, and suffered from mistreatment. “Cultural expressions through language, dress, food, or beliefs were suppressed, often by physical force, and children were taught to be ashamed of their culture” (Bombay et al., 2009, p. 14). As a result, children were forced to abandon their cultural practices or speaking their native language causing many of the students to see the aboriginal culture in the negative light.

The children were imposed on an opinion that their previous way of life was savage and reproachful. Losing their cultural peculiarities, children were prone to acting like strangers with their families and repeating the abusive behavior they learned from schools (Bombay, Matheson, & Anisman, 2014). Leaving the schools being grownups, they were forced to adapt to a new environment, for which they were not prepared. Altogether, it is evident that such actions towards children had an adverse impact on their lives and the generations of their families.

The Intergenerational Trauma and its Impact on Women and Children

The phenomenon of intergenerational trauma (IGT) was described and defined by many researchers as the transmission of historical trauma from one generation to another. The main factor that causes this long-lasting trauma is based on some lingering process as colonization, war, or slavery that affects the population causing the spread of diseases or disorders within the next years or decades. The main symptoms broadcast maladaptive social behavior as a response to trauma learned from other generations. The IGT of residential schools affects a family extensively, cause substance abuse, mental disorders, engagement in criminal activity, and poverty (Bombay et al., 2014). Thus, these problems are interrelated and stimulate the marginalization of the First Nation people.

Aboriginal people of Canada still struggle with the low level of employment, education enrollment, and income per capita, which makes them more exposed to poverty and poor socioeconomic status. Moreover, most of the children coming from indigenous families live with one parent (usually with a mother), and it indicates their socioeconomic status as low (Hoffart & Jones, 2018). Mental health issues are the primary concern within the aboriginal community because they are still struggling to overcome the historical trauma related to the colonization. The fundamental denominator is the grief from migration leading to cultural devastation.

The mass trauma contributed to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can be traced on both individual and collective levels (Menzies, 2010). Therefore, indigenous people are more likely to suffer from depressions, commit suicides, and homicides rather than the non-indigenous population.

Different health outcomes may emerge as the post-effect of residential schools’ attendance. The primary diseases that can be transmitted intergenerationally are the following: HIV, Hepatitis C, STIs, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, or allergies. Residential school attendance proved to expose students to obesity (especially among girls), and more severe sexual illnesses (Wilk, Maltby, & Cooke, 2017). However, most of the researchers address principally mental health deviations.

Familial, residential school attendance has been associated with lower self-perceived mental health and a higher risk of distress and suicidal behaviors (Wilk et al., 2017). The offspring of the survivors who attended Indian boarding school proved to be more exposed to committing suicides: 37,2% of them had at least one suicide attempt orders (Bombay et al., 2009).

The intergenerational trauma is thought to influence the entire First Nation community, though for the most part is concerned the aboriginal women and children due to the colonization that embedded gender-based oppression. The population suffering from different mental illnesses, economic distress, marginalization, or racial and sexual discrimination were subjected to committing crimes and manifesting violent behavior to their partners low (Hoffacrt & Jones, 2018). It implies intimate partner violence (IPV) that has a high rate in Canada and denotes any sexual, emotional, physical abuse representing intimidation, threat, harassment, etc.

The adverse effect of IPV is evident within the family unit and likely to affect women for the most part. “The culmination of the residential school experience, the intergenerational consequences, and abuse in the family home solidified for participants that violence was a normal and routine way to resolve issues” (Hoffart & Jones, 2018, p. 40). According to Wilk et al. (2017), 42% of the indigenous population accounts for women; so, the number is equal to 1,100 female victims per 100,000 density of population. The normalization of violence is the factor affecting aboriginal women and their children.

Firstly, it is clear that the indigenous women had to go through the residential schools where they were subjected to violence, which affected their mentality, health, and further behavior. The chain effect occurs when a woman from the aboriginal settlement transmits the reflection of the attitude she has acquired on her children. As a result, the intergenerational trauma within the relations between a child and a mother is conditioned by the way the latter was treated. Secondly, intergenerational trauma appears when an indigenous woman has reduced awareness of the trauma implications, thus impacts the cognitive, physical, and emotional behavior of her baby.

“The mental health of children and youth is closely linked to parental mental health – particularly maternal mental health” (Roy, 2014, p. 8). Specifically, the indigenous woman carrying a baby is subjected to mental pressure; thus, they can seriously harm the neurological and immune health of a yet unborn child and distort mother-child connection in the following years (Roy, 2014). The complexity of the problem does not allow it to be solved quickly, but there should be services about trauma implications to mitigate the whole process.


Considering the above mentioned issues, there is an understanding of why Canada needs a reconciliation policy. Reconciliation denotes the process of integration of both indigenous and non-indigenous people to diminish social problems in the future. Moreover, the reconciliation policy is directed towards understanding the problematics of Indian residential schools, their impact on subsequent generations, and contributions to social problems.

Canadian citizens cannot represent the country as a whole united nation unless it tears down the division between the aborigines and ordinary people fighting for dominance. Therefore, instead of creating another colonial system, there should be a solid establishment of equitable relations between Canadians and the First Nation people as they underlie the fundamental part of Canadian history.


To sum everything up, there is a need to mention that intergenerational trauma of residential life has serious, long-lasting physical and emotional implications on the indigenous population of Canada. Although the existence of residential schools came to an end in the 1990s, there are still repercussions affecting the indigenous people. Moreover, historical relics always take their toll not only on the individuals but their offspring as well by the altered parenting; so, the trauma is transmitted despite the times. According to the findings, the most at-risk groups are the aboriginal women and their children, as mothers tend to instill and communicate gained painful experience to their offspring, thus victimizing them. The support services and the reconciliation policy would alleviate the spread and consequences of intergenerational trauma.


Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2009). Intergenerational trauma: Convergence of multiple processes among first nations peoples in Canada. Journal of Aboriginal Health, 6-47.

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. Web.

Hoffart, R., & Jones, N. A. (2018). Intimate partner violence and intergenerational trauma among indigenous women. International Criminal justice Review, 28(1), 25-44. Web.

Menzies, P. (2010). Intergenerational trauma from a mental health perspective. Native Social Work Journal, 7, 63-85.

Roy, A. (2014). Intergenerational trauma and aboriginal women: Implications for mental health during pregnancy. First Peoples Child & Family Review, 9(1), 7-21.

Wilk, P., Maltby, A., & Cooke, M. (2017). Residential schools and the effects on Indigenous health and well-being in Canada—a scoping review. Public Health Reviews, 38(1), 1-23. Web.

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