Many Indigenous youths are unaware of the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools. Because of this, experts say they are often left uneducated on the topic while struggling to cope with its effects. However, through youth initiatives both inside and outside of Southern Alberta Indigenous communities, the healing conversations are starting to happen.
For many Indigenous people, the wounds left by residential schools have not yet fully healed. Shane Wells, a counsellor at the Blood Tribe’s Kainai High School, explains how this is affecting the upcoming generation.
“[Children] are not able to show their emotions and it's primarily from colonization and the residential schools where [their parents] were taught not to do that,” Wells says. “It's very hard for children to actually show what they deal with, so then they fall into those areas of chemical abuse, physical abuse and dysfunction.”
As a residential school survivor himself, Wells is aware of the painful cycle intergenerational trauma is perpetuating.
“This thing is real. Trauma is real. These effects that have happened to us are real,” says Wells.
“People say, ‘Get over the effects of residential schools.’ How can you get over the effects when you're traumatized as a child and you grow up and still have those traumas?”
The generational reality
Kim Kakakaway is the program coordinator for Home Fire, an initiative that helps homeless Indigenous youth, ages 16-24, get off the street. She explains drugs like meth and fentanyl can act as a coping mechanism for young people in response to the trauma in their lives.
According to a report released by the Alberta Government in 2017, the rate of opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people was three times higher among Indigenous people compared to non-Indigenous people from January 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017.
“Intergenerational trauma affects all of our youth. It's in all of us, really as Indigenous people,” she explains. “A lot of it stems from identity loss. Our language, everything was stripped from us.”
Even though substance abuse is a pressing issue for Indigenous communities, Wells believes the effects of intergenerational trauma go far beyond that area.
“We have lost a lot of parenting skills,” Wells explains.
“The [effects] continue to be there, and it's hard for us to help our kids when that's how our parents and our grandparents have raised us.”
Unlocking the conversation
Christy Morgan, director of Indigenous initiatives at the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary, recognizes healing needs to permeate every generation.
“We talk about reconciliation and those big words, but it’s a bigger context piece that still needs to be explored within our own Indigenous communities,” Morgan explains.
“It’s hard because a good chunk of our communities are still just having a breather from the traumas of the last 150-plus years.”
Even though the conversation surrounding Indigenous history can be tough to address, Wells believes the key for healing starts with the younger generation.
“If we started listening to our children, then we're going to be able to find our answers,” says Wells.
“They're the ones that lead [the conversation] — we're just facilitating it in order for them to get their voices heard.”
According to Kakakaway, facilitating this discussion is truly empowering for Indigenous young people. When they understand their cultural history, it unlocks great potential.
“For [the youth] to understand that the trauma in their life stems further back,” says Kakakaway. “It isn't their fault if they're blaming themselves about how their life has gone,”
“It's educating them on that which I believe brings healing.”
Even though coming to terms with the reality of intergenerational trauma can be painful for some, it is truly eye-opening for others.
“Generally, once a child understands or at least gets the information, most of the feedback that we get from our kids is, ‘I now understand,’” Morgan explains.
“You can literally see the light bulb going off and them loudly saying, ‘This totally makes sense now! Why is no one telling me this? Why did I not understand this?’”
When Indigenous youth come to terms with this, it resonates with all generations.
“We've seen young people go back to their homes and share it to their parents saying, ‘This is what I learned,’” says Morgan.
“We've had parents come back saying, ‘I heard you had a conversation about this, and that's really interesting. Can you tell me more about it? I've never been taught this.’”
The long-term journey
Even though opening up the conversation surrounding intergenerational trauma is a positive step, it is just the first step. Wells explains there is a great need for long-term initiatives.
“It's not like we're going to have one conference or workshop to talk about [intergenerational trauma]. That's not going to work or be effective,” says Wells.
“The effects are going to continue because we have to help each child, the parents, and the grandparents. It is going to keep going until we can help every one of those people.”
Morgan agrees that true healing cannot be placed on a predictable timeline.
“Reconciliation is not going to be done by 2020. It's not going to be done by 2025,” says Morgan. “In a long-term game, we need funders, departments, and governments, regardless of election times, to really sit down and take a look at, ‘What do we want Canada to be in 2050?’"
Despite the need for long-term funding, Wells explains the government is only committing to short-term initiatives, which is a pressing issue for the Blood Tribe.
“What the government does is they give us some money and say, ‘This is to compensate what we have done to you,’” Wells explains. “They open doors, but where is the follow up?”
The healing process
Despite this lack of support, Wells says the Blood Tribe has led various healing initiatives which are positively affecting the lives of youth.
Through the Elders in Residence program, Blood Tribe elders act as counsellors for young people, which allows cultural healing to take place. As a high school counsellor, Wells sees the success stories that come as a result of initiatives like this.
“I’ve seen an increase in the number of students who are able to express themselves without using violence or substance abuse,” says Wells.
For Wells, this is truly meaningful to witness because he lost one of his siblings to drugs. After going through his own journey of healing, he is now helping others do the same.
“To me, I'm being that caring person to say, ‘I'm going to sit here and I am going to listen to whatever you have to say, even if you're mad at me. Even if you hate the world and have no hope.’"
In addition to the promising initiatives happening in Indigenous communities, there are other external Indigenous programs which are positively affecting the lives of youth.
With Calgary’s Boys and Girls Club based in an urban centre, Morgan sees a different kind of success story.
“We have our kids coming through our doors on spring break, Christmas break and on their days off saying, ‘I want to come in and sit in your space... you create a space that makes me feel safe.’”
Ultimately, this safe space is starting to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
“Once [the youth] get to understand some of the stuff that we've gone through as a community, the sky is the limit after that,” Morgan explains.
“Knowledge is power, and culture is our future.”
- By Sarah Green