Intergenerational trauma perpetuates a cycle of cultural disconnect and misunderstanding in Indigenous communities, seen by many as the root cause of challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples.
The Calgary Journal invited an Indigenous elder, a professor and a student — all who have been touched by intergenerational trauma — to discuss the critical importance of resilience.
Resilience focuses not on pain but on strength.
AUDRA FOGGIN — ‘There were people there who looked just like me’
Audra Foggin, a Sixties Scoop survivor who teaches social work at Mount Royal University explains her struggle with identity and how she reconnected with her roots.
“I was born to a loving mother in Frog Lake First Nation [near Lloydminster]… I was fostered and then I was adopted by a non-First Nations family…. I won the parent lottery on my adopted and biological side. When I look at how I was a benefactor of privilege, I see my privilege not only from my Indigenous family and the culture that I can claim, but I also look at my adopted family and the social status that they afforded me as an individual.
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But that doesn’t account for my loss of community, of my culture, of my language, or my family ties. And there were times throughout my life that were so difficult because I didn’t look like my family. And saw the stereotypes of the First Nations people in the community I grew up in and didn’t have the context for them at all because I wasn’t taught any information about it, because my parents didn’t know how to connect me to my culture or make me understand it. I didn’t fully connect to my culture until my early twenties. There was this disconnect with my culture and a denial of who I was as an Indigenous person and shame and fear that I didn’t know about my culture. My disconnect and distance of who I was — a severe disrupt in my identity. And it was painful: with bullying, social segregation, and trying to prove I fit in when I clearly didn’t.
For me, the non-judgment that I needed came in the form of a horse. And when I say a horse I mean a small Welsh pony that I had. And the non-judgment, the acceptance and the unconditional positive energy that I needed came from that horse. And I think that for me was really healing and built my self confidence … and then I graduated to a bigger horse, and then a bigger horse. And it just became a thing I would do: debrief and share some of my pieces of grief and loss and horses don’t judge they just listen.
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When I got to having children and wanting to know about my genetics and background, I knew I had to [reconnect]. So I went home to Frog Lake First Nation and found out who my family was. And I found out there were people there who looked just like me, who were wonderful and lovely and loving and kind. And it was a time in my life that I was starting to understand my culture through Native American studies program at Lethbridge and starting to understand the historical context. So it was a 180-degree shift.”
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For Indigenous Peoples in Canada, resilience is grounded in their distinct cultures and traditions that connect people in the community to the environment, leaning on the importance of their languages, traditions and activism.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), there are an estimated 80,000 survivors of residential schools living today. The descendants of these survivors have continued to live with the effects of trauma caused by the painful experiences their parents and grandparents endured.
VERONICA MARLOWE — ‘I am still healing and working on myself’
Veronica Marlowe, an Indigenous social work student at Mount Royal University, explains how she is breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma for the upcoming generation.
“My grandmother went to residential school for 10 years and then married my grandfather. They had 10 children, my mother being one of the 10. My father, he’s one of eight children, so I come from two very big families, a lot of cousins. In the first 13 years of my life, it was a mix of good and bad. There’d be good days where we would go swimming, go out for picnics, and go on the land. But the other side was growing up with abuse and addiction. So I was often left to care for my younger brothers when my parents were out of commission. It made me very independent.
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When I was 15, I was sent to live with an aunt in Lethbridge where I went to high school and met my children’s father. I have three children, with who you could call my high school lover or husband at the time. For me, despite having all that stuff that happened to me as a child and being a child and having one, I wanted to break the cycle by not having my children experience the childhood I did. So my child’s father and I agreed to never be under the influence of alcohol near our children.
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I have trauma. I have triggers. But now that I am learning about it, it is helping me know what those triggers are and deal with them in a healthy way. Sometimes, I won’t recognize them right away but when they come out, I realize I am still healing and working on myself. I am trying to be a better person and a better mom."
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Breaking cycles of trauma is crucial for healing. Various Indigenous initiatives in Calgary are working to create welcoming environments. The Diamond Willow Youth Lodge, which is a part of United Way, and the Boys and Girls Club are connecting Indigenous youth with elders to help them understand their trauma.
ALVIN MANITOPYES — ‘We’re starting to see a new generation of young people that are free from historical trauma’
Alvin Manitopyes, a Plains Cree elder and justice administrator, believes there is always more than meets the eye regarding trauma. However, he says the complex and painful cycle of trauma can be broken by support from the community and returning to Mother Nature.
"We carry rich and beautiful traditions and culture and world views that have existed for thousands of years. And it’s a very beautiful thing. And we all have that within us. If we go into the mountains to sacred areas, we can feel the beauty and the sacredness of the mountains and the water and trees … that’s very healing for people. So we can find healing for our spirits and it’s important for young people to have that experience and have that connection to Mother Earth.
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[Elders] talk about trauma going back over a hundred years… but with each generation, it gets weaker and weaker. We’re starting to see a new generation of young people that are free from historical trauma, and this younger generation is much more gifted in terms of intellectual capacities. They’re starting to succeed in academics and higher learnings of institutions across this country. So we can see that happening and these generations are starting to be healed from that [trauma]."
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Manitopyes’ belief in the power of connecting with nature is supported by a 2008 study for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It shows traditional practices such as returning to the land in Indigenous communities was seen to lower depressive symptoms in a group of 287 Indigenous youth by 29 per cent.
In addition to these traditional practices, outside organizations are working with Indigenous communities to better understand trauma and resilience. The United Way in Calgary has invested more than $1.8 million in Indigenous programs with the United Way’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. An Indigenous Advisory Committee comprised of four Elders, 2 Indigenous youth, and 10 Indigenous people from various cultural backgrounds was established in 2018 to serve as an advisory committee to our United Way of Calgary and Area Board of Directors.
Throughout the course of last year, the Natoo’si Initiative has supported individuals, children, youth, and families in healing from intergenerational trauma. This program incorporates cultural activities, therapeutic activities, and legacy education which supports the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being for Indigenous people.
Foggin, Marlowe, and Manitopyes all agree that talking about resilience when discussing intergenerational trauma can help people heal from the painful experiences of their past. Moving forward, they hope to see this conversation become a universal one.
In partnership with the Iniskim Centre at Mount Royal University, the Calgary Journal presents ‘Raising Reconciliation’ — a series of podcasts and news stories focused on increasing understanding of Indigenous stories that matter.
- By Sarah Green, Georgia Longphee and Casey Richardson