In this two-part miniseries, we explore intergenerational trauma and its impacts on Indigenous individuals and communities.
In this episode, Dr. Wesley-Esquimaux helps us understand intergenerational trauma by clarifying what happens when untreated trauma-related stress is passed on to multiple generations. She also provides evidence of the impact of intergenerational trauma on the health, well-being and social disparities facing Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
Annie Leblond, Indigenous Learning, Canada School of Public Service: In this two-part miniseries, we explore intergenerational trauma and its impacts on Indigenous individuals and communities.
In part one, we chat with Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, who has written several academic articles focused on the history of intergenerational trauma that Indigenous Peoples continue to experience in their day-to-day lives.
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Annie Leblond: Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, thank you for joining us.
You've been researching and raising awareness, doing public education about intergenerational trauma, for 25–30 years. Could we start by defining what "intergenerational trauma" is?
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Chair on Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University, Orillia and Thunder Bay: From my perspective, it's the passing on of traumas that have occurred over generations, going back to Contact on this continent. People were traumatized by the epidemics that occurred when contact first occurred, the multiple deaths that occurred, through the Indian Wars and the relocation process, through the Indian residential schools and into contemporary traumas like the missing and murdered Indigenous women and the child welfare system, which passes on unresolved grief and trauma to the next generations—not only by storytelling, but by behaviours and by the way people are living their lives and unconsciously doing things that display their hurt and pass it on to their young children.
We also talk sometimes about "blood memory," that's also a genetic thing, and epigenetics plays a role as well, in how traumas that occurred maybe even 100 years before can still be resonating into the present.
Annie Leblond: You're raising a good point. Usually we point the finger at residential schools when we talk about intergenerational trauma, and rightly so. But there have been historical traumas, one after the other, after the other, after the other, over centuries, without time to grieve in between those "bad things." So much so that we're talking about PTSD, right?
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: We're talking about complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which is basically saying that everyone in a community or a family will be affected. But they will be affected differently, they're not all going to be the same. Let's take a family where the father was in the war and came back and he has post-traumatic stress disorder, individually. His behaviour is going to collectively affect the entire family. It's complex: it means that one son may act out in one way and another son may act another way, be the best at everything; the other son may become an alcoholic. There are just different ways that everybody's affected. When you look at a community or First Nations communities across Canada, when we look at complex post-traumatic stress, we're saying everybody is affected, even if they didn't go to residential school themselves or have a parent that went because the behaviours around them are adversely affecting their ability to see themselves in a positive way.
We are also talking about the distance between, and the ability to actually monitor, hurts. We were talking at one point about the length of time that has passed—. In my own research, when I started at the University of Toronto, they said I should look at the residential school experience. And I thought, no. It's deeper than that. So I decided, in my master's work, to look at a comparative analysis of the aftermath of the bubonic plagues in Europe and the aftermath of the epidemics on this continent.
That's where I realized the epidemics hit on average every 7 to 14 years, which gave people very little time to retune and to deal with the hurts, the deaths, and the destruction that they were experiencing. Whereas in Europe, where the bubonic plagues were, they hit on average every 40 years, which gave people lots of time to reconstitute their cultures, their populations and their economics. So there's a real difference in terms of how things played themselves out. But we're all human beings and human beings all react the same way to different kinds of hurt.
So, the addictions happened in Europe, the Reformation happened, moving away from the Church because the Church was not providing the kinds of supports and understandings that people felt it should. On this continent, a lot of people moved away from traditional healers because they weren't able to deal with the kinds of epidemics that were coming. They didn't know how to deal with influenza. They didn't know how to deal with smallpox. But the missionaries did. You see, in both instances, lots of shifting as people searched, sometimes without real help, from place to place to try to figure out what to do. Here, we're now coming to the understanding that we can reach out and that we also have more wisdom than we thought actually existing in our communities from forever. Our traditional healers are very adept at this once we'd turned back to them and given them the opportunity to help us.
Annie Leblond: It affects people individually and it affects whole communities. It must be very difficult for someone to actually know where to reach out for help, because everyone is affected, right?
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: Yeah. And I think that for a long time, people didn't really know that they needed to reach out. They just lived with it. You have to remember, in the schools, children were denied the right to question. They couldn't say, I feel sad or I feel sorry or I feel sick because they were punished for any kind of expression that wasn't, I guess, positive in the eyes of the nuns and the various instructors who were supposedly looking after them. They learned to be very helpless in the face of their own pain. They learned to bury it quite deep. There was no real sense of a need to actually look for assistance. Out of that came a lot of the addictions. People were self-medicating to try to deal with what was inside that they couldn't put outside of themselves, until we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We had conversations with people that actually said not, What's wrong with you? but What happened to you? and someone to understand that there was this sort of inner deep well of pain that people were trying to resolve and didn't really know how to do that. Don't forget, we're just coming out of a long era of stigma associated with mental health and the ability to go and even see a counsellor, which was felt to be a weakness. If you couldn't deal with it yourself, there was something more wrong with you than the issues that you were fighting.
Annie Leblond: You mentioned helplessness or powerlessness a few times: "That's what my life is, and it can't be different. That's how things are for us. The world is hostile to us." Isn't hopelessness the biggest obstacle to healing?
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: Yeah, the question of powerlessness, or hopelessness, in a community, is also really important. It's directly related to the idea that the community itself and the people in it have no real power or authority to make decisions, or they can't say, "This needs to be funded" and actually have it happen. The powerlessness that exists in adults gets easily transmitted to the young people. They feel it quite strongly. Young people are watching us all the time and they know when we're unhappy or when we're happy or when we're scared. When my mother is scared, I'm scared because she's the person who's going to protect me and ensure that I'm okay.
We have to help the young people, it's true. But we also have to help the parents. We have to help the other people in the community who are struggling with the same kinds of issues. Everybody is affected. It may not look the same in every single individual. Some individuals may be suffering and using addictions, whether it's a sex addiction, a food addiction, a drug addiction, or an alcohol addiction, they're using something to help to mitigate that. Other people may be the busiest people in the community. They're running hither and yon, and fixing this and fixing that; it's still an addiction. It helps them deal with their pain, but it's not necessarily healthy. There are other people in the community who just are suffering from depression and moving dangerously close to suicide because they don't feel like they have any options whatsoever other than dying and getting away.
Annie Leblond: There's the trauma from the past that Indigenous individuals have to deal with. When you live in a remote area, where employment or education opportunities are not there or the living conditions are not on par with the rest of Canadian society, there are the day-to-day challenges on top of the rest. It has to be hard for Indigenous People to deal with all of this.
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: Yes, it's very difficult for Indigenous communities to deal with the kind of imposed poverty and inability to get access to the kinds of services that they need. The other side of that is the Indigenous community that has done well. Maybe they have the education or they have a good job or they have a home to live in and are raising children in a good way. They are also still a part of that conversation because many of the community members who have stepped away from the community and gotten those benefits very rarely leave the community and continue to work very closely with those issues. The question of that trauma doesn't go away; it's still very present in our lives, even when we have a doctorate, even when we live far or don't live in a community.
I happen to live in a community which has just recently experienced some suicides. I'm not necessarily right there, because I'm in Orillia right now [but] we're all dramatically affected by that. This is not a community that's particularly poor. It's not a remote community in the same sense. It's remote in the sense it's on an island and it's a challenge to get on and off the island, especially now. But it's not the same as living in a remote community that, to get to a doctor, you have to medevac out and stay out for a significant amount of time away from your family, your community, and then be medevacked back in again.
A lot of those communities, surprisingly, have people in them who are doing really quite well. It's not like everybody in the community, because we're in a remote area, is not doing well; they are. They have their own ways of dealing with their isolation and with their inability to have proper homes built. They actually find ways to ensure that their community mental health is dealt with. Whether it's feasts or whether it's bringing together people for ceremony or for community events of some kind, they actually manage quite well.
Annie Leblond: It's another thing also if you're an Indigenous person coming to live in a big city and you encounter racism of all kinds. Then something else hits you, I guess.
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: That's the concern with intergenerational effect. Because if you have a healthy beginning, you have strong family roots and your community is doing well, and you move from that community into an urban centre, you have what we call resiliency. You have a bank account of mental health that helps to buffer those issues; you don't feel like every time you turn around somebody's out to get you. But for those people who are living in communities that are struggling, and many of them are, with addictions or with poverty, it is an additional load or burden to come into an urban centre and not feel comfortable there or not feel welcomed.
Again, location has a lot to do with the outcomes. My parents both went to residential school. Both had dramatic variances there, both struggled with addiction and violence. But because I was raised in Toronto—a lot of the residential school survivors went into the larger cities to be able to work—I had a different kind of a life experience and the things around me were different; the people around me were different. I was raised in Toronto in the 60s and 70s. We had the annual caravan where all of the cultures across the city were represented and celebrated. There were a lot of influences on me and other people in my age group that gave us the possibility of change. We were handed tools that made it different. It's not that we didn't suffer, because we did. I dropped out of school at 16, I had to go to work and there were different ways and things that occurred in my life, but I had a better chance than in a community where residential school survivors are coming back into remote communities where there's no social services or movie theatres or external sort of distractions.
Annie Leblond: You mentioned suicide. What is it that we don't understand about this crisis?
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: One of the things that we don't understand, or actually we just don't feel comfortable addressing in a lot of communities, including the non-Indigenous community, is sexual abuse and how demoralizing and dehumanizing it actually is. It breaks trust, it breaks boundaries, it breaks young minds. We've seen a lot of people going to jail over the last while or being taken to court, especially very famous people, because of the "Me Too" situation. It does exist in Indigenous community now. It's much lower under the radar, but it's happening. The question of sexual abuse is a really serious one.
The research has told me that most people, and this is not Indigenous People, it's anybody, most people do not even disclose sexual abuse until they're over 30 years of age. So you have these young kids having this experience and carrying that and thinking that they're the only one, or that there's something sadly wrong with them, or they caused the problem themselves. It's a very serious conversation: how do we solve this particular piece? How do we get to this and have people have the conversation so that we can help kids be safe? It doesn't matter whether they're in their own homes or whether they're in foster care or adoptive care, they're vulnerable. We know that all the way back to Freud and since. If you look at the statistics and you look at the research, it's a problem that kids seemingly have to deal with by themselves. I didn't have that conversation with my mother until I was over 40. So I know how it works: I was there and I know that a lot of young people are in those places where they don't get an opportunity to be listened to or they're disbelieved.
Look at the residential school experience. They were silenced by the government and by the people in those schools, and their parents, quite often. Thompson Highway, who's very famous and wrote Kiss of the Fur Queen about his experience, said they would never tell their parents about what was going on in the school because their parents were very devout Catholics. They would be punished if they were to ever speak against the people in those schools who were their teachers and their guardians. So that's a common experience for a lot of young people who have gone through residential school experiences out of their parents' experience, is that it was brought back to the communities and it has proliferated because it's a silent scourge.
People are unwilling or reluctant to speak about it in their households and they carry it forward. I know from personal experience. I actually spoke to a counsellor, a psychologist for remote communities who has done that work for now 40 years, I asked her, How many people that you deal with of all ages have had the experience of sexual abuse? and she said 100%. So when you think about suicide and you think about some of the dysfunctions and you think about the intergenerational effect and the intergenerational trauma that we're trying to heal, if it keeps happening and it keeps getting handed down and it stays in the dark, how are we ever going to stop it?
Annie Leblond: I'm thinking about the religious discourse, where what's happening to you is your own damn fault. You must have done something for God to be mad at you and punish you. It still lingers.
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: People across the country quite often say to me, because I do a lot of public education, What's wrong with these people? Why can't they just get on with it? Or why can't they just forget that these things happened and move forward? Well, I think they would very much like to do that. But like any person that's gone and sought out therapeutic help, they need that additional support until they get to that place.
The very bad habits that have been developed in the population because of things like the residential schools, sexual violence, domestic violence, the language loss, those things have to be discussed by the entire country and supported—and, many times, financially. It's a big conversation and it's a big question that needs to be answered.
Annie Leblond: I was wondering if you had some words of wisdom or suggestions in terms of public policies or services.
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: A lot of the conversation really revolves around money. But it doesn't necessarily have to be that. There is the restoration of jurisdiction and authority to Indigenous People so they have the ability to make decisions for themselves. The whole question of how child welfare is administered is a really important question because social workers feel they have the right to step into communities and take children without really what we would call "just cause." There is a powerlessness in those communities that needs to be addressed. Sometimes it's about recognition of those rights, as opposed to funding them. Sometimes it's just about saying, "We recognize." The Supreme Court of Canada has done a good job of saying, "Yes, we recognize this is important."
The restoration of lands, the sharing of resources out of the land-based resources that Canada survives on (that's how Canada generates a lot of its wealth) and giving a share of those resources to Indigenous communities that actually live on those lands where those resources are being taken, will make a difference.
Just look across the country, in places where Indigenous communities have had access to wealth, they have been able to build more wealth. It's like that old quotation, "It takes money to make money." In places where that's happened, communities have become very self sufficient, and have created economy, employment, health, and mental wellness in their communities. It's clear that it can be done. The question is, how committed are we as a country to making that happen?
We were talking the other day about young kids coming into Canada from other countries that are experiencing trauma, there's a war or there's a lot of things going on in the country. We know if we don't address the needs of those children that we will be having the same kinds of conversations about their lives 10, 15, 20 years from now, because we have to resolve what has gone wrong so that we can set people on a path towards what's right and good for them.
Annie Leblond: By welcoming all of these kids from other countries, we inherit some of their trauma. We need to deal with that.
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: You can see the impact just by looking around you. You can see the impact on the Indigenous community and on the Black community. There's a lot of kids in care, who are coming out and joining gangs and getting themselves thrown back into jail because they don't have the skills, social or otherwise, to live in the world. And because we have a punitive system of justice, we don't do restorative justice like they did in Indigenous communities around the world. We have kids who go to jail for sometimes minor infractions, maybe they breach their rules of conduct; they go back in and then they come out and they are marked for life. Those kids don't feel good about themselves; they're marked, so a lot of people won't hire them into jobs because they feel they're not trustworthy. We have a whole population then that resorts to other ways of making money that are dangerous and actually bring other people into bad places because they get addicted to the drugs that they may be selling. We're not thinking, I don't see, about how we might do a better job.
When we started the Canadian Roots Exchange in 2008, the goal was to have half and half—half Indigenous, half non-Indigenous kids—come together, go out on the land, talk to Elders and talk to people with wisdom about life, and give them the privilege of seeing what it is like to live differently. A lot of those kids have gone on to do some amazing stuff. Give them the opportunity. That's what Call to Action 66 said: that Canada should support, financially and otherwise, the youth organizations across the country so that kids have a way of helping each other to resolve the hurt that they've experienced so that they can move forward in a good way.
Annie Leblond: I've talked to the director of one of the friendship centres here in Quebec and she was saying how important it is to have a culturally safe environment for Indigenous individuals to come in and start healing.
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: But they don't get the resources that they actually require. I think that's part of the problem. There have been some very good programs that have been established to help not only young people, but adults, deal with some of the intergenerational trauma that they've experienced or the contemporary trauma that they're presently experiencing. They don't get funded; they are like a pilot and they run for a year or so and then nobody wants to fund it again, or the government changes in the province or in the federal [levels] and then that program is no longer seen as necessary or viable. That's got to change.
It's one of the things that is probably the most important thing we can do: when programs are working and they're doing a great job, we somehow need to lock in the funding for them for a significant amount of time, whether it's five or ten years. They need to be supported because they're doing the work that needs to get done that not everybody can do. So when you talk about resources, that's one of the areas I think that we have to talk about: how do you get the dollars that get allocated from the federal and provincial governments to the ground?
Annie Leblond: Working on this topic for 25, 30 years, is there a better understanding now of what intergenerational trauma is compared to 25, 30 years ago?
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: I think there's a better public understanding of it. If you're Christian, you were raised in a Christian faith, you've heard of the sins of the father and the understanding that things get passed on in populations and families. There is that idea that whatever happened back then is going to reoccur if we don't actually deal with it. I think people understood at some level that there was this thing called intergenerational trauma or blood memory or whatever you wanted to call it. But now I think the public has uptaken the idea of addressing trauma in a very big way. Now, wherever I go, I hear conversations about being "trauma informed" and, of course, that whole question around epigenetics coming forward; how things get stimulated in a child's brain from childhood on, whether it's fear or whether it's actually support and education or stimulation to learning. There are lots of conversations that are going on now.
There's [also] sort of the rejoining of the head to the body, because there was a separation at one point. We dealt with the head, and what was going on there intellectually and mentally, and then the body was a whole other kind of conversation that was dealt with by another kind of a doctor. Now everything is actually associated to everything else. If you have a mental health issue, it affects how your stomach works, your digestion and it affects the inflammation in your system and it affects a whole lot of things. People are finally coming around to the idea that the question of holism, and taking a holistic approach to health, is important. That's something that Indigenous Peoples have known all along and certainly a lot of traditional cultures, whether it's Chinese or Japanese or a lot of the other older places for people who have practised holistic medicine, they know that you have to treat the whole body.
Annie Leblond: What do you want to leave us with in terms of last comments about intergenerational trauma?
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: It doesn't matter what colour you are. Quite often just sort of in a teasing way, I'll say to people, 97% of the population has experienced some form of trauma, and the other 3% are lying. Because truly, most people have had some kind of experience with trauma in their contemporary lives. And their parents, depending on where they've come from, whether they're Indigenous from a remote community or they've come from Syria or they've come from Iran or they've come from another place, have experienced something there as well. Maybe it's the parent that did it or the grandparent, but it's still affecting the family unit.
When we have the conversation with each other about intergenerational trauma and the effects it has on our lives, I would like people to learn, relearn, I guess, how to be compassionate. Rather than judging and thinking that that person is either lying or it didn't happen, just listen with compassion and empathy and help that person feel supported and believed. Because we can't stop things if we're not willing to talk about it, if we're not willing to bring it out of the darkness and into the light. I think that the most important thing that we can do is learn to stand together and help each other stop the things that are happening in our communities, in our neighbourhoods and in our kids' lives. Help each other to resolve the hurts that have already happened, so that we can move on into a better life for ourselves.
Annie Leblond: More compassion. I think we can all use that, overall. Thank you.
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux: Thank you.
Annie Leblond: This podcast is a production of the Canada School of Public Service. To learn more about the School's offerings in its Indigenous Learning Series, please visit our website at csps-efpc.gc.ca. This is Annie Leblond and on behalf of the School, thank you for listening.