Historic Trauma
The Legacy of Colonization and Residential Schools

Historical trauma has been defined as “The cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma” (Yellow Horse Brave Heart, 2003).

The experience of many Aboriginal people in Canada due to colonization and forced attendance at residential schools encompasses all types of develop mental trauma.

Residential School:

  • The last federally run residential school closed in 1996.
  • There are 80,000 people alive today who attended residential schools (First Nations and Inuit Health, 2013).
  • The average age of claimants for compensation is 57 years old (Assembly of First Nations).

The term “Aboriginal” includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis, regardless of where they live in Canada, and regardless of whether they are “registered” under the Indian Act of Canada.

Given the high population of Aboriginal people living in Manitoba, it is crucial that service providers have an understanding of the profound effects colonization has had on Aboriginal people. Colonization itself is a collectively experienced trauma. There are important historical factors that surround the experience of being Aboriginal in Canada.

Many thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their families and enrolled in the residential school system during  its existence. While the majority of these children were status Indians, attendance also included many Inuit, Métis and non-status Indians.


The impacts of the residential school experience are intergenerational – passed on from generation to generation. Parents who were forced to send their children to the schools had to deal with the devastating effects of separation, as well as the total lack of input in the care and welfare of their children. Many of the children suffered abuse atrocities from the staff that were compounded by a curriculum that stripped them of their native languages and culture. This caused additional feelings of alienation, shame and anger that were passed down to their children and grandchildren.

The effects of trauma tend to ripple outward from those affected by trauma to those who surround them. Among residential school survivors, the consequences of emotional, physical and sexual abuse continue to be felt in each subsequent generation. Deep, traumatic wounds exist in the lives of many Aboriginal people who were taught to be ashamed just because they were Aboriginal.

What has also been a significant factor in the healing process of this trauma is that because of colonization, the Elders and Healers of the communities who would have played a vital role in the healing process were not replaced or were undermined by the missionaries. So, those who experienced the trauma of the residential schools were essentially denied access to resources that would have provided them with significant assistance. “Each generation of returning children had fewer and fewer resources upon which to draw” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2012).

A significant factor to consider is how the attachment relationship between the children, their parents, their natural community and their cultural supports was violated. The experience of being taken away from their caregivers would have been traumatic and significantly impacted the children’s development. Attachment to a responsive, nurturing, consistent caregiver is essential for healthy growth and development. Many children of the residential school system did not have this experience after they were taken from their families, and subsequently they struggle today because of the trauma of being taken away from attachment figures.

The impact of these disrupted attachments is felt at individual, family, and community and culture levels:


  • Isolation/alienation
  • Shame
  • Anger toward school and parents
  • Self-hatred
  • Internalized racism
  • Fear of authority
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviours (substance abuse, gambling, alcoholism, suicidal behaviours)
  • Acting aggressively


  • Unresolved grief
  • Difficulty with parenting effectively
  • Family violence
  • Loss of stories
  • Loss of traditions
  • Loss of identity

Community and Culture:

  • Loss of connectedness with languages, traditions and cultural history
  • Loss of togetherness and collective support
  • Loss of support from Elders
  • Lack of control over land and resources
  • Increased suicide rate
  • Lack of communal raising of children
  • Lack of initiative
  • Dependency on others
  • Communal violence

Because the impacts of residential schools are intergenerational, many Aboriginal people were born into families and communities that had been struggling with the effects of trauma for many years. The impact of intergenerational trauma is reinforced by racist attitudes that continue to permeate Canadian society.

There are a large number of First Nations and Inuit communities and individuals who have the capacity to cope effectively with crisis and to minimize the negative effects of trauma. These are the communities and people that we must learn from when attempting to understand trauma in indigenous communities. Without doing so we create the impression that the capacity to cope with trauma does not exist within indigenous communities and we fail to learn what we so desperately need to know...

(Connors, 2013)


We know the building of relationships is important for healing trauma. As service providers, our focus and responsibility is to develop genuine and authentic relationships with those who have experienced trauma.

This includes safety, compassion, respect, kindness, hopefulness and trust. And that trust must be earned. As the Truth and Reconciliation report identifies, “reconciliation implies relationship. The residential schools badly damaged relationships within Aboriginal families and communities, between Aboriginal peoples and churches, between Aboriginal peoples and the government, and between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples within Canadian society” (They Came for the Children, 2012).

As service providers, we need to be aware of the impact of the residential school system on the clients we work with, and to consider how it has played a role in the current difficulties and challenges with which they may be struggling. Indeed, non-Aboriginal service providers working with Aboriginal clients who have experienced trauma are responsible for educating themselves and being open to considering and hearing how the residential school system has been an impact.

By understanding intergenerational trauma, service providers can enhance their capacity to be compassionate and collaborative, view behaviour within a larger context, challenge belief systems and attitudes that can have adverse effects in terms of establishing positive and healthy relationships, and to create safer helping environments.

Despite the legacy of residential schools, there are many reasons to be hopeful. For some Aboriginal people, the experience of residential schools has strengthened their identity and caused communities to come together. Healing initiatives have been implemented that address aspects of the residential school legacy. Resilience is evident in the steps Aboriginal people have taken to counteract negative outcomes. Many former students have found support in Elders and healing circles. They have also opted to share memories and stories with other former students, pursue further education, relearn Aboriginal languages, and follow spiritual paths to reinforce Aboriginal identity (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2003).

The cycle of trauma is being broken as the stories of trauma are being told and as the many strengths of Aboriginal cultures are being used to heal.

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