How residential school trauma of previous generations continues to tear through Indigenous families

The last of the residential schools in Canada closed in 1997, but the abuse students endured within them has lasting physical and mental effects for generations.

Trauma can have physical and mental effects for six generations, Indigenous health experts say

This class photo taken at the Sacred Heart residential school in Alberta is displayed on the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation's website. It's the same school that Adam North Peigan's mother was forced to attend, although the photo was taken in the early 1900s, long before she was there. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Catherine Crow Eagle was a young girl in the mid 1930s when she was forced to enter the Sacred Heart Residential School in Alberta. The physical and mental trauma she experienced never disappeared. Years later, as a mother of 10, Crow Eagle saw all her children be forcibly removed by child care authorities and placed in foster care. 

Her youngest, Adam North Peigan, was just one at the time. He didn't see his family again until he was an adult. That loneliness created a new cycle of despair which included suicide attempts, drug abuse and alcoholism.

Those days are behind North Peigan now. Looking back on his family's history, he sees the ongoing effect of what's called intergenerational trauma. The last of the residential schools in Canada closed in 1997, but the abuse students endured within them has lasting physical and mental effects for generations.

For North Peigan, the recent revelation from a First Nation in B.C. that preliminary findings of ground-penetrating radar indicated the remains of around 215 children on the site of a former residential school brought emotions flooding back.

"Personally I've been really really struggling and I've been having a really difficult time, over the last couple of days, trying to come to terms with that," said North Peigan, 57, a member of Piikani Nation in southern Alberta. 

WATCH | How trauma can play out through generations:

Cycle of trauma from residential schools lasts for generations

2 years ago
Duration 2:32
Featured VideoThe trauma experienced by residential school survivors didn’t only impact the mental and physical health of one generation, it was passed on to their children, grandchildren and future generations.

North Peigan, who now lives in Edmonton, was one of thousands of Indigenous children taken from their parents in the 1960s and 70s and placed in foster care during what's referred to as the Sixties Scoop.

His brothers and sisters were moved around foster homes and institutions, losing contact with their family and heritage. And the cycle continued. 

"That anger and that resentment that I beared towards my parents, it really, really was very destructive and it led me down a road of heavy, heavy, heavy drinking and I ended up on the streets in Vancouver," North Peigan said. 

Adam North Peigan, pictured, experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma as he grew up. (Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta)

Intergenerational trauma was first detected in the children of Holocaust survivors. Researchers have also noted its effects after Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide.

Amy Bombay, an Ojibway researcher who is an assistant professor in the schools of nursing and psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, has looked at the various ways the residential school trauma has trickled down through generations. One of her studies found that children with a parent who endured residential school had an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts as teenagers.

"We know that stress and trauma are bad at any time during your life, but it's particularly going to have long-lasting effects when it's happening early in life when all of your systems are still developing," she said.

The biological effects of trauma

A person's body manages stress by releasing cortisol, which in turn leads to the release of blood sugar. Childhood abuse can disrupt that stress response for life, leading to consistently high levels of cortisol, according to Bombay. 

Hypertension, diabetes, chronic pain, and heart disease can result. Chronic stress can also increase the risk of depression and mental illness, while also lowering a person's resilience and immune function.

Without traditional family support, such as love and stability, the trauma lives on, Bombay said.

"That doesn't give these families any time to draw on some of the protective factors that might otherwise protect them," she said.

Amy Bombay, an Ojibway researcher and assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, has conducted studies on the effects of intergenerational trauma among Indigenous people. (Supplied by Amy Bombay)

How that trauma plays out in a person's life can take many forms, according to Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia.

"Your ability to parent, and your ability to cope in employment, in relationships, and all of those things are also affected by that," she said from the Tsawout First Nation near Victoria.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, the acting chief medical officer for the B.C. First Nations Health Authority, said trauma can affect a person's life in many ways, such as the ability to parent and cope with work. (B.C. First Nations Health Authority)

A horrific discovery, such as the one announced in Kamloops last week, reignites the trauma, McDonald said. 

"It's like ripping a Band-Aid off an old wound. It just becomes a new experience all over again."

'It takes 5 or 6 generations for an original trauma to be healed'

For Suzanne Stewart, a professor of public health at University of Toronto, the subject is both personal and professional. Stewart, who's a member of the Yellowknife Dene First Nation, is director of the university's Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health. Like North Peigan, her parents suffered the trauma of residential schools. She was taken from them and raised by other people in and out of foster care — which had an enormous impact when she became a mother herself. 

"My kids have to deal with this sort of, sometimes crazy, sometimes unstable mom, because I didn't have parents because they went to residential school," she said. 

To this day, according to Stewart, the smell of bleach triggers bad memories for many survivors, who were forced to use it to clean the schools. She didn't like to attend any of her four children's parent-teacher conferences in non-Indigenous schools herself because that also evoked negative feelings. The cycle will take a long time to break, she said.

"It takes about five or six generations for an original trauma to be healed within a family or a group of people if it is not mediated by current ongoing traumas."

Journey toward healing

For North Peigan, the journey toward healing began when he reconnected with his mother as an adult. She started to share the stories of abuse that she suffered in residential school. He spent the last years of her life beginning to understand the profound impact it had on her — and on him.

Adam North Peigan's mother Catherine Crow Eagle, right, is pictured with her sister Louise English. North Peigan believes the photo was taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s. (Supplied by Adam North Peigan)

"Once she was able to share with me her experiences and her trauma that she came home with, you know, coming out of residential school, I was able to actually work through that anger and that resentment that I had towards her," he said.

North Peigan wants his story and those of others to help future generations. Today, he is the national president of the Legacy of Hope Foundation, an organization that raises awareness and understanding about the residential school system. 

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said last week that preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School indicated that the remains of around 215 children were on site. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press)

The revelations in Kamloops have awakened the emotions of Canadians across the country. North Peigan hopes the dialogue and action happening now doesn't end. 

"We are good people," he said. 

"We're just not people out there who experience social problems and addiction problems. There are reasons why that's going on."

North Peigan reconnected with his mother as an adult and learned about the abuse she endured at residential school. (Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta)

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Marcy Cuttler is an award-winning journalist and producer with 35 years of experience at CBC.

With files from Christine Birak

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now