There are various ways in which victims of abuse unintentionally pass on their injuries to future generations. One example that the survivors of the residential schools often bring up is that when they were sent away from their families, they lost touch with their parents and thus had no family model to guide them when it later came to raising children of their own.
Yet another example of the long-term ripple effect of the residential schools has to do with how hurtful ways of treating people are passed from one generation to another.
Rupert Ross served as a criminal prosecutor for many years, working primarily in remote indigenous communities in northwestern Ontario. He has also studied indigenous ideas of justice and has written quite extensively on this and related topics. In the excerpt below, Ross shares insights about the positive effects the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can have by addressing the cycle by which trauma and violence can be passed from one generation to another.
I worry that all of the truth and reconciliation opportunities brought to their grandparents, all of the financial settlements and apologies from churches and governments, will do virtually nothing to help those damaged children. What they need is truth, reconciliation, and healing with—and between—their traumatized parents, and nothing less will do. . . .
[A] Cree grandmother interpreted it this way: People who do violence to others somehow grew up learning that relationships were things built on values like fear, anger, power, jealousy, secrecy, greed, and the like. To counter that, it was necessary to begin teaching them how to establish relationships based on the opposite values like trust, openness, generosity, respect, sharing, caring, and love. . . . In her view, we need to give those people the experience of good relations, not an even deeper experience of bad ones. For the first time, I began to see how people who were abused as children could grow up to be abusers of children: they stayed in exactly the same kinds of relationships they learned as children, only the roles reversed when, as adults, the power came to them. I have also learned that most of them vividly recall the pain they felt as kids, so they know the pain they themselves are causing. Unfortunately, they have never been given ways out of those relationships, and their self-hatred grows.
Perhaps this is another worthwhile challenge for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: fostering the creation of processes where traumatized families can escape the violent relational patterns they absorbed as children and start living within healthy relationships instead, before their children are irrevocably damaged. 1
- What is intergenerational or multigenerational trauma? How can one generation pass its trauma to another?
- How, according to Rupert Ross, does the pain and abuse of parents manifest itself in the feelings and actions of their children?
- Can the Truth and Reconciliation Commission help in stopping the transmission of past trauma, pain, and abuse from one generation to another? How?
- 1Rupert Ross, “Telling Truths and Seeking Reconciliation: Exploring the Challenges,” in Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential Schools, available at the Speaking My Truth website. Reproduced by permission of Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
How to Cite This Reading
Facing History & Ourselves, "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Future," last updated September 20, 2019.