Intergenerational Impact of Residential School Attendance: Implication for Mental and Emotional Well-Being of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

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Residential School System in Canada

First Nations Students at Gordon’s Indian Residential School located at Saskatchewan, Canada, in January 1954. Accessed from the Grace Reed Fonds.

The residential school system in Canada, which ran from 1863 to 1996, was established for the purpose of assimilating Indigenous children into the dominant Canadian culture. Under this policy, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were removed from their homeland and forced to attend boarding schools administered by the federal government and churches.[1] Upon attendance, children underwent the process of cultural eradication, in which they were forced to unlearn their native languages, cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs, and replace them with English language and Christian values. Moreover, children were exposed to significant maltreatments including physical, psychological and sexual abuse, undernutrition, and poor living conditions, which led to various negative health outcomes among attendees. [2]Today, the lasting impacts of residential school policy continues to negatively affect the well-being of the contemporary Indigenous populations through its intergenerational effect.[3]

Sociocultural Perspective: Transmission of Trauma Through Negative Parenting Behaviors

Lack of Appropriate Role Model for Parenting

While many theories exist on the mechanism of the intergenerational effect of residential school trauma, the sociocultural perspective views negative parenting behaviors as a major factor that contributes to the transmission of psychological disturbances among the children of residential school survivors.[4] The practice of separating children from their parents under the assimilation policy is found to be largely responsible for the development of inappropriate parenting behaviors among survivors.[5] In fact, three generations of ripping apart Indigenous families have severely undermined the role of kinship networks, interrupting with the process of “passing down” the appropriate parenting knowledge and behavior. [4]Moreover, as the sociocultural model suggests, children learn from their immediate environment and from the people who directly contribute to their development. Residential school survivors, whose immediate childhood environment had been shaped by abuse and neglect instead of warm parental care, often fail to deliver adequate parenting to their own children. Due to the lack of an appropriate role model for good parenting, it has been suggested that many survivors returned home with inappropriate behavior patterns modeled after the abusive and neglectful care-giving behaviors witnessed at residential schools. The negative parenting behaviors of survivors are then replicated by the next generations, and the vicious cycle of trauma renews, as “children learn parenting skills by the way they are parented.”[6]As Maggie Hodgson notes:

“If you subject one generation to that kind of parenting and they become adults and have children; those children become subjected to that treatment and then you subject a third generation to a residential school system the same as the first two generations. You have a whole society affected by isolation, loneliness, sadness, anger, hopelessness and pain.”[7]

Intergenerational Consequences

Replication of Childhood Adversity

In fact, children of residential school survivors were more likely to experience history of abuse in their own childhoods, due the neglectful care provided from their parents. In particular, exposure to severe physical punishment has been reported as a one of the commonly experienced childhood maltreatments among the children of survivors.[3] Such dysfunctional parenting behavior is assumed to be introduced as a result of the residential school trauma, considering the fact that physical discipline was not common among Indigenous tribes before the residential school era.[8]

Increased Reactivity to Stressors in Adulthood

Exposure to childhood adversity may in turn serve as “stress proliferators” in adulthood, increasing the likelihood of perceiving or experiencing more stressful events as adults, as they become highly reactive to stressors. [9]Perception or experience of discrimination is one of the major stressors commonly encountered by Indigenous adults today, which are likely to produce adverse psychological outcomes when persistent.[10] Although Indigenous peoples in general are found to experience greater accounts of discrimination compared to non-Indigenous population, the stressor appears to have greater impact among the children of residential school survivors.[3] As researchers suggest, one reason for this phenomenon is that adults who experienced childhood adversity are more likely to develop elevated levels of neuroticism, hostility, suspiciousness and mistrust, which in turn, elicit more negative and unsupportive social reactions from others.[11] Such negative reactions may then be perceived as “discriminatory,” generating more stress among children of survivors, which then results in greater psychological disturbances.[3]

Negative Mental Health Outcomes

In general, Indigenous adults with familial history of residential school attendance were more likely to report lower self-perceived mental health and a higher risk of depression and suicidal behaviors.[12] For instance, data from First Nations Regional Health Survey (2002-2003) revealed that 37.2% of adults who had at least one parent who attended residential school thought about committing suicide in their lifetime, compared to 25.7% of those whose parents did not attend. Moreover, 20.4% of adults who had at least one grandparent who attended residential school had attempted suicide, compared to 13.1% of those whose grandparents did not attend.[13]

Vicious Cycle of Transmission of Residential School Trauma

Accumulation of Risk Across Generations

In addition to the transgenerational effect of residential school trauma, recent research suggests that familial residential school attendance across several generations appears to have cumulative effects. [13]In one study, differences in levels of psychological distress were measured among three different groups: First Nations adults whose parents and grandparents attended residential school, those whose parents or grandparents attended, and finally, those whose parents nor grandparents attended. The results revealed that, the more generations that attended residential school, the poorer the psychological well-being of the next generation. Specifically, First Nations adults with two previous generations who attended residential school displayed significantly higher risk for suicide ideation and attempts compared to those who only had one generation of attendance, both of which exceeded the risk among those with no familial history of residential school attendance.[14] Although more research would be necessary to find out stronger evidence, these findings provide preliminary support for the potential cumulative nature of the residential school trauma across generations.


The intergenerational exposure to residential school attendance continues to undermine the well-being of today’s Indigenous population, signaling the need for a widespread recognition and understanding of the impacts of past collective trauma on the current health status of Indigenous communities, as well as the present-day health disparities. [12]In order to develop a culturally sensitive means for the Indigenous health service delivery, it is important for practitioners to be aware of their unique history of trauma and view patients’ health status as not only limited to the immediately observable factors, but rather, as a result of stressors that have been accumulated over generations.[13]By developing a holistic, person-centered and culturally appropriate understanding of mental health issues among Indigenous peoples, the vicious cycle of the intergenerational transmission of residential school trauma may eventually come to an end.


  1. Wilk, Piotr, et al. “Residential Schools and the Effects on Indigenous Health and Well-Being in Canada—A Scoping Review.” Public Health Reviews, vol. 38, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-23.
  2. Corntassel, Jeff, and Cindy Holder. “Who’s Sorry Now? Government Apologies, Truth Commissions, and Indigenous Self-Determination in Australia, Canada, Guatemala, and Peru.” Human Rights Review, vol. 9, no. 4, 2008, pp. 465-489.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Bombay, Amy, et al. "The Impact of Stressors on Second Generation Indian Residential School Survivors." Transcultural Psychiatry, vol. 48, no. 4, 2011, pp. 367-391.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Lafrance, Jean, and Don Collins. “Residential Schools and Aboriginal Parenting: Voices of Parents.” Native Social Work Journal, vol. 4, 2003, pp. 104-125.
  5. McKenzie, Brad, and Pete Hudson. "Native Children, Child Welfare, and the Colonization of Native People." The Challenge of Child Welfare, edited by K.L. Levitt and B. Wharf, University of British Columbia Press, 1985, pp. 125-141.
  6. Haig Brown, Celia. Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School. Arsenal Pulp Press, 1988.
  7. Hodgson, Maggie. Impact of Residential Schools and Other Root Causes of Poor Mental Health (Suicide, Family Violence, Alcohol & Drug Abuse). Nechi Institute on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, 1991.
  8. Horejsi, Charles, et al. “Reactions by Native American Parents to Child Protection Agencies: Cultural and Community Factors.” Child Welfare, vol. 4, 1992, pp. 329-342.
  9. Horwitz, Allan V., et al. “The Impact of Childhood Abuse and Neglect on Adult Mental Health: A Prospective Study.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 184-201.
  10. Williams, David R., et al. “Racial/Ethnic Discrimination and Health: Findings from Community Studies.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 93, no. 2, pp. 200-208.
  11. Bratkiewicz, A., and M. Lis-Turlejska. “Depression After Trauma: Comparison of the Course of Depression Between Patients with Different Exposure to Traumatic Events.” Psychological Studies, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 23-35.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Hackett, Christina, et al. “Canada’s Residential School System: Measuring the Intergenerational Impact of Familial Attendance on Health and Mental Health Outcomes.” J Epidemiol Community Health, vol. 70, no. 11, 2016, pp. 1096-1105.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Bombay, Amy, et al. “The Intergenerational Effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the Concept of Historical Trauma.” Transcultural Psychiatry, vol. 51, no. 3, 2014, pp. 320-338.
  14. McQuaid, Robyn Jane, et al. “Suicide Ideation and Attempts among First Nations Peoples Living On-Reserve in Canada: The Intergenerational and Cumulative Effects of Indian Residential Schools.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 62, no. 6, 2017, pp. 422-430.