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Inclusion Communiqué: Intergenerational Trauma

Inclusion Communiqué is a series of posts providing context to diversity and inclusion focused terminology. Content is drawn from academics and professionals in the field, with an emphasis on contextualizing terms and the narratives that surround them, rather than solely providing a limited definition. Inclusion Communiqué is meant to generate conversations on topics in the area of intercultural competence, encouraging critical analysis and thoughtful debate on the use of language and social constructs that guide our everyday lives.

The concept of intergenerational trauma is a concept that has risen to the surface of sociopolitical discourse, defined as a “legacy of numerous traumatic events a community experiences over generations and encompasses the psychological and social responses to such events” (Evans-Campbell, 2008). 

Recently in Canada, intergenerational trauma has become a critical point of action for reconciliation, particularly as a consequence of the residential schooling system. Evidence of intergenerational trauma can also be found in other communities, for example, within post-war regions (Ramo-Fernandez et al., 2015), within survivors of the Holocaust and their lineage (Yehuda and Bierer, 2009), as well as descendants of the slave trade (Mulligan, 2016).

Understanding intergenerational trauma reveals yet another layer of multiple interconnected factors that impact how we live, respond, and behave within the world.   It leaves an imprint upon our mental, emotional, and psychological health, which is often manifested in our physical health.  In fact, there is growing evidence suggesting a connection between traumatic stress and “transmission of genomic information”, through epigenetic changes.  Epigenetics implies “changes in gene function that are …heritable and that do not entail a change in DNA sequence” (Dupras et al., 2018; Wu and Morris, 2001).  In other words, the impact of traumatic events are not only experienced in the moment, but are relived and have lasting implications. The ramifications of these events impact those individuals directly involved, as well as those they associate with, and generations thereafter.  These events can shape how we develop, the choices we make, and the choices that those around us make, through intergenerational and vicarious trauma.  It further indicates the need for support not just for individuals directly involved with trauma, but again, for those as well, that they are surrounded by. 

In a Canadian context, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a larger and a more public platform that Indigenous communities and their allies have previously discussed; that the prevalence of intergenerational trauma within Indigenous communities is overrepresented.  According to Jeffrey J. Schiffer (2016) reconciling this trauma must have approaches that are embedded in:

·         intergenerational [Indigenous] knowledge systems, worldview and culture of the individual, family or community being served

·         are framed within an awareness of and engagement with colonial history

·         are strength-based and holistic rather than punitive and isolated, and

·         result in measurable positive change for the individual, family or community being served

In his talk, Achieving Lagom through Reconciliation, TEDxBowValleyCollege speaker Tim Fox addresses the need to resolve economic and social issues that maintain causes of intergenerational trauma within Indigenous Communities in Canada, and how as a nation and an inclusive society, we can begin to reconcile this historic trauma together.   Images from his presentation addressing intergenerational trauma for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for IC Week 2018, can be found in the IC’s Photo Gallery


Dupras, C., Song, L., Saulnier, K. M., & Joly, Y. (2018). Epigenetic Discrimination: Emerging Applications of Epigenetics Pointing to the Limitations of Policies Against Genetic Discrimination. Frontiers in Genetics,9. doi:10.3389/fgene.2018.00202

Evans-Campbell, T. (2008). Historical trauma in American Indian/Native Alaska communities: A multilevel framework for exploring impacts on individuals, families, and communities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23(3), 316-338

Mulligan, C. J. (2016). Early Environments, Stress, and the Epigenetics of Human Health. Annual Review of Anthropology,45(1), 233-249. doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-102215-095954

Ramo-Fernández, L., Schneider, A., Wilker, S., & Kolassa, I. (2015). Epigenetic Alterations Associated with War Trauma and Childhood Maltreatment. Behavioral Sciences & the Law,33(5), 701-721. doi:10.1002/bsl.2200

Youssef, N., Lockwood, L., Su, S., Hao, G., & Rutten, B. (2018). The Effects of Trauma, with or without PTSD, on the Transgenerational DNA Methylation Alterations in Human Offsprings. Brain Sciences,8(5), 83. doi:10.3390/brainsci8050083