Intergenerational Trauma To Intergenerational Transmission

By Shirley Gillis-Kendall

This analysis was produced at the request of IFSD to support ongoing research in First Nations child and family services. IFSD's work is undertaken through a contract with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The views and analysis of the independent authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the AFN or IFSD.

In this reflective piece, FNCFS agency director, Shirley Gillis-Kendall shares her journey and her work in child and family services, and what it means to create change.  For an FNCFS service provider, Shirley reminds readers of the importance of recognizing the different starting points of First Nations (and their histories), engaging community and staff when planning for change, and gathering your own data (especially, on narrative and experience) to continue on the path of a Good Mind.

For things to Change- First I Must Change…this has to be the constant in our lives…it is the relative that will always come knocking until we are willing to answer.  How do we rise to stand on the shoulders of our Ancestors for their legacy is more powerful and knowing than the layers of colonization, the legacy of residential school, sixties scoop, Indian Day School and the ubiquitous child welfare system?


We are in the age of information and conciliatory discourse.  An Agency has a lot of moving parts and voices that deserve a right to be heard…from the Indigenous World View this is respectfully imperative.  The balance for the right to be heard and have a voice is the responsibility for best practice within all aspects of our role.

It is nigh to impossible to compartmentalize the position of Executive Director of an Indigenous Child Welfare Agency from all parts of my very being that is complex and beautifully- belongingly, unassuming. With age all those parts form the essence of my life journey.  All the life experiences have placed me exactly where I am meant to be – to work alongside the original People of this country – my People through this massive, controlling mechanism that is the changing landscape of child welfare.

To be honest and lead with the Grandparent of ‘Truth,’ being scooped away from my family for the last time at the age of ten – saved my life, all parts of my physical body.  The rest of my being became dormant until I matured in age to commence a process of healing. We are all given gifts on this life journey – do we acknowledge the gifts, do we use the gifts, do we abuse the gifts? 

My physical life was saved through separation from my family-and in tandem the deep feeling of ‘unbelonging’ began to take hold of my spirit as a youth.  Looking for love and allowing my life partner to come into my life was a gift received. Still not enough to quell the feeling of pervasive ‘unbelonging’. 

Reunification with my familial circle-mother-cousins-aunties – all a gift that was so very fragile – I did not know them. Who were these people? Unbelonging was still present in my life.  The birth of my beautiful daughter was cathartic -my real family came to be-she opened my eyes and heart to where I stood in life-I no longer had the self-appointed privilege to stand in my ‘victimhood…this was no longer served me – my responsibilities and Big Love for my daughter were greater than the persona of victimhood.  I had to pay attention to my wounds; analyze them through self-directed studies to honour my child, my partner, my family.

The human body is one of the great mysteries of life and Creation.  It is wise and is a library of all life events for an individual.  There is generational connection – intergenerational connection that passes on gifts, knowledge, teachings and everything in between – all the ‘stuff’ that has been identified as intergenerational trauma. 

My physical body as a young adult had the outward presence of being strong and healthy.  The body is the keeper of all the memories-the record keeper and the all-knowing Mind.  My inner body struggled with keeping all the memories stored in the cells right down to the mitochondria. The body/mind in wisdom goes through a process of manifestation-changing the dark memories into physical unwellness.  The body pain was a gift that propelled me to expand my knowledge beyond the medical model and the recommendations from the doctor. Modalities of healing and recovery to reignite the very life force-restart the mitochondria – heal from within to clear and lay a path for my position in the world, in my family, in my community and within all parts of myself-my living Medicine Wheel

My daughter was and always will be my teacher –  she is my woman-child-wise woman – and she opened the doorway for many teachers to come many.  To heal within our own Medicine Wheel – an Elder who has now passed back to Spirit – said ‘Recognition of Being’ is the beginning of our journey.  We knew who we were from the moment that the breath of life was blown into us as we journeyed from the Spirit World into this lifetime-then there were interruptions causing a break in our Medicine Wheel. Healing the breaks is a full-time job and a huge commitment-not for the faint of heart.  The memories – the pain is akin to fascial tissue in the body – holding everything together and not wanting to let go-give an inch and it goes back. Memories have a strong hold within the fascial tissue with resistance to change.  All the modalities for body work are key to strengthening the fascial tissues and giving it permission to give way to all possibilities for Recognition of Being.  Human beings invest massive amounts of time, energy and resources in victimhood- this is who I am -if I change then who will I be -how will I receive attention and understanding.

The First People of our Country are more than victims – they are powerful beyond all measure-how do we as a People bring about change to diminish intergenerational trauma to intergenerational transmission that will ignite the fire within, we do this one person at a time, one family at a time, one community at a time.  We lead by example…and come to the realization that ‘For Things to Change First I Must Change’…this has become the constant in my life and in the lives of so many of our People who are ‘willing’-that is the second part of the Elder’s teaching of ‘Recognition of Being’.  To be willing to take a risk and rise to stand on the shoulders of our Ancestor-they sacrificed so much for us...for me...for my family, for all our families. This is the legacy that I honour through taking a risk through the rebuilding of my mitochondrial Medicine Wheel.

Re-membering and Re-gifting:

Many organizations have commenced a process of decolonization of child welfare. Is this an oxymoron? Can a system so tainted and the epitome of colonization be worthy of the investment and time?   As Indigenous People seeing, feeling and honouring our greatest Gifts – our Children must be the motivation and the inspiration to change...both very Strong Medicines.  Learned behaviours that do not serve the healing continuum of an individual, family and community have taken hold in our communities can be diminished-through the powerful medicine of ‘willingness to change’ .  There exists a ‘Fierce Love’ for our children that is intrinsic within the Indigenous World View.  The understanding of the Indigenous World View and the living application thereof is the methodology to create a life of joy and exercise our inherent right -with rights there is always responsibilities.

For things to Change- First I Must Change…this has to be the constant in our lives…it is the relative that will always come knocking until we are willing to answer.  How do we rise to stand on the shoulders of our Ancestors for their legacy is more powerful and knowing than the layers of colonization, the legacy of residential school, sixties scoop, Indian Day School and the

Different starting points for different First Nations.

Each First Nation has the inherent right and responsibility to ensure the well being of their children that includes the Rights of the Child – their inherent rights to safety in the home, in the community, in their schools…at all times.   Our leaders worked and challenged the Federal government through a very lengthy legal process to bring to fruition ‘An Act Respecting First Nations, Metis, Inuit children youth and families’. Change and Rights are knocking and being heard.

Do political realities and successes align with the socio-economic and intergeneration crises within most communities?   During the years for legal / political governmental negotiations to bring to fruition the Federal Child Welfare Act, our communities came under attack by a great invader that has and continues to ravage individuals and families to this day resulting in more children coming into care.  The invader like an illness holds no bias as to age or gender – a pill to dull a pervasive sense of hopelessness and deepens the trauma…pushing it down into the very cells and being of each person. Child Welfare has a coding system that determines response time and risk levels for children.  ‘Care giver with a problem’ within the coding system has shifted from issues such as family/domestic violence and all the issues that this includes.  In today’s real time ‘caregiver with a problem’, almost 100% of the time now refers to drug abuse and misuse.  Children in homes are exposed to drugs that are lethal – their right to safety within their home is not a reality. Family guilt and shame permeates the very fabric of a community preventing a unified voice and consensus to move forward…Step into their Big Self.  Do not be afraid to let your Light shine.

First Nations with a positive track record of meeting the challenges of change have the strength and the potential to mentor sister Nations – share the knowledge – share the strategies to take back their communities through Seven Generation knowing and thinking. 

The community collective vision to heal intergenerational trauma legacies is the application of the Indigenous World takes a village to rise up…honour our Ancestors… dare to heal and step into our greatness.

Complexity of managing change in an agency with several First Nations with different starting points.

Indigenous agencies with the mandate for child welfare are burdened with a massive bureaucratic bundle with ‘compliance’ as the big brother of day-to-day realities.  Big brother does not align with the Indigenous World View.  The current and changing landscape has the responsibility for an Agency to work within two government structures.  Provincial mandates for Agencies are not set in stone...this depends on the strength, knowledge and will of the persons leading an Agency through the designation process, that takes upwards of five years.

The Federal Child Welfare law arising out of Bill C-92 became a reality January 1, 2020. This was a mammoth accomplishment by our political leaders and unfortunately the architecture for a seamless rollout out was non-existent and led to a deeper mistrust toward the Agencies by many of the communities.  The Agencies systemic mistrust of the bureaucratic system grew exponentially. Political agenda and the complex mechanisms to bring about change within the child welfare systems do not align with each other.  For a First Nation to undertake the development of its own child welfare services needs to have community consensus.  The most progressive communities within new joint consultation protocols have identified that ‘in time the Nation may implement their own child welfare services’.  The service workload for Agency staff has increased…this was inevitable.  To work right now within this changing landscape of child welfare is not for a the faint of heart. 

The Agency with respect to relationships with First Nations within the jurisdictional mandate must respectfully allow each First Nation lead with the development of new joint consultation protocols – then come to the table together and be of Good Mind through a process for the final draft.  At the same time that the Federal Law has become integral to the changing landscape of child welfare – its provincial counterpart (in Ontario) through ‘Redesign; Ready Set Go’ Quality Standards Framework has added to the bureaucratic burden without the financial support to ensure staff are trained for implementation of the new regulations-staff are on tender hooks.  There is a harsh reality that long term alternative caregivers may push back and end their relationship with the Agency.  Caregivers on a First Nation could very well view the new regulations as simply another layer of colonization-talk to the hand.  With the Agency’s responsibility for compliance – should this not be possible to follow new regulations – will this impact the licence of an Agency and what is the future for the children – will their forever home ever be a reality?  This is the provincial world of child welfare that impacts the ability for Agencies and First Nations to work through a strategic devolution process under the Federal Child Welfare Law.

There is an urgency ‘to bring our children home’. The communities for the most part are still in a state of unwellness.  The state of housing infrastructure – do families have room for their child(ren) who have been away for possibly several years?  Grandparents enter into Customary Care Agreement to care for their grandchildren and often find this impossible especially should the child (ren) have special and/or complex needs. Children are brought back into care as the family does not have the capacity to provide care – this is devasting for the family and the community.

Parents who have struggled for years with substance use disorder attend programs for their recovery- all respect.  Recovery has a long timeline.  Understandable that a First Nations goal is to have the children returned to parents.  Does the goal align with the moment in time on the recovery timeline of the parent/caregiver?  Parenting at the best of times is the most rewarding and challenging job-no qualifications necessary.  For families to come together and have a child re-member within the family circle it beautiful and heart wrenching-only speaking from my own experience.  Attachment has been severed and this process requires time, patience and the willingness to stay the course-hold on because this is a process of ‘labouring’ a family member back into the circle.                                                                          

Approaches for supporting change in an organization (FNCFS agency)

Antiquated business and service delivery models within an organization such as a FNCFS make it necessary to research, develop and implement new systems to navigate the bureaucratic bundle, collective agreements, changing landscape of child welfare and especially First Nations inherent rights specific to jurisdiction with their children.  The governance and operational structure will differ from agency to agency.  This beautiful Agency within the context of child welfare service delivery is still in the infant stages…maybe this is a good thing.

To the best of my knowledge, historically our Agency has made decisions with a select few-top-down approach that was perhaps necessary in the early years of the prevention services mandate. Overtime there was a loss of momentum with the underdevelopment of services to meet the growing needs and issues within all the communities. 

For Things to Change First I Must Change-without exemption this applies to everyone within the agency. Jody Wilson-Raybould in her newest book, ‘True Reconciliation-How to Be a Force for Change’ has identified four key areas that align with the Indigenous World View- template for change management- Chi Meegwetch sister Jody.

  • Moment in Time-this is gift-time to reflect-rebuild a culture of wellness in the Agency.  Time to rebuild the collective consciousness…the Good Mind
  • Learn-the communities have spoken through the current process of a new Strategic Plan that is the personification of a Wampum Belt
  • Understand -change takes time. Departmental and agency strategies for change management must intersect within and on a critical path to move to the Right Side of History.
  • Act-Through long vision -embrace all the changes -give credit and acknowledgement to everyone-the small successes are the basis of the big wins and the greater good of being In Service.

We are in the age of information and conciliatory discourse.  An Agency has a lot of moving parts and voices that deserve a right to be heard…from the Indigenous World View this is respectfully imperative.  The balance for the right to be heard and have a voice is the responsibility for best practice within all aspects of our role.

Learning to acknowledge and take responsibility when errors in judgement and service plans transpire -this is a humbling experience that may well in the long term build a more positive relationship with each other and the communities.

When a select few are the decision makers, this can affect staff motivation; retention and productivity.  The perspective of many may shift the dynamic of the work ethic from ‘have to’ and in time ‘want to’.  The Agency that I currently have the privilege of working within has just completed a five – year Strategic Planning process that included many front line staff, supervisors, managers, directors, Board member and representation from the communities within the provincial mandate.  The plan for the next five years is inclusive of working with and alongside the communities through a process of mutual respect -grounded in the Seven Grandparent teachings. Also, respectful collaboration and accountability as we all hold the lives of the children and families in the palm of our hands.

The Agency has developed a management circle who are able to work together as leaders and understand the urgency to communicate with the supervisors and the staff the need to work alongside the First Nations – be on the Right Side of History. The past three years (with the pandemic) have interfered with relationship building. To address this a team was envisioned and formed to hear the concerns of the First Nations, address issues and plan in a good way for the children, youth and families.  Staff have identified that when change happens, and they are not consulted they do not feel connected to the Agency, and this affects their work. 

The Good Mind journey within an Agency is that of bringing the head-logic and reason together with the heart for feelings and desire to do the work in a good way. Change management is necessary for the Agency to move forward to devolve- to evolve into the next twenty years of being ‘in Service’ to the future of the children, youth, families and communities.  An Elder once told me that ‘we don’t praise our People up enough’…wise words and teaching.  A leader does not have all the answers – the collective wisdom and knowledge of the team is one of the greatest assets of an Agency. This is the circle of Change Management…to plan…to vision…to inspire each and every person...each position within our Agency is equally as important as the other…substantive equality.

Approaches and lessons of engaging communities in change

The recent Strategic Planning session in my humble opinion personified lessons of change and engagement on so many levels.  The back story leading up to the Strategic Planning process was the Agency’s experience navigating through difficult waters, with some communities resulting in staff reeling within vicarious trauma.  Staff experienced the brunt of communities laying the weight of a colonial history and system on their shoulders and on their heart. The difficult waters flowed onto scheduled all jurisdictional meetings with the Agency and Band Representatives.  The communities witnessed the non-productive discourse that did not contribute to the work/goals and objectives of the meetings that affected the wellness of each person.  The communities spoke in the most recent meetings and laid out a path for respectful communication to focus on the goal of the meetings.  The Strategic Planning process, in person with the communities and through the working groups spoke to respect working both ways and that everyone had to lead with the Severn Grandfather teachings (I reference Grandparent Teachings to honour my maternal ancestral line).  The People spoke loud and clear...they were the Change and taught the lessons.

It has been a slow lesson with staff that the voice of the communities has to be at the forefront.  Consultation and engagement with the communities needs to be first on their list of best practice – this is the journey to be on the Right Side of History.  To honour this journey the process for the Agency has changed with respect to interface with the communities.  Internal pre-meetings to prepare is not only best practice -it is respectful and integral to change management. The Agency must demonstrate to the communities that their children, youth and families have the right as they are worth the investment of all staffs’ time through a holistic, clinical and cultural assessment to present and discuss plans during the meetings.  This has been a massive C change and lessons learned within the Agency.

Considerations around data and evidence generation for care and control of delivery

The Agency and the communities would benefit from training on the principles of OCAP and the importance of data ownership as a starting point.  At the point of the Agency’s Child Welfare mandate in 2015 a full-time information technology (IT) department was not included in the business model.  It has been identified that one of the great deficits in the north is that of human capital-perhaps this was a barrier to the implementation of a more expansive IT department to work alongside and with the quality assurance (QA) department to track trends/needs.  The virtual and hybrid models that evolved through the pandemic, expanded the business and communication model for working with professionals.

The Agency’s IT and QA department have grown and changed significantly and yet there is still a void to capture the data.  From the indigenous World View collecting the narrative data is the essence of tracking challenges/successes within all aspects of service delivery.  This may very well outweigh the quantitative data. What has become self-evident is that key positions are missing within the IT department to support change management and the long term productive growth of the Agency.  A position(s) is required for an IT professional(s) to have specific service knowledge and analytical skills with respect to each department needs to generate the required data to align with the funding/reporting and contractual agreements. The storing and care of the data is imperative as this has been an internal issue identified through the management circle and QA departments. Lessons learned from virtual meetings with sister Agencies – we cannot do the work without professional expertise and the tools and as such they have engaged specific IT professionals.

Has this been of any value?

I trust that this small part of my life journey’s preparation through intergenerational trauma to intergenerational transmission has prepared me for this moment in time – working within this small, amazing and beautiful Agency has been of a modicum of value. I can only share from my perspective – standing often in the witness and observing the challenges, successes and the great Changes that are unfolding.

Peace, Blessings as my family says..Big Love…                                                                      

Baedahben Nemki Kwe