The Canadian Researcher Who Is Trying To Break The Cycle Of Trauma

After finding out what happened in her own family, Amy Bombay has made it her life’s work to stop the destructive and repetitive pattern of intergeneration trauma.

Historical trauma doesn’t necessarily have a schedule for when it makes itself known. Sometimes it’s remembered. Sometimes you’re informed of it. And sometimes it only becomes apparent when you’re trying to work on a high school project, like it was for Amy Bombay, a hockey-obsessed teen from Ottawa who has since become one of the country’s leading academic researchers on Indigenous mental health.

In the mid-nineties, when Bombay was looking for a subject for an independent study project in her graduating year, her mother suggested she write about her paternal grandmother, who had attended St. Margaret’s Indian Residential School in northwestern Ontario along with her grandpa and her uncle, too. Until this suggestion she hadn’t known about any of this. Curious, she called her.

“It wasn’t an emotional conversation,” says Bombay, “but it was for me once I got off the phone.”

Growing up a 20-hour drive away from Rainy River First Nation, Ont., where her grandma lived, Bombay had only ever seen one side of her: a kind, warm Elvis super fan who loved arts and crafts and only ever had questions about Bombay’s hockey career when she came over to visit. “I could tell that she struggled with certain things like relationships and feeling good,” says Bombay, “but I didn’t really think of it, because she was always so wonderful and sweet with us.”

Her grandma’s upbringing at St. Margaret’s was anything but sweet. Like the rest of Canada’s 150-year-old residential school systems, the institution was designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian settler culture, erasing heritages, disrupting families, and leaving legacies of abuse in the process.

But during that phone call with her grandma, Bombay didn’t talk about any of this, and part of her knew not to. She kept the questions to relatively safe details. What did daily meals look like? What recreational activities were there? What did they learn in school?

So, Bombay started to read whatever she could find—though not much of that material was available in school. No history class lesson had ever mentioned this aspect of Canada’s history. Until this project, her family hadn’t, either. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” she says. “And I couldn’t believe that we’d never talked about it.”

It was the first step in understanding something that had tugged at her for a long time. The feeling she got whenever she noticed her Ojibwe father being treated differently than her Irish mother in public, or whenever teammates would jokingly call her “chief” during practice. The fact that she and her brother were, for years, the only visibly Indigenous kids in class.

Seeing the high numbers of Indigenous people living on the streets in downtown Ottawa in the ’80s and ’90s, built on her unease, as did hearing countless news stories that highlighted poor mental health and suicide statistics among Indigenous communities but never mentioned the root causes.

Two degrees and a doctorate in neuroscience psychology later, Bombay is still interested in identifying those roots, and investigating how they might be stripped of their power. As a professor of psychiatry and nursing at Dalhousie University in Halifax, she specializes in the relationship between surviving the residential school system and the intergenerational health effects of that trauma. Research has shown just how deeply trauma can reverberate through the generations. Now Bombay wants to find out what can stop that destructive and repetitive pattern.

How the past can affect our health

To think of Canada’s residential school system as an unfortunate detail from history is to ignore that its wounds are still fresh and presently felt. The last two residential schools in the country closed in 1996, and it’s only been four years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report on the schools, describing them and their legacy as cultural genocide. There are still figures in Canadian public life who insist they weren’t all that bad—and that the people affected by them simply need to move on. In 2017, Canadian Senator Lynn Beyak made national headlines after insisting that “an abundance of good” came from residential schools.

In truth, the process of “moving on” isn’t even remotely simple, and the research in Bombay’s field bears this out. In the 1980s, Lakota social worker and scholar Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart coined the term “historical trauma,” a description of the cumulative and inheritable damages experienced by an Indigenous population through colonization. The first time Bombay heard the term at a talk Brave Heart gave at Carleton University during her undergrad, a lightbulb went off in her head.

“It explained certain things in my family and community,” she says. “And put it into perspective.” As a grad student at Carleton in 2008, she approached two professors at the school’s department of neuroscience—Hymie Anisman, a behavioural neuroscientist, and Kim Matheson, who specializes in the health of marginalized people—with a proposition. Why not use the two approaches in researching intergenerational trauma among residential school survivors? Why not look at psychosocial and neurological processes at the same time?

At the time Bombay proposed this, researchers had already found common behaviours among communities that have experienced trauma, such as children of Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Studies have also found physical proof that genes are altered by these experiences, too. A 2008 report on pregnant mothers who survived famine in the Second World War found that their children carried a specific mark on a gene related to growth and insulin production, while a Biological Psychiatry study eight years later also found changes to a stress-related gene among Holocaust survivors and their children.

Both approaches have limitations, however. When Dr. Vivian Rakoff coined the term “intergenerational trauma”—to describe how the trauma of survivors is passed on from one generation to the next—after studying the psychological profiles of the children of Holocaust survivors in 1960s and 70s Montreal, the psychiatrist and former head of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry (known today as CAMH) was criticized for pathologizing a generation. On the genetic side of things, most scientific studies on epigenetic effects on stress-related trauma haven’t been conducted on humans, and that the ones that have are comparatively small in sample size.

When it comes to the physical effects of the stress of discrimination, there are some things we know for sure, says Anisman. “Stressors give rise to neurological and hormonal changes that we see in depressive illnesses,” he says. When pressed for too long, these stressors—like, say, the stress of being separated from family, of being made to feel shame for your heritage—have long-term effects. When a stressor such as racial discrimination is experienced day after day, it results in something Anisman calls allostatic overload. “You’re less prepared to deal with stressors, and some brain regions may undergo change for the worse,” he says. “But it’s a big mistake to look at just neurobiological,’ he says. “We need to look as psychosocial processes, too.”

A woman with long brown hair wearing a light pink scarf and dark long-sleeve shirt stands by a window overlooking a roof

This is where, according to Matheson, other questions come into play. How do individuals who have survived a trauma or consistently experience racist discrimination appraise their situation? Is what they’re experiencing even easy to identify? “Is it really discrimination? Is it something wrong with me, or am I inadequate?” she says. The presence or absence of a network to hear out, confirm and believe their fears has an effect, too.

The trio’s first paper, a review of responses to historical trauma (vulnerability to depression or PTSD, effect on coping strategies, access to social support), was published in the Journal of Aboriginal Health in 2009. Bombay has gone on to author and co-author dozens of publications and studies on intergenerational residential school trauma since then. If you happened to follow Cindy Blackstock’s human rights case against the federal government over Canada’s underfunding of child welfare sources on First Nations reserves, or the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, you may be familiar with her work without even knowing it. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling and final MMIWG inquiry report both cite Bombay as an expert witness and her work as foundational material. “When I first started doing this work in grad school I really questioned whether this was useful because we already know this stuff through existing research,” she says. “But in these types of contexts, I’ve seen how this research has been helpful.”

Lately, these studies with Matheson and Anisman have broached communication—the idea that how we talk about our trauma to younger generations can influence the impact. “We interviewed children of residential school survivors who are adults today, and asked how often their parents spoke to them about their experiences and the nature of how they did it,” says Bombay. “Did they talk about it in a matter-of-fact way?”

This latest study, published in Transcultural Psychiatry earlier this year, found that sharing too little (or nothing at all) with children about earlier generations’ experiences in residential schools, or the systemic racism that makes such policies possible, was related to poor mental health outcomes in adulthood.

“They either got what was similar to me with parents trying to protect their children from trauma, or for those whose parents were really traumatized, they’d describe their parents talking in great detail when they were really distressed,” says Bombay. “At a young age, that can be harmful. Some children described it like they were the parents who were taking care of their parents.”

The point of talking about this kind of trauma, says Bombay, is to prepare kids by letting them know that this pain and its effects are real, while not emphasizing it to the point of trauma becoming the single overarching aspect of who they are. “But figuring out that line is tricky and it’s not always clear.”

One aspect of talking to children about racism, however, is that it gives young people the tools they need to understand what discrimination looks like, to name it and to know that what might be happening to them in their own life isn’t because there’s something wrong with who they are, says Bombay. “Having a positive cultural identity—really feeling a pride in your cultural background—helps to get rid of the negative outcomes associated with discrimination.”

Finding an ethical approach

Bombay’s been thinking of imposing a different type of limit when it comes to studying racism and intergenerational trauma. For one thing, real-time study of the potential epigenetic effects of residential school trauma requires a level of intervention—DNA sample collection, entrusting of genetic material—that many Indigenous communities believe isn’t the role of researchers to take. Considering Canada’s track record of using underfed residential school students as subjects for government-funded studies on malnutrition, this isn’t an unfounded fear.

Instead, Bombay’s latest work has been focused on how to educate Indigenous communities on how epigenetic studies on intergenerational trauma are conducted, and the potential implications. “With the way science generally works, we think we’re the researchers and we’re the ones who are curious, and we’re going to answer the questions,” says Bombay. “But that’s not the way Indigenous health researchers should be doing this.”

Last year, Bombay and the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, an Ontario-based First Nations health nonprofit started a program to help researchers and Indigenous communities develop ethical ways to take on epigenetic research.

“What makes Thunderbird different is that we rely on Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices in policy discussions in programs and services,” says Carol Hopkins, executive director at Thunderbird. “Leaving out Indigenous knowledge and science has not produced results. The assumption that a Western world view can be a one-size-fits-all is a huge error.”

So far, Thunderbird and Bombay have met with leaders from First Nations from British Columbia to Atlantic Canada to talk about how advances in biological health research—in such fields as mental health, epigenetic and diet—might help them address their particular community’s priorities. Thunderbird and Bombay, in turn, spend time learning about what that community’s stories and traditional knowledge already have to say about these things.

The project will also involve making a curriculum for participating communities on how epigenetic research works and what they can expect from its outcomes—resources so they can decide for themselves whether such research is something they want to take part in, and if so, how. “The interesting thing is as we talk about this project, people are interested,” she says. “The big complaint until now is that research has been so defect-focused.” Communities want ways to work on the strengths they have, rather than focussing on problems to be fixed.

“We’re not strong just because we’ve faced difficulties, says Hopkins. “That strength is grounded in our identity: our knowledge and worldview and cultural practices that sustain us.”

From intergenerational trauma to intergenerational hope

Lately, Bombay has been thinking a lot about how what she studies in her working life applies to her personal one. Now in her mid-thirties, she’s interested in the intersection of epigenetics and children—specifically, children she hopes to have someday soon. “It’s affected my own behaviour in thinking about starting a family and how to start to reduce my stress levels when I’m pregnant.”

This isn’t an easy prospect. “There’s such a lack of people doing this work, that it makes it hard for me and my colleagues. We get burnt out because there’s such a need. Not only from communities who want help addressing these issues, but also non-Indigenous people who do want to learn.”

There’s also dealing with those who don’t. Bombay’s received hate mail from people who insist the trauma she’s dedicated her career to studying isn’t real. And she reads the news. Shortly after the MMIWG national inquiry described the issue it was assigned to report on as a form of genocide, seemingly every newspaper editorial board in the country insisted on disputing the use of the term term. “All you can do is laugh and try to deal with it,” she says.

In part, dealing with it means passing along what matters, both to future generations of researchers through mentorship—and future generations of her family itself. “I’d want to express to them how doing this work has provided me with a purpose. And even though it’s hard and stressful and traumatic, it’s also helpful for my own mental health, to know that I’m working to make a difference.”