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Trauma and suicide behaviour histories among a Canadian indigenous population: An empirical exploration of the potential role of Canada's residential school system


  • Elias, Brenda
  • Mignone, Javier
  • Hall, Madelyn
  • Hong, Say P.
  • Hart, Lyna
  • Sareen, Jitender


It has been theorized that suicide behaviours amongst indigenous peoples may be an outcome of mass trauma experienced as a result of colonization. In Canada, qualitative evidence has suggested that the Indian Residential School System set in motion a cycle of trauma, with some survivors reporting subsequent abuse, suicide, and other related behaviours. It has been further postulated that the effects of trauma can also be passed inter-generationally. Today, there are four generations of Canadian First Nations residential school survivors who may have transmitted the trauma they experienced to their own children and grandchildren. No empirical study has ever been undertaken to demonstrate this dynamic. This study is therefore the first to investigate whether a direct or indirect exposure to Canada's residential school system is associated with trauma and suicide behaviour histories. Data were collected in 2002/2003 from a representative sample of Manitoba, Canada, First Nations adults (N = 2953), including residential (N = 611) and non-residential school attendees (N = 2342). Regression analyses showed that for residential school attendees negative experiences in residential school were associated with a history of abuse, and that this history and being of younger age was associated with a history of suicide thoughts, whereas abuse history only was associated with a history of suicide attempts. For First Nations adults who did not attend a residential school, we found that age 28–44, female sex, not having a partner, and having a parent or grandparent who attended a residential school was associated with a history of abuse. This history, along with age and having had a parent or grandparent who attended residential school was associated with a history of suicide thoughts and attempts. In conclusion, this is the first study to empirically demonstrate, at the population level, the mental health impact of the residential school system on survivors and their children.

Suggested Citation

  • Elias, Brenda & Mignone, Javier & Hall, Madelyn & Hong, Say P. & Hart, Lyna & Sareen, Jitender, 2012. "Trauma and suicide behaviour histories among a Canadian indigenous population: An empirical exploration of the potential role of Canada's residential school system," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 74(10), pages 1560-1569.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:74:y:2012:i:10:p:1560-1569
    DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.01.026

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Evans-Campbell, T. & Lindhorst, T. & Huang, B. & Walters, K.L., 2006. "Interpersonal violence in the lives of urban American Indian and Alaska Native women: Implications for health, mental health, and help-seeking," American Journal of Public Health, American Public Health Association, vol. 96(8), pages 1416-1422.
    2. Manson, S.M. & Beals, J. & Klein, S.A. & Croy, C.D., 2005. "Social epidemiology of trauma among 2 American Indian reservation populations," American Journal of Public Health, American Public Health Association, vol. 95(5), pages 851-859.
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