All Our Relations
Transgenerational Trauma in Canada
Since colonists arrived in Canada, there has been discourse between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada. Colonizers forced their way onto Indigenous land, took ownership of it, and tried to take ownership of the people too. Their attempts at assimilation of Indigenous people into European society became genocide in some cases, wiping out entire Indigenous groups. Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations revolves around the transgenerational trauma still felt in Indigenous communities today, as well as the reasons and solutions for it. Talaga’s willingness to point fingers, her strong connections between the past and the present, and her ability to make readers understand isolation makes her call to action extremely powerful. T
he focus of Talaga’s novel is that trauma from residential schools and the colonization of Canada is still experienced by today’s Indigenous youth. What she describes is transgenerational trauma, meaning children and teens feel a disconnect from their culture, created by colonists’ attempts at assimilation. Without knowing where they come from, or practicing their cultural traditions, children do not have a sense of belonging (Talaga 2018, 220). Talaga explains that children who were placed in the residential school system did not experience their culture during childhood, and therefore do not know how to teach it to today’s youth. Children are often born to parents who “may have substance abuse issues, who live in extreme poverty or, because of their own disrupted upbringings, lack the tools necessary to raise children (Talaga 2018, 99)”. All Our Relations is written bluntly and harshly in order to make its point. Talaga wants readers to know that the Canadian government is choosing to ignore Indigenous issues, and this has severe consequences. For example, the story of the seven girls from the who died by suicide is followed immediately by a way it could have been stopped: government intervention. (Talaga 2018, 5). Talaga tells their heartbreaking stories in detail before revealing that the government was informed of the suicide pact, and denied funding for mental health support. This allows readers to understand from the first few pages that the government is not helping Indigenous people the way it may seem to be on the news. Especially with the many apologies made by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, it is likely that some readers lack accurate knowledge about government support for Indigenous people.
As well, Talaga connects tragedy from recent history to unresolved issues from the past. Her descriptions of the torturous practices in the residential school system in the early to mid twentieth century are jarring, but she is clear that the end of residential schools was not the end of the trauma. By explaining the lack of justice received in the aftermath of residential schools, she connects the past to the present, seen in the story of Ralph Rowe. Rowe was considered, “God’s representative on Earth (Talaga 2018, 108)”, despite sexually assaulting up to 500 young boys during his involvement at residential schools. Rowe did not receive justice, only serving about five years in prison for his actions (Talaga 2018, 110). Talaga discusses the trauma experienced by the young boys during their time at residential schools with Rowe, and then goes on to explain that many of the men who died during the spike in suicides in the 1990s were those who had been assaulted by Rowe. The way Talaga creates a cause and effect relationship between Rowe’s actions and the suicide spike raises questions such as: if justice had been properly served in this case, would some of these men still be alive? Talaga establishes throughout the novel that no healing can occur until the problems are solved. By allowing Rowe his freedom, the government reopens possibly fatal wounds for survivors.
Talaga also gives insight to Indigenous culture, allowing readers to better understand the significance of certain events. Talaga explains that in Indigenous culture, a child’s growth is celebrated at certain stages such as their first steps. Each person must experience these, or they become “disconnected from who they were and where they come from (Talaga 2018, 92)”. It is saddening to think that these children missed out on a loving and caring community and family life. While she did not include the actual painting, Talaga effectively describes a work of art by Helen Milroy, an Australian Aboriginal child psychiatrist, to create a visual image of Indigenous youth’s isolation. Milroy calls this “the third space (Talaga 2018, 101)”. It depicts a fluid, bright left side, and a starkly contrasting, sharp right side. The symbolism lies between the two opposing sides where there is a blank space, which Milroy explains as being where the Indigenous children “float (Talaga 2018, 102).” By using this visual representation Talaga allows us insight into Indigenous children’s lives. Without experiencing this transgenerational trauma myself, I found it difficult to imagine the isolation that these youth feel, but this third space is an easily understood metaphor which I felt helped my understanding.
Overall, Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations is a powerful and informative novel. Talaga’s harsh truth, paired with her clear connections and strong metaphors will make readers want to help Indigenous people in any way they can. Talaga clearly establishes that the trauma of the past is unresolved, which is creating further tragedy in the lives of Indigenous people. By using concrete and plentiful examples of abuse and suicide, juxtaposed with the lack of recognition from the government, Talaga points to the government as the one who should make the next move, yet she ends the novel with a call to action. Not every person who reads the novel will be able to influence government decisions, so what does Talaga want readers to do? The government’s ability to ignore Indigenous issues only exists if the rest of Canada is unaware, or uncaring as well. It is important for Canadian citizens to raise awareness for those who have died in the residential school system, or by suicide in recent years. In order to begin healing, we first must resolve the outstanding issues.