The Traumatic Stress Institute fosters the transformation of organizations and service systems to trauma-informed care (TIC) through the delivery of whole-system consultation, professional training, coaching, and research.
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First Nations - Lessons Learned

May 27, 2020 / by Steve Brown, PsyD

Supporting Trauma-Informed Transformation in Settings Serving First Nation Communities

Beginning in 2010, the Traumatic Stress Institute began supporting the Yukon Territory (Canada) child welfare system to make the transition to trauma-informed care (TIC).

Much like tribal communities in the US, First Nation and Aboriginal people in the Yukon suffer the devastating impact of historical and intergenerational trauma. For a century, ending finally in 1969, the Canadian government allied with churches to “civilize and Christianize” First Nation people by forcibly placing large numbers of children in residential schools where they endured systematic and repeated abuse for generations. Now significant portions of the youth in the child welfare system are children of residential school survivors.

Our TIC initiative began in the Yukon’s residential care facilities, but soon use of TSI’s Whole-System Change Model expanded to the entire child welfare system, including child protection, youth justice, foster care, and early childhood prevention. Empirical findings about the effort are captured in the article, The Implementation and Effect of Trauma-Informed Care Within Residential Youth Services in Rural Canada: A Mixed Methods Case Study (Baker et. al., 2018).

As the benefits of TIC to tribal communities is more widely recognized, it seemed pertinent to reflect on some basic lessons learned with and from our partners in the Yukon. To be explicit, these reflections are from the perspective of non-First Nation professionals working to support First Nation families and communities suffering from trauma.

 Much of this wisdom comes from Dr. Mike Healey, who originally invited us to the Yukon and has been the primary leader of the initiative:

  • There are many natural overlaps between First Nation traditions and values, and the principles of TIC. The Yukon government hired TSI, in part, because the core philosophy of Risking Connection--our trauma training model for professionals--embodied beliefs consistent with First Nation values.

  • Indigenous people across the globe use the circle as a sacred symbol -- in council meetings, spiritual ceremonies, teaching, and healing rituals (Chansonneuve, 2005). Similar to TIC, circles reflect the flattening of hierarchy; the values of collaboration and empowerment; listening to all voices, including those of people with lived experience of trauma: and the critical importance of community connection for healing.

  • Restorative practices and restorative justice have a long tradition among First Nation peoples. Community members that have violated the norms are often brought before the community to engage in rituals to repair and reconnect them with the community. This stands in stark contrast to the punitive and stigmatizing justice systems in many western cultures.

TIC, at its core, is about shifting the paradigm from punitive consequences as the agent of change to relationships as the healing element. Continuous rupture and repair are essential to secure attachment between young children and caregivers. Trauma survivors heal by learning that ruptures in relationships resulting from problem behavior and symptoms can be repaired; that all is not lost. The Restorative Approach, a treatment method for child group care settings and an alternative to point-and-level behavior management systems, stresses the making of amends, repairing relationships, and remedying skill deficits that underlie problem behavior.  

  • Deeply woven into First Nation culture is the importance of ritual. Healing circles, smudging, use of sacred objects, and sweat lodge ceremonies are but a few examples. Ritual serves many functions in community, including connecting people to themselves, to their community, and to tradition. They also serve as a way to establish frame and boundaries; – Elders open or close a meeting, feathers are passed from person to person when talking, prayers are said to give thanks.

Understanding the importance of frame and boundaries is essential in TIC because trauma, at its essence, is about the violation of boundaries. and establishing rituals and being explicit about frame and boundaries creates safety and fosters healing for trauma survivors, who often expect intrusion of their boundaries. More and more, trauma-informed organizations embed rituals such as community meetings, grounding exercises to start meetings, and regular debriefings at shift changes. 

  • Important scholarship has articulated the impact of “disrupted attachments” on First Nation peoples. It has broadened traditional notions about attachment and complex trauma focused on individuals to describe the severing of attachments of First Nation people to their land, customs, culture, language, and way of life. Ruptures in the relationship between a young child and caretaker have been expanded to include breaks in the relationship with self, other, community, and culture (Haskell & Randall, 2009).

Trauma theory woven into TIC stresses that all trauma takes place in the context of attachment relationships. Survivors with secure attachments tend to do better than those with insecure attachments, while survivors harmed by their own attachment figures are most impacted. For example, Risking Connection teaches how survivors’ early attachment relationships, especially without treatment, often negatively shape their relational template for life. While TIC is new to this more expansive perspective of disrupted attachment, its roots make it primed to integrate these new ideas.   

  • Finally, when implementing TIC in First Nation/Native communities, one must recognize that while there may be similarities between them, each community is different and has its own culture, traditions, symbols, stories, and perspectives.  It is important to pay attention to the unique meaning behind each community’s story. 

In short, there is a natural affinity between TIC philosophy and First Nation values that can support and accelerate the transformation process to TIC. Inevitable and understandable distrust of practices and models originating outside of tribal communities may be easier to overcome because of the overlap. While more work certainly needs to be done, fertile ground for the seeds of TIC to grow are becoming a reality.


Baker, C.N., Brown, S.M., Wilcox, P., Verenden, J.M., Black, C.L., & Grant, B.E. (2018). The implementation and effect of trauma-informed care within residential youth services in rural Canada: A mixed methods case study.  Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10, 666–674.

Chansonneuve, D. (2005). Reclaiming Connections: Understanding Residential School Trauma Among Aboriginal People. Aboriginal Healing Foundation: Ottawa, Ontario.

Haskell, L. & Randall, M. (November 2009). Disrupted attachment: A social context complex trauma framework and the lives of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Journal of Aboriginal Health, 48-99.


Tags: Whole-System Change

Steve Brown, PsyD

Written by Steve Brown, PsyD

Steve Brown, Psy.D., is the Director of the Traumatic Stress Institute of Klingberg Family Centers. A clinical psychologist, he is a primary architect of TSI’s internationally-recognized whole-system change process to trauma-informed care. He is a co-creator, with Dr. Courtney Baker, of the Attitudes Related to Trauma-Informed Care (ARTIC) Scale, one of the first psychometric measures of TIC. He trains professionals nationally on psychological trauma and trauma-informed care. In addition to being a psychologist, he is a long time sexuality educator/trainer and author of Streetwise to Sex-Wise: Sexuality Education for High Risk Youth, a sexuality education curricula used internationally by agencies and schools serving high-risk youth.