Disrupted Attachments: A Social Context Complex Trauma Framework and the Lives of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada

  • Dr. Lori Haskell C. Psych. Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto and Academic Research Associate, Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, University of Western Ontario
  • Melanie Randall Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Western Ontario
Keywords: Complex trauma and Aboriginal people/communities, post-traumatic stress, traumatic stress/ trauma treatment, resilience, strength based approach


“Disrupted attachments” describes multiple levels on which the historic and contemporary assaults on Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have resonated. Not only have the policies of colonialism expressly aimed to sever the attachment of Canada’s First Nations to their lands, customs, cultures, modes of self-governance, languages and ways of life, but the traumatic impact of these disrupted attachments have reverberated through both the communities and through the individual lives of Aboriginal Peoples in this country historically and today. The new and more expansive conceptualization of “complex trauma” has, as one of its core and defining features, alterations in relationships with one’s sense of self, as well as alterations to relationships with others. We reframe the idea of “alterations” in relationships to that of “harms” to relationships to self and others, and situate these harms within the insights of attachment theory. In this paper, we explicate a social context complex trauma framework, building on insights from the fields of psychology and neuroscience, to provide a fuller development of the pervasive and developmental impacts of trauma. In developing our conceptualization of a social context complex trauma framework, we draw on the foundational constructs from trauma theory, from attachment theory, and from the insights of the literature on historical trauma, as well as the interdisciplinary research literature on the health and well-being of Aboriginal Peoples in order to advance a developmental perspective situated within a political analysis of social contexts of injustice and inequality. We also point to some directions for healing and transformation efforts. Most importantly, we speak to the need for a strengths-based trauma model and approach, which identifies and expands the resiliencies of the Aboriginal Peoples.