Dr. Karine Duhamel on the importance of trauma-informed approaches to private and public engagement

Topics included the notion of individual human beings and trauma’s Western lens

Illustration courtesy of SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

Written by: Gurleen Aujla, Peak Associate

This year’s Bruce & Lis Welch Community Dialogue event explored the importance of a trauma-informed approach in both our private and public engagements and how to best put our learnings into practice. 

The sold-out event featured Dr. Karine Duhamel, an Anishinaabe-Métis woman currently working as an independent consultant and historian. She is the director of research for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), and is working in partnership with the Government of Canada to create the MMIWG National Action Plan. The event was facilitated by Ginger Gosnell-Myers, a fellow in Decolonization and Urban Indigenous Planning at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. 

Trauma-informed engagement is all about relationships —  your relationships to the past, to others, and to the world as a whole. Trauma is often thought of as simply an individualized experience, and while that may be true to some extent, the community also experiences trauma collectively.

When discussions take place around sensitive and deeply impactful issues, it is of utmost importance to utilize a trauma-informed process of engagement to ensure that those at the table are not reliving their trauma and to prevent an endless cycle of trauma. 

At its heart, trauma-informed engagement is a fundamental shift in how we approach the process of healing and moving towards the transformation of society through relationship-building, humility, respect, and the recognition of deeply embedded trauma-inducing structures. 

Duhamel touched on a few key themes during this event: the notion of individual human beings, the Western lens placed on trauma, and the characteristics of a trauma-informed approach.

Human Beings or Humans Being? 

Duhamel told us about her grandmother, the daughter of a residential school survivor, whose family spent a large part of their lives trying not to be or look Indigenous. Duhamel’s father passed away when she was 20 years old due to cancer and because of the trauma of that experience, their relationship dynamic completely shifted and she “felt like she didn’t really know him.” 

After going through these experiences, Duhamel talked about reconceptualizing the notion of the individual human being simply as being human. Highlighting the togetherness of people allowed Duhamel to better understand the process of healing and her grandmother and father as “humans in a relationship with the world and the circumstances around them.” 

Understanding that we are all interconnected as “one body moving through space and time” is a central component of trauma-informed engagement. Putting this principle into action means listening — really listening — to elders, survivors, and knowledge keepers. It is about forming deep connections and relationships with others, in an attempt to understand our unifying threads. 

The Western Narrative of Trauma

The most problematic narrative of trauma is that the knowledge of Indigenous peoples is centrally grounded on the trauma they have experienced. This “deficit-based framework” does not serve the purpose of community connections and healing. Rather, it focuses on individualized experiences and not the contributions to inter and multi-generational trauma and society’s perpetuation of systemic violence and racism. 

Duhamel emphasized the “unique knowledge” of Indigenous peoples having lived through both individual and collective trauma. This “experiential knowledge [ . . . ] allow[s] for understandings of systems, of policies, and of the conceptualization of problems and causes in a way that can’t be known by people who haven’t experienced it.” 

We need to be willing to be led by the real experts. Framing trauma-informed engagement in this light of valuing experiential knowledge will ultimately lead to more inclusive and impactful actions informed by those it seeks to serve. We must embrace trauma-informed engagement “not as a checklist, but a process, [as] a part of relationship-building,” and move forward, together. 

Characteristics of a Trauma-Informed Approach

Each circumstance in which a trauma-informed approach is being used is unique to those engaged. However, Duhamel highlighted a few key elements, such as being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Acknowledging the inherent value of experiential knowledge also means embracing uncertainty. Duhamel recalled her experience with the National Inquiry into MMIWG and having to get to a point where they were comfortable “being led by family members and survivors.” 

This goes hand in hand with humility and acknowledging that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Duhamel drew attention to the importance of spending time learning about the people you are working alongside and the “unique context from which [their] experiences emerge.”

Another key element of a trauma-informed approach to engagement is creating safe spaces. Discussing topics that are polarizing or harmful can lead people to act upon their trauma, even when their intentions were not to harm anyone else. This is a natural part of the process and you want the space to be a “place of honesty [ . . . ] for whatever truth comes out, even when it’s a really hard truth, to inform the solution going forward.” Duhamel best put it, “safety doesn’t mean comfortable.”  

In practice, the principles with which we approach trauma-informed engagement must be co-developed with the communities engaging with the process. Setting up the systems and processes which value experiential knowledge is a fundamental step. 


In closing, Duhamel did a skillful job of explaining her decades-long work and the multi-faceted experiences of Indigenous people in a way that highlighted the core of trauma-informed engagement. We are all bound to make mistakes, but understanding the intentions behind our actions and the systems that impact trauma is a key principle to keep in mind. As Duhamel said, “The experience of living is a process of coming together and it was always meant to be.”

This event was hosted by the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue as part of their 2021 Bruce & Lis Welch Community Dialogue series, an annual event dedicated to exploring complex community issues through an intersectional lens.