Indigenous Peoples have a rich tradition of thinking like good ancestors

The Gen Squeeze team deeply appreciates the opportunity to publish the following article by Jayla Rousseau-Thomas on the Seven Generations Principle. As we begin National Indigenous History Month in Canada, we have much to learn from Indigenous peoples' rich traditions of intergenerational solidarity.

We don’t have to look too far to find the harmful debts we’re leaving to future generations. It can seem harder to find ways to preserve building blocks of a healthy society decent earnings, good homes, quality child care, and a livable planet  that we owe future generations. We’d like to thank the author for her thoughtful exploration of this theme. Her piece is a profound reminder that, while we don’t have to look far to find problems, solutions are also close by, modeled by those who were here before settler communities.

As we envision a country that works fairly for all generations, we are inspired by Indigenous peoples’ commitment to lay bare the intergenerational traumas caused by residential schools and other colonial policies. We must work together in the spirit of reconciliation to build a strong and positive legacy for Indigenous youth and future generations.

Thinking differently: Using the Seven Generations Principle

By Jayla Rousseau-Thomas

Are we collectively, as a society, making decisions that benefit and support all ages and that consider the rights of future generations to wellbeing and a livable planet? This is a tall undertaking and one for which Generation Squeeze and others have long noted that there are structural and institutional deficiencies. Political leaders are elected on four-year terms encouraging short-term thinking and quick political wins. Young people cannot vote. Older cohorts benefit from policies that are favourable to them, such as tax shelters on housing wealth, and these are sticky and hard to change. The idea of intergenerational equity is about fairness between generations — to be good stewards, treat other generations as we would want to be treated and plan for all ages. But it can also be seen as confrontational, pitting generations against one another in a quest of equity, which could undermine intergenerational solidarity. There is a careful balancing act. How might we in practically implement this important concept?

While the concept of intergenerational equity has gained attention in international law as foundational to the right to a livable environment, and is a core part of the social welfare state, it is a concept that different Indigenous cultures and Peoples have long valued and implemented, but in a much more holistic and foundational way. There are various iterations. One widely used teaching in Indigenous cultures is the Seven Generations Principle — common within many Indigenous communities across North America. Those raised with the principle may experience it as an ingrained teaching that guides the decisions made at home, work, and in the community. Simply put, the Seven Generations Principle puts the onus on decision makers to consider the options and their impacts outside of just the current context when making decisions at the individual, family, and community levels. Each person is to consider the decision they are seeking to make, in addition to considering what would the seven generations before them have done, and how will this decision impact seven generations into the future.

The Seven Generations Principle cannot be separated from correlating values within Indigenous cultures. These may include stand-alone values such as matrilineal family structures, respect for elders, relationships with ancestors and preservation of culture; or the principle could be linked to a larger value system. An example of one such larger value system is the Seven Grandfather Teachings, commonly used by Anishinaabe peoples, which give individuals a guide for how to live their lives through the use of respect, love, bravery, wisdom, humility, honesty and truth. The Seven Generations Principle can be applied to decisions as small as a single parenting choice within a family unit, to large scale planning for economic development and resource extraction. The principle provides a framework that can be used as a tool to think through both the visible and potentially unseen complexities of an issue. It can provide a structure for considering how to best address current challenges by integrating past practices, values and priorities, and how to make the best informed decisions for what needs may be many generations into the future. 

The Seven Generations Principle places an onus on researchers, policy makers and lobbyists to consider the generational spread across all decisions — not only at times of convenience or in the light of political pressure. It encourages us to think of the connections between and among us and our environment, and to tread lightly and in solidarity. It encourages us to look both forwards and backwards to better integrate intergenerational equity into public finance policies and administration. Questions that might arise from use of the Seven Generations Principle could include:

  • If Elders from 150 years ago could share their knowledge, what comments would they make on the current situation? 
  • What were the values and pressing issues experienced by Elders 7 generations ago, that would influence their guidance for decision making?
  • How will these decisions impact unborn generations?
  • If youth from 150 years in the future could identify their priorities, what would they share?
  • How would these decisions have impacted us today if made seven generations ago? 
  • Would our decisions have looked different in the past if we understood the impacts of these choices today? 

Though the Seven Generations Principle doesn’t solve the challenges facing policy makers for addressing the issues of intergenerational equity, it can serve as a tool or even a conceptual framework for how to tease apart the challenges of this topic. 

Today’s generation is the 7th Generation since the creation of the racist and destructive Indian Act. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is called “Honouring the Truth and Reconciling for the Future.” It is replete with reference to the intergenerational trauma of colonisation. The 94 actionable recommendations emphasise the need to teach all Canadians the reality of Indigenous Peoples' treatment and to create educational and economic opportunities for Indigenous Canadians so they can fully participate in society. 

Adopting and institutionalising the Seven Generations Principles in public decision-making and accountability is an important part of Reconciliation. It could place a key principle of Indigenous governance and culture at the centre of settler governance structures in an effort to decolonise them. It requires decision makers to think beyond their current frame, and metaphorically, invites both the ancestors of the past and children of the future into decision making processes. By using the Seven Generations Principle, in addition to values such as matrilineal family structures, Canada can double down on enhancing its thought processes by increasing gender based considerations in decision making.

It would be interesting to use the Seven Generations Principle to consider how the current state of Canada might look vastly different today if Canada’s collective ancestors had paused to consider the impacts of their decisions as well as advice from those who had gone before them, rather than focussing solely the pressing values of the time that led Canada to be settled as it was. Through use of the Seven Generations Principle, Canada can utilize Indigenous values through the principle to look both forwards and backwards to better integrate intergenerational equity into its public finance policies and administration. 


Jayla Rousseau-ThomasJayla Rousseau-Thomas is an Anishinaabe woman, mother and social worker living on the traditional territories of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation and Ta’an Kwachan Council in Whitehorse, Yukon. She is a student in the Masters of Public Administration and Graduate Certificate in Program Evaluation at the University of Victoria


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