News, Graduate Studies, Indigenous

Indigenous counselling psychology master’s student reconciles her relationship to academia

June 29, 2019

Four years ago, if you asked Katrina Smeja if she planned on becoming a scholar, she would have heartily dismissed the idea.

Yet this summer, under the co-supervision of Alanaise Goodwill and Sharalyn Jordan, Smeja completed a master’s degree in the field of counselling psychology at SFU —successfully defending her thesis in July — and is heading to McGill University this fall to pursue a PhD.

As a member of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi in Northern Quebec, Smeja had earlier struggled as a clinical psychology undergrad, feeling tension from how the field has negatively impacted Indigenous peoples in the name of research and science.

It was only when she began community work that she saw different pathways to using her degree, including more humanizing ways to work with people.

A trip with her sister to Vancouver in 2014 led her to apply for a master’s degree program. While accepted into a few programs, she was drawn to SFU’s Counselling Psychology program.

But the notion of creating labels and pathologies when undertaking research with Indigenous communities stuck with her.

“I wanted to find my place as an Indigenous practitioner, moving away from the emphasis on diagnosis and labeling. I was happy that this program had a non-thesis stream,” explained Smeja.

During her first term in the program, Smeja met one of her two co-supervisors, SFU education professor Sharalyn Jordan who encouraged and modeled ways of respectfully honoring Indigenous worldviews. The seeds for research informing policy change were planted as she learned more about such concepts as Just Therapies, Indigenous wholistic theory and narrative therapy.

The results of her thesis, “Weaving Narrative Therapy into a Decolonizing Approach to Counselling: A Collaborative Narrative Exploration of Indigenous Healing in Canada,” are presented as stories. These narratives were co-constructed with the storytellers and based on qualitative interviews with mental health practitioners. Smeja used Indigenous research methods and principles to guide her research process.

Storytellers shared narratives about their learning and experiences practicing narrative therapy with Indigenous people. They also shared how they liaise with equitable services and advocate for connecting people with culture-based services, including lawyers and Elders.

Since literature on Indigenous research methods is limited, given it’s an emerging field of study, Smeja hopes to build on what she has started, which may entail exploring more community-specific Indigenous approaches and initiatives while drawing on Indigenous research methods.

At her defense, Smeja’s sister was present, bringing this experience full-circle. Reflecting on her thesis research, she says, “This experience has been really encouraging. It was transformative, spiritual, and went beyond anything I could ever imagine.”