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Vancouver Island woman putting her PhD to use in the pursuit of reconciliation

Natasha Wawrykow teaching about reconciliation within psychology at UVic
Dr. Natasha Wawrykow. (Submitted photo)

A Vancouver Island woman’s background and training have converged to put her in a position to make a difference in the ongoing drive for Indigenous reconciliation in Canada.

Dr. Natasha Wawrykow, who identifies as an Interior Salish from the Skuppah Band, grew up in Nanoose Bay and went to middle school and high school in Parksville, has earned her PhD in psychology and is set to start teaching at the University of Victoria in the fall in the psychology department.

Wawrykow has been working on two new courses for the faculty. One is a narrative therapy course at the graduate level, the other is about reconciliation within psychology at the undergraduate level.

“Narrative therapy is one orientation that I’ve found in working with different Indigenous groups across Canada has just really worked well… working with stories,” she said.

The reconciliation within psychology course is especially important to Wawrykow, who said having a curriculum that responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action was something she wanted to see at UVic. The report, which goes over wrongdoing by government and other non-state actors and makes recommendations for resolution, includes a call to psychologists.

“For psychologists, they were saying it’s our job in psychology to acknowledge the wrong that was done and bring in knowledge of Indigenous peoples and show that there’s value to that knowledge,” she said.

Wawrykow will also be working as an Indigenization advisor for the faculty, which she said will include talking to the local Indigenous communities and gathering feedback on ways they can positively collaborate.

“That’s something that I really wanted in a professor position, I really wanted to continue to work with Indigenous populations,” she said. “How can we work together so we create projects and activities that they want, that are not just serving us, but are to forge a lasting relationship.”

READ MORE: More than a dozen SD69 classes learning First Nations language

Wawrykow’s interest in psychology first piqued in high school and eventually took her to the undergraduate program at UVic.

“My parents took me around to meet some different psychologists in the area and just kind of learn about what that journey would be like, because it’s a really long road ahead,” she said.

However, psychology really sunk in as the thing she wanted to do when she started getting involved in research. Wawrykow said once she got a chance to run psychology experiments with her professors at UVIC, she got inspired to think of her own ideas. She received an independent research grant that focused on Indigenous people’s learning styles.

“So my first research project was looking at aboriginal learning styles, so what are some of the preferences that different groups of Indigenous people tend to show preference to,” she said. “It really encouraged me that if I want to go on and do graduate studies, this is what I’m wanting to get into.”

From there, she decided she wanted to look deeper into how psychology could work more symbiotically with existing Indigenous culture. She did her masters and PhD at UBC in the counselling/psychology department working with Indigenous people.

“It became so apparent to me that even though people may have meant well over time, there have been a number of what they call ‘parachute researchers’, where they kind of parachute drop down into a community, collect some kind of information and then they’re gone,” she said. “And that information [might have not been] what was really important to the community… does the community still have ownership over that knowledge?”

She used that approach to find culturally-based intervention strategies for children with anxiety, as well as research into post-secondary culture for Indigenous students and ways to make them feel more connected to their culture while at school.

“Indigenous students that are at university and living away from home, what are those areas that are really important to them? There’s certain family members, community members, certain activities, maybe sacred objects, material, medicinal plants, other things like that… regalia,” she said.

Wawrykow said the road ahead looks good – she’s looking forward to being a professor at UVic and is glad it’s back home on Vancouver Island.

“It’s just so beautiful here, so I really enjoy it. It’s calm and quiet and everyone is so friendly,” she said. “We were just going for a walk on the Parksville boardwalk yesterday, and we said, it’s just so wonderful, everyone says ‘hi’ to each other here.”

“It was kind of crazy just to think, kindergarten to Grade 12, usually you have your 13 years there, and so to do it again – it’s been a long journey,” she said.

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