June 8, 2022

Class of 2022: Social Work grad breaks the trauma cycle

Kayla Veillette overcomes adversity to lead new social work initiatives — and give her son the kind of childhood she never had
Kayla Veillette
Kayla Veillette

She’s an award-winning graduate with a bright career ahead of her, having already been tasked with heading up new initiatives at her place of employment, but Kayla Veillette says her  biggest accomplishment is having broken the cycle of intergenerational trauma that has exacted such a terrible cost to her and her family.

“I did do a lot of my life changing because of him because I wanted him to not grow up with the same experiences or unfortunate things that happened to me,” Veillette says referring to her son, Phoenix.

Growing up, Veillette spent time in both Lac la Biche and the nearby Kikino Métis Settlement in northeastern Alberta, before eventually settling in Edmonton. She speaks frankly about a childhood and adolescence fraught with abuse, neglect and addiction. Her father, she says, wasn’t in the picture much, and her mother was often working two or three jobs and attending school.

“She had her own intergenerational trauma that impacted for her life and she struggled a lot with her own childhood,” says Veillette. “Because of her own trauma in her childhood, she really strived to be the best mother that she thought she could be.”

Impact by the trauma cycle

Veillette’s story takes a dark turn with the arrival of her stepfather, who abused her physically and sexually. She notes that he too was impacted by the trauma cycle.

By the age of 12, Veillette was drinking, experimenting with drugs, smoking, and engaging in self-harming behaviour. One of the few Indigenous kids at her Catholic school, she often felt unfairly singled out.

“I know I didn't always make the best choices in the school, but I often got blamed for a lot of things that I didn't do,” she recalls. “My struggle within the system definitely influenced me in my choice of the work I do now.”

As challenging as those days were, it was at that time she experienced something that she credits as a pivotal moment in developing a social consciousness: having attended her first Pride parade, she went to class proudly sporting a rainbow bracelet.  She was told to remove it.

Rollercoaster journey

“I didn't take it off. I feel like I didn't do anything wrong. At the end of the day, I wouldn't have changed that scenario ever,” she says. “I would say that's where my social work awakening started.”

Be as that may, her journey to a place of healing wasn’t so much a straight path but a rollercoaster ride of worsening substance use, and a pattern of abusive relationships.

Her life began to turn when she became pregnant at the age of 17; determined to give her child a brighter future, she vowed to get clean. She stayed off alcohol and drugs for a year after Phoenix was born, then relapsed. Then one night she had a gun drawn on her after she tried to intervene in a domestic violence incident perpetrated by a gang member.

“At that point I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?'” she recalls.” I went home, and my son was two-and-a-half at the time, and he just did not look like he felt comfortable around me. I cleaned up after that.”

Then, a positive direction

­Thus followed employment programs, jobs, academic upgrading, and a few more significant bumps in the road. Then: enrolment in the Bachelor of Social Work program at UCalgary’s north campus in Edmonton, coupled with intensive therapy. Veillette says both experiences helped her come to terms with her past, and to forge a brighter future.

“I did a lot of work on myself in therapy, a lot of work on my childhood, and I really started to understand the different behaviours that I would have.,” she says. "I was even able to kind of identify the reason why my parents weren't able to be good parents and, you know, kind of forgave them.

Being in school has really helped me understand a lot more of the intergenerational trauma and being able to identify how colonization and residential schools impacted us as a whole.

“Something I will say that's very frustrating is that society doesn't think that Métis people were involved in this — it's not talked about.”

Intergenerational cycle broken

Veillette says she poured her personal experience into her projects and papers and worked throughout her degree program. Today she is employed by the Bissell Centre as a case management co-ordinator and has been tasked with developing multiple new initiatives. Among these is developing cultural competency training so those who work with Indigenous clientele have the right tools and understanding to deal with intergenerational trauma. She’s also taken it upon herself to work with her community to provide naloxone training.

A month before this spring’s convocation, Veillette marked five years of continuous sobriety. Upon graduating, she was recognized with the Faculty of Social Work’s Excellence in Personal Achievement Award. But that was merely an addendum to her true prize.

“In my whole process of everything I’ve struggled with, I broke that intergenerational cycle within my family,” she says. “[My son] is a very bright kid, very smart. He has an emotional intelligence — he can tell me if he's upset. He can express himself in a healthy manner. It’s so very, very nice to see him just have a normal childhood.”

Entrepreneurial UCalgary grads make an impact in business, health care, culture, law, education and more. Read more stories about Class of 2022 students.