May 27, 2019

PhD student uses Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing to find healing from child sexual abuse

Natalie St-Denis' research focuses on women Elders’ storytelling
Natalie St-Denis is a social worker and a second-year PhD student at the University of Calgary. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Natalie St-Denis is a social worker and a second-year PhD student at the University of Calgary. Phot

Child sexual abuse is a topic most people don’t want to talk about. But to Natalie St-Denis, talking about it is exactly what needs to happen.

After 10 years of working as a social worker with urban Indigenous women, she’s recognized a gap in current healing supports for survivors of child sexual abuse — a need for something specifically designed for Indigenous women. Her plan is to find a way to fill that gap by working with women Elders living on Treaty 7 territory.

“My goal in working with the Indigenous community in Calgary is to co-create a healing model or process for Indigenous women who are survivors of child sexual abuse,” says St-Denis, a second-year PhD student and recent recipient of the Social Sciences and Humanities Council (SSHRC) Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

Estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of Indigenous girls experience sexual assault. And yet, none of the existing studies on healing from child sexual abuse have included Indigenous women in meaningful ways, says St-Denis, who comes from mixed lineages including Mi’kmaq and Kanien’kehá:ka ancestries from Turtle Island and French-settler ancestry from Europe.

Many western clinicians and service providers are unaware of Indigenous ways and context, including the complex historical and intergenerational traumas that are still impacting people today. Stories shared by Indigenous women St-Denis has worked with have led her to believe that something is missing in western methods and that a combination of Indigenous ways of healing with western practice would be ideal.

To find this combination, she will collaborate with five women Elders to learn what they have witnessed in how women and other Indigenous community members have healed or are healing from child sexual abuse.

Engaging with Indigenous knowledge keepers in culturally appropriate ways

“My work with the Elders is like an oral literature review,” St-Denis explains. First, she will meet with Elders individually to gather their stories. Once the stories have been transcribed, she will bring all the Elders together in sharing circles to help her refine them.

The collected stories will be arranged into knowledge bundles — groups of stories that teach on a shared topic or idea. The knowledge bundles will be used as the base for developing the healing model. When that model is drafted, St-Denis will once again gather with the Elders for their input before sharing the model with Indigenous communities and service agencies.

“It is important to me to honour Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing in this process,” she says. “When you’re doing Indigenous research it has to be community-led and embody an Indigenous spirit to honour Indigenous ways.”

Through the funding provided by SSHRC and additional support from the Alberta Association of Sexual Assault Services, St-Denis will be able to collaborate with the Elders in culturally appropriate ways, and follow protocols which include honouring them with gifts of tobacco.

Research to create a better world

For St-Denis, this work is about doing what she can to help. “This knowledge is not my knowledge. It belongs to the communities. I’m embodying the role of helper to bring those knowledges together to support the healing journey.” She hopes that her research will create a template for Indigenous communities to use to start breaking the silence about child sexual abuse.

“When I worked with the women in my social work practice, I was often enraged and saddened by their stories and at the same time inspired by their strength and courage,” St-Denis says. Many of the women she worked with had never before told anyone of the sexual abuse they had experienced as children.

Her academic supervisor, Dr. Christine Walsh, PhD, is impressed with St-Denis’s methods and passion for helping. “I feel so fortunate to have witnessed Natalie's development as an Indigenous scholar and practitioner during her MSW and now in her PhD studies,” Walsh says. “While not an easy journey to embark upon, due to the immense sensitivities and methodological challenges inherent in her dissertation research, her passion to contribute to her community in a meaningful and academically rigorous way has been inspiring.”

“To me, research is about creating a better world,” says St-Denis. “We are gathering knowledges that will improve the lives of everyone. That’s the intent of research.” 

If you think you have experienced sexual violence, or know someone who has, visit the Sexual Violence Support website for campus and community resources. You can also arrange a confidential consultation with Carla Bertsch, the university’s sexual violence support advocate, by confidential email

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, ‘in a good way,’ UCalgary will move toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization. Stay in touch with ii’ taa’poh’to’p’s activities and learn more about opportunities for Indigenous education and development.