Savannah Seaton

Savanah Seaton
Graduate Student, Faculty of Arts
> Waywayseecappo First Nation
> Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Savanah Seaton had worked hard to build working relationships — and trust — between the governments of three First Nations and the City of Vancouver. So her heart sank when she got a call that workers had dug in the zone of an ancestral burial ground, again.

As the first Indigenous liaison and social planner for the city’s engineering department, Seaton had provided archeological and cultural competency training to almost 3,000 employees to ensure everyone knew exactly what to do before digging in protected lands. But that day, Seaton found herself standing over the hole trying to understand what went wrong.

When “reconciliation” is in the job description

That experience, compounded among others before, sparked a new path for Seaton. As an Indigenous person with lived intergenerational trauma from government programs, what does it mean to have true “reconciliation” in your job description, and who defines it? How do you know when the job is effecting real change?

Seaton decided to seek solutions to these problems at a different level: “I wanted to be able to have an impact through research,” she says. “I feel that we can do better. I want to speak truth to power in a language that governments can understand.”

Now, Seaton is a graduate student in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Waterloo. She was initially drawn to Waterloo’s Faculty of Arts for its Indigenous Workways program, a new collaborative Waterloo is undertaking with Wilfrid Laurier University, Conestoga College and the University of Windsor. She is currently designing research concerning bias in the process of work performance evaluation that can affect minority social and cultural groups.

Bringing Indigenous knowledge systems to psychology

Seaton notes there’s still work to do to promote supportive learning for Indigenous students at the University of Waterloo.

“We need an Indigenous research methods course,” she says. Indigenous research has important differences from settler research. For instance, it’s reciprocal, not extractive: researchers must give something back to the people they learn from. In psychology, that’s a problem when using anonymous surveys. Knowledge is shared and cannot belong to an individual — a value that runs counter to much of Western academic practice. Reciprocity, respect, relevance and responsibility are foundations to Indigenous research.

There aren’t any Indigenous scholars yet in her program at Waterloo, Seaton says, and the history of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples throws serious roadblocks in the paths of Indigenous scholars. Institutional and systemic racism excludes and alienates many First Nations people from higher education.

“Education” that harms instead of helps

Seaton’s own family history tells the story of Indigenous intergenerational trauma in Canada. Her late grandfather Chesley Seaton, a residential school survivor and grandmother Myrna Bone struggled to make ends meet on the reserve. Her mother, Brenda Seaton, was placed in foster care as part of the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system in the 1960s. Suffering trauma in those homes, Brenda Seaton ran away to raise herself. Seaton and her older sister were also placed in foster care in the final years of the mass removal — another generation forced into the dominant culture. It was several years before Brenda Seaton was able to regain custody.

On Vancouver Island, Seaton excelled at school. “I loved learning, sports and spending time with friends,” she says. When Seaton came home excited about a special Indigenous cultural class only for Indigenous children, her mother was furious at the attempt to take over Indigenous cultural teaching, and the implication that Indigenous people were all the same. Seaton is Ojibwe from Waywayseecappo in Manitoba, not Kwakwakaʼwakw — the people of the land where she went to school. “She called the school and said, ‘If she’s going to learn anything, it’s not going to be from you.’”

After leaving home as a teenager, Seaton was widowed with a son by age 20. Working two, sometimes three jobs and with childcare help from family, she graduated with distinction with a business management degree.

Preparing for generations ahead

The University of Waterloo is beginning to answer the Truth and Reconciliation Commission call to Indigenize higher education. Jean Becker, member of the Nunatsiavut Territory of Labrador, joined the University in January 2020 as its Senior Director, Indigenous Initiatives. “The goal is to have Indigenous curriculum throughout the institution,” she says. “There’s a recognized need to improve the number of Indigenous faculty and staff.

“All six faculties are interested, and the colleges as well. Quite a number of places on campus already have Indigenization or decolonization committees. People recognize the need to make concrete steps.”

Seaton hopes her research journey will help employers create more genuinely supported “reconciliation” jobs and authentic welcoming spaces where Indigenous employees can feel a sense of belonging, and where they can fully contribute their untapped knowledge, skills and abilities in the workplace. As new generations grow up, Seaton hopes that better support for Indigenous employees will mean fewer people need to find ways to thrive in spite of a history of trauma. She intends to continue participating in the circle of Indigenous ways of knowing and serve as a support with lived experience to young Indigenous scholars.

“There’s a concept called post-traumatic growth,” Seaton says. “Trauma impacts the entire family, and we all find ways to cope with pain differently. Ten years ago, I asked Creator for help and the red road appeared. On this path, I continue to heal and grow through these adversities.”