Nov. 14, 2022

Class of 2022: UCalgary social work grad faces the storms

Rebecca Morin's Indigenous name is Standing Buffalo Woman. Like the buffalo, she has faced many storms in her life, including cancer, to make it through to convocation
Rebecca Morin BSW graduate
Elder Rebecca Morin hopes her story of determination and perseverance will inspire other students to pursue post-secondary degrees. Rebecca Morin

The blizzard was really coming now, and the wipers struggled to clear the heavy snow and sleet. With white knuckles, Rebecca Morin focused on keeping the truck on the road as she struggled to make out the highway through the blinding glare of the oncoming trucks and cars. She knew she just had to get through to the other side. And she knew she would, because it’s what she’s always done …

Rebecca Morin was one of many students who graduated during the University of Calgary’s Nov. 10, 2022, convocation ceremony. But few matched the Bachelor of Social Work grad's tenacity, courage, or strength.

Flash back two generations. Rebecca's grandfather was forced to give up his Indian status to fight for Canada in the war. Eventually he returned home with a new wife — a nurse from Wisconsin — and settled in Saskatchewan. But, having given up his status, Rebecca’s grandfather wasn't exactly welcomed back into the community, so he moved the family into the backcountry where they lived off the land. The move meant that while Rebecca's father was effectively denied the opportunity of attending school, he also was hidden from the Indian Agents who lurked near reserves and spirited children to residential schools. This meant Rebecca's father retained his culture and was fluent in Cree despite having only a Grade 3 education.

Parents lead by example

He eventually moved north to Hay River, N.W.T. where he worked as a commercial fisherman. While there, he met and married Rebecca’s mother, Beatrice, a residential school survivor who had three children herself. While neither of her parents had the opportunity to pursue formal education, they both supported it for their children. Beatrice had been pulled out of school by the nuns because she was a great physical worker. Her father wanted to learn, and amazingly, the older children taught him to read and write. He became educated enough to earn both his personal and professional pilot’s licence.

“My parents,” says Morin, “did not talk about things that much at home, but they led by example. They showed by doing.”

School loses its joy

Rebecca picked up on her parent’s passion for learning, and says she really loved school — until about seventh grade. Ironically, she had always looked forward to entering Grade 7, the milestone year when she and her friends would finally get a locker. Sadly, their joy was short-lived. The school was mostly staffed by non-indigenous teachers from the outside, including a sexual predator, a man in his 30s, who preyed on Rebecca’s best friends.

We were still babies really. We played out on the land and felt safe. That really changed everything.

Overnight, they were forced to avoid the locker they were so proud of, because that's where the man would wait for them after school. Instead, they carried their books home, and left their jackets, forcing them to come up with excuses for their parents like, “Oh, we couldn’t figure out the locker combination.” Like so many victims, especially in a colonial system, Rebecca says the girls wouldn't tell anyone anything because they didn't want to get into trouble. They knew they would be blamed somehow.

What becoming a hairdresser can teach you

Since school was no longer safe, Rebecca no longer wanted to attend. And that was reinforced after her family moved to Peace River, where she was suddenly a minority, experiencing the sting of racism for the first time. After a while, she tried attending a vocational school, alongside classmates mainly in their 50s and 60s. She pushed through and made it to Grade 10.

Then one day, fate intervened in the form of a garbage can, with an advertising poster that said, “Become a hairdresser with just a Grade 10 education!” Given her limited prospects, hairdressing felt like a pretty good option to Rebecca. Her parents moved her to Edmonton and she was on her own for the first time.  

And, as it turns out, hairdressing school actually was a good idea. In those days, to become a hairdresser also meant that you had to learn masseuse skills, so students had to learn anatomy and technique. It was surprisingly academic, and Rebecca found that she loved that part of her training. She also loved the creativity of being able to do whatever her clients would allow with their hair! She returned to N.W.T., which was part of the service agreement that paid for her training, and she began her new career. While hairdressing didn't pay that well, it sustained her and her two children for years, and showed her kids the importance of hard work.

But like her father before her, Rebecca aspired to do more.

Learning and thriving in two worlds

She eventually moved to Grand Prairie, mostly to get better treatment for her son’s hearing issues, and while she was there in 2009 decided to go back to school. She finally completed her high school diploma at Northwestern Polytechnic (formerly Grande Prairie Regional College), where she discovered the UCalgary social work program. For more than 20 years, University of Calgary has partnered with NW Polytechnic, providing a pathway for aspiring social workers to pursue their Bachelor of Social Work, following two years at the Polytechnic.

Like many social workers, Rebecca says that when she discovered social work it was like a light coming on. She wanted a profession where she could help people, where she could make things better. And despite being much older than most of her cohort, she was accepted and excelled in the program. After years of feeling that something was missing, she felt a sense of fulfillment, of reaching a potential she always knew was there.

Rebecca says her daughter would come home and see her reading, surrounded by piles of books and mounds of papers, and say, "I don't know how you can read and read and write and write and be so excited and happy about all of that!” Rebecca recalls with a laugh. “You know? I am a lifelong learner. I have always loved to learn. And in both worlds.”

When she speaks of both worlds, Rebecca means her life as an Indigenous person and her life in the colonized world. As she was finding her way back to academic achievement and a new lease on life, she was also finding her way back to her culture and healing through ceremony.

Healing through ceremony

It was her children who provided the spark to find that part of her life again. While she never drank or used hard drugs, she did experiment with marijuana. She says she wanted more from herself and made the decision to — as she puts it — break the “cycles of anger, of dysfunction and toxicity.” She knew she did not have a drug problem but she did have a living problem. Looking to find the peace inside herself, she enrolled in a 35-day women's treatment program steeped in Indigenous culture.

“It began in ceremony, and early, early, in my journey to getting healthy, I was told a story about the buffalo. Wood Buffalo National Park is in my territory, and an Elder was talking about buffaloes, and how, when a storm is coming, all the other animals will run and hide. They will seek refuge or shelter somewhere because they know that a storm is coming.

"The buffalo will turn and face the storm dead-on, because it knows that is the only way to get to the other side of it. And that story resonated with me. They say — and I believe it to be true — that everything happens for a reason. I was meant to hear that story. Right? And apparently, I was meant to live that too. So, I always think of the buffalo when I have to get to the other side.”

Fighting cancer

The example of the buffalo unfortunately became increasingly important to Rebecca over the final years of her degree. First there was the COVID pandemic and the move to learning mostly online, which she says she was adapting to, until the day when she got one of those out-of-the-blue life-changing phone calls. It was a simple message from her physician following a routine check-up: “Call me.”

The diagnosis was cancer. Her world went blank for a minute as she struggled to contain and understand the implications. She mostly felt disbelief that this could happen now, on top of everything else. She also drew on the story of the buffalo and knew she would face the storm and get through to the other side: convocation with her cohort. She informed her physician, gynecologist and oncologist that she would follow all the necessary treatment but that it had to accommodate her studies.

So last December, following her end-of-term papers and exams, she found herself, like the buffalo, literally facing the storm head-on as she made her way through the blizzard, all the way to Edmonton for her four-hour surgery to remove the cancer.

As it turned out, the prognosis was positive, and she felt hope again when her doctor called in January to let her know there was only a three-per-cent chance the cancer had spread. As she continues her journey back to physical wellness, she says that she is also continuing her learning as she embraces her culture.

“When you are born in the North, you always have that compass," she says. "I never left my culture, just veered away for a while.”

She has been taking Cree language courses and recently translated the children’s book Goodnight Moon, with the help of her father, into Cree. When she shared the assignment with her father, he was in disbelief that an Indigenous person was teaching and speaking the Cree language.

Flipping the script on child welfare

As she graduates, Rebecca is proud to be the first of her family to graduate with a university degree and hopes she is a role model and inspiration to other Indigenous students to pursue formal education. She is also looking forward to contributing to the decolonization of the profession of social work — working to change systems and structures to better support and serve Indigenous peoples.

Her field education placement was with the Indigenous case practice specialists who work with Child Services’ North region who she says work with staff in “both worlds.” Articulating, for example, where anti-oppressive or ecological theory might intersect with the seven sacred laws. Importantly, they also show caseworkers how to take those teachings and incorporate them into their practice with Indigenous families.

Morin acknowledges that social work, and specifically child intervention, is rightly viewed with suspicion in Indigenous communities, and she's looking to help change that. She says:

It is being said that the millennial residential school is apprehending children. That is true when you look at the numbers.

"I want our children and families to be supported — and to actually look at that through an Indigenous, holistic perspective. I want to be part of that piece that says, 'Every child deserves to live in a safe home, where they belong, and they are surrounded with their culture, their language, their natural supports, but above all, they are safe.'”

She adds, “I recognize that there's generations and generations of my people who are at multiple stages of healing and that our parenting skills were fragmented because of residential school. I recognize that, and I recognize that if we had those traditional parenting skills once, we would have them again. I do not expect people to move out of the city and live off the land — there are urban, Indigenous people and land-based or water-based indigenous peoples. It is important to recognize the diversity, and inclusion within our nations. If we could come together and have safety as the piece that intersects all of us — that is the Buffalo."

Buffalo stand facing a storm

Early in her healing journey, an Elder told Rebecca Morin, "The Buffalo will turn and face the storm dead-on, because it knows that's the only way to get to the other side of it. I always think of the buffalo when I have to get to the other side.”

Deposit Photos

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

A note for new UCalgary Alumni! As you prepare to transition from student life, we encourage you to check out our Life Kit for Recent Grads – custom built to inform you about the programs, benefits and services available to you as a member of the UCalgary alumni community.

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