As an Inuvialuit woman growing up in Inuvik, Dana Francey knew she had been personally impacted by systemic violence that Indigenous people face disproportionately across the country – her mother went to residential school and she was no stranger to the effects of inter-generational trauma.
Although she wasn’t aware of it at the time the trauma she carried with her ended up affecting her ability to succeed in the school system. She ultimately ended up dropping out at the age of 17 as a result.
Now that she is back at school, undertaking a Master’s of Social Work in Indigenous Trauma and Resiliency through the University of Toronto, Francey hopes to use the struggles she faced to empower Indigenous women who can relate to her experience.
“I think this is an important workshop to understand how systemic barriers impact us on a personal level.”
As part of her program Francey must give at least one workshop on a topic chosen by her professors. Last week she led workshop on learned helplessness to clients of the Native Women’s Association adult training centre in Yellowknife.
The term “learned helplessness” was first coined in 1967 by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier, who used it to refer the behaviour of dogs who acted helpless after inescapable shocks.
“Learned helplessness occurs when an individual (or a group) thinks that his own actions cannot control events and that no action on his or her part will control outcomes in the future,” read a slide in Francey’s presentation.
At first Francey was reluctant to undertake the topic assigned to her because she thought it reinforced stereotypes of women as victims. However the more she delved into it, the more she saw its value in making people realize that there is hope even when all seems lost.
“Learned helplessness teaches that it’s not your fault and that there is a way out of this,” she said.
Michelle LeMouel, the Indigenous skills, employment, training and strategy worker with the Native Women’s Association, said Francey’s workshop was perfect for adult students enrolled in the organization’s training, as well as women referred through victim services, both of which were in attendance at the 10-person event.
The association runs regular workshops for their clients, who are usually adult Indigenous women who have not completed their high school diplomas. Two of the main focuses of the programs run by the association are providing emotional support and building self-confidence.
“If you’re an adult and you’re at that Grade level it’s good to have this information because there may be people who feel like they are in a situation they can’t get out of, which can be a barrier to the next step,” said LeMouel.
“From what I’ve seen so far it’s touched a lot of the participants. It’s gotten little bit emotional.”
To start off the day Francey wanted to make sure the women she was working with felt comfortable by trying to connect with them on a personal level.
Francey asked each of them to write down someone who had made them loved, someone who had made them feel special and someone who did something kind for them.
“We really wanted to create a safe space. Our human nature is to connect with people and we cannot connect with people unless we feel safe.”
She then went on to explain what learned helplessness is and how various strategies can be used to overcome the barriers women face. Part of Francey’s methodology involves sharing her own experiences with participants as a way to connect with them.
“I’m from Inuvik, I’m Inuvialuit. I quit school when I was 17 and didn’t go back until I was 24. So I can understand where this helplessness comes from,” she said.
Francey first realized there was a disconnect between her own experience and the way Indigenous trauma was taught in a formal setting when she went to Victoria to study her bachelor of social work.
“It’s a culture shock,” she said. “All these things I knew but I didn’t know they were studied.”
The lack of support she received from the school while revisiting her trauma in a classroom where almost no one else was Indigenous is what led her to seek out a Masters program that could allow her to give back while also focusing on her own healing journey.
When she finishes her program in the summer of 2020, Francey hopes to continue helping Indigenous women in the NWT.
“When I had mentors there wasn’t a lot of Indigenous social workers with Masters degrees,” she said.
“I want to be able to give back to our communities. I want to be able to mentor other social workers, Indigenous social workers.”