Ashleigh Presenger

From Human Trafficking To Health Care: Ashleigh Presenger’s Journey to Community Healing

She went from being a teacher to working with human trafficking survivors on the streets of Thunder Bay and she’s learned a lot along the way. Ashleigh Presenger was born in Winnipeg and raised in Thunder Bay. Born to a mother who was a settler and an Inuk father from the Labrador area, she was raised not knowing her cultural history. Her grandmother and great grandmother were residential school survivors. Growing up, she struggled with her Inuk identity because it was not discussed and there was a lot of shame. As an adult, she’s learned more about her family history.

Currently, Presenger works as a policy analyst in health transformation with Sioux Lookout First Nation Health Authority. The organization was started in the 90s based on the chiefs recognizing the communities’ poor health conditions and putting forth a resolution. Supporting the inherent rights of community members and their capacity to manage healthcare, her focus is on reclaiming traditional methods of care. With her life lessons, she’s been able to understand community needs and perspectives on programs, vital considerations in creating effective interventions. In her work, she looks to honour the community’s voice as much as she can.  

This wasn’t always her dream job. At first, she taught kids with special needs but realized the system needed to change for kids to thrive. She went back to do her master’s degree, wanting to work in the system to change it. At the university, she taught special needs and inclusive education to teachers, along with educational psychology but she didn’t love teaching and wanted to create more meaningful change. 

She went into psychology as a clinical therapist in private practice, focused on the impact of trauma on learning. She worked with victims who had experienced sexual violence and human trafficking, then moved into working with victims on the front lines, shaping her present trauma informed approach. “I saw the really seedy underbelly of our city that I didn't know existed until I sort of got into that world,” she recalls, thinking of Thunder Bay high homicide rates and standing as one of the primary Canadian human trafficking hubs. 

After surviving trafficking herself, she’s also inspired to protect people who remind her of her own grandmother. “A big pull to do the trafficking work was to better understand what I had experienced but then to also try and support victims… in the way that I didn't have support,” Presenger explains. In her front line work, she learned about systemic racism in policing and how recommended changes were not implemented. Inquest after inquest showed law enforcement was failing.Without having done healing work herself, it hit too close to home far too soon. Still educating on the topic, she no longer works directly with victims.  

To keep her mental health in check, she picked up many skills as a therapist and recommends therapy to others. “There's a lot of good that can come from really challenging our inner struggles. We put a lot of boundaries and boxes around it and just say we're not going to deal with it, but it comes up in other ways. It wears us down. It eats away at us and in relationships or in how we sort of put our physical being out into the world, so I think finding ways to deal with it professionally is great,” she advises. 

Illustration by Shaikara David

Trauma work with elders is also something she recommends. A healing ceremony helped her keep getting up in the morning after losing a son. Physical fitness and changing her relationship with alcohol also made a difference. “I think until you're in a place that you can use substances healthily, sometimes we have to step away from them for a while,” she shares. 

She also had to shift how she saw the world and herself. Taking responsibility and apologizing, she learned she can make mistakes and still be loved. “I think that was another big step, being okay with not being okay and not having to be perfect… It was recognizing the role that trauma was playing in my life and that took professional help,” she says. 

As an undergraduate, she had to step away from her education when she had her first son. with a strong support system, she was able to graduate but it was far from smooth sailing. Struggling financially, raising a child with a partner she wasn’t on the same page with and starting motherhood too young, it was a hard time. When she went back to do her masters, she had a daughter and felt selfish for taking time away from parenting to study. 

When she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in grad school, she re-interpreted her challenging relationships and experiences changed considering her mental health. As a graduate student, she also went through a divorce. All of those experiences had her wondering if she should drop out, but it was the one thing she was doing for herself. A professor urged her to continue, saying, ”You can be you can be two years ahead with the same stressors without a master's, or you can be two years ahead with the same stressors and a Masters, but the two years is going to come and it's going to be the same stressors.” 

Contemplating her future, she also recognized her kids could get through her educational experience, remembering, “As long as mom’s happy. Kids will be okay.” Having her degree positioned her well to provide for her kids and it turned out to be the best decision she could have made. 

"I am so excited about this next generation to see what they're going to do because there's such a cool momentum forward right now of this intense pride in who they are."

Now, Presenger is full of hope for the future. “I am so excited about this next generation to see what they're going to do because there's such a cool momentum forward right now of this intense pride in who they are. All good things are gonna come. I'm excited to see what this generation is going to do to move Indigenous rights forward!” she exclaims. She watches Indigenous youth sharing their culture, dancing, beading and reclaiming their traditional practices. 

Moving from the front of the class to the front lines of human trafficking on the streets of Thunder Bay, Ashleigh Presenger has learned so much. Reclaiming her Inuk identity, inspired by youth doing the same, she’s looking back on her family history and forward to brighter days.  After finding her own path to education after motherhood and divorce to working in health care, she’s a voice for the community in advocating for wellness and transformation.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
  • Date
    April 30, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
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    create to learn discuss

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