Terri Cardinal

A Tale of Two Journeys: Terri Cardinal on Learning and Healing Through Social Work

“The healing journey started in the learning journey,” says Terri Cardinal. She is from Saddle Lake Cree Nation, is the program manager for the Nation’s early childhood centre and sits on the child welfare board in her community. She is in her final year of the Indigenous Masters of Social Work program with the University of Blue Quills. Her career path was informed by her life experiences.

Growing up, she lived with her grandparents in a one bedroom home with no flooring, electricity, heat or running water. They lived off the land in a minimalist way, practicing Indigenous sustainability, spending time in ceremony, and learning about reciprocity.  She lived with them until she was nine, when she started going to school in a Western setting.

During school, she experienced a lot of bullying because she was different. However, she learned from these experiences, and they became helpful for her survival in a colonial and capitalistic society. While she went through this, she stayed in touch with who she was through ceremony, singing, and dancing. Now, as an adult and a mother, she bridges her Western learning with her cultural teachings, making them work together through two-eyed seeing so she can live her best possible life and raise her children as best she can.

As a young adult on reserve, she used to drink and party and experienced a lot of social issues, too. She barely graduated and when she thought about post-secondary education, online aptitude tests suggested she would excel at nursing or teaching. She was squeamish about blood so nursing didn’t appeal to her and when she applied to Blue Quills, she learned about the field of social work. The experience has been life changing and she has excelled academically, earning an offer to law school in Regina. It was a big change from when she was struggling in high school. “When you feel safe, supported, validated and heard, you can learn and you can retain and you can do much better,” she smiles.

She was able to get over her experiences of trauma and move towards her sobriety with self-reflection, self awareness, recognizing her traumas, grief and loss and by taking accountability. Cardinal reached out for support and found resources, including ceremony and culture. At university, she has access to knowledge keepers, elders, and professors who she looks up to and who share their lived experiences. She learns about the seven sacred teachings, natural laws, kinship, and treating everybody living and nonliving as a relative. These philosophies are embedded in the student experience and the institutional culture.

Illustration by Shaikara David

In her colonial educational experiences, Cardinal repressed a lot of things and was ashamed of who she was. In her current program, she gets to participate in land-based education, culture and ceremony and the experience has been bringing back memories.  “It's a journey of self discovery and self awareness,” she shares, acknowledging that the journey can be painful but that pain can be met head on.  Having a good support system is something that’s important to Cardinal, and she doesn’t have a lot of resources on her reserve. She tries to be a part of community activities when she can and she finds a lot of support within her own family.

Through her healing journey, Cardinal’s husband has been supportive. Her father, who passed away in 2018, was a good role model for her and her younger brother has been an incredible support for her, with his gift of communication. Her elders, grandmother and son have played a big part in who she is. Her youngest child is being assessed for autism and working through the challenges they face calls for her to come from a strengths-based approach and to look through a cultural lens to ensure he gets the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual support he needs.

For her own mental health as a mother, she goes to ceremony to reconnect and balance. She enjoys journaling and making gratitude lists. When it comes to downtime, she goes hunting with her kids, spends time on the land and goes to culture camp. She dances traditional and jingle and also sees a counsellor.

If she could give a message to her younger self it would be, “Don't give up. Keep going.” She would want to tell herself to be proud of who she is and where she comes from and that it’s okay to be different.  Her advice for youth thinking about leaving their community to go learn abroad or go to university would be to do what they love and also not to give up. “It's really hard a lot of the time, especially when people leave their families and what they know. But home is what you make it and seek out those resources and different groups. Keep yourself busy, work out, eat healthy. Have a schedule for yourself and make sure your internal medicine, whatever that looks like, is balanced,” she encourages.

After all, she knows that in her own experience, the healing journey started in the learning journey and that’s what youth can find for themselves as they follow their own dreams. Informed by her life experiences, her education in university and on the land, she’s shaping the future of the next generation through early childhood education and child welfare where she lives. Once upon a time she didn’t know Indigenous social work existed, and now it’s helping her start a new chapter in her life and that of her community.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
    ,
    ,
  • Province/Territory
    Alberta
  • Date
    November 3, 2023
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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