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Q-and-A: Psychology alumna Sarah Lim's studies take her from Canada's North to New Zealand

Sarah Lim

I’m committed to ensuring that my journey includes supporting the inherent resilience and potential within Indigenous families and communities.

Sarah Lim graduated from the University of Guelph-Humber's Psychology program in 2013. In the years since, her work has taken her all around the world. We caught up with Sarah on her post-graduation life. 

How have you spent your time since graduating from the University of Guelph-Humber?

The heart of my journey throughout these past years has largely been rooted in my own healing journey through trauma, loss, and self-discovery. What has been a central part of my healing has been directly through my learning from and work with Indigenous communities in Canada and abroad. In the roughly 6 years since my graduation from UofGH, my professional development has focused largely on developing my career as a social worker at Payukotayno James and Hudson Bay Family Services in Moosonee, the Durham Children’s Aid Society in Oshawa, and currently at Whakatū Te Korowai Manaakitanga Trust in Whakatū, Aotearoa (Nelson, New Zealand). As I’ve transitioned between these agencies, a significant part of my personal life has been in travelling across the world with my husband, to my ancestral home of Cambodia, Hawai’i, Azores in Portugal, Belize, the Canadian East Coast, and most recently camper vanning across Aotearoa (New Zealand). 

I understand you spent time at the Durham Children's Aid Society in their Indigenous Child Protection team. What was that work like? What did you take away from it?

Although I was able to move directly from one Ontario child welfare agency to another, there was a drastic contrast between working as part of an Indigenous child welfare agency within a remote Northern community, and the context of working with the general public in an urban, diverse, and densely populated community of Southern Ontario.  My role at the Durham Children’s Aid Society (DCAS) was as a Float Family Service Worker, which essentially meant that I worked in various areas of the agency to address service gaps and support system changes. This allowed me to support and work within several different teams and departments, including the Indigenous Family Service team.

I would describe my work with families and my time there as eye opening, challenging, intense, and meaningful. The training provided around DCAS policies and practice, the Child and Family Services Act, and other various procedures taught me how to do my job, but it was the families I worked with that taught me the most valuable skills on how to relate, empathize, advocate, and deepen my understanding of the human experience, colonization, and systemic power and oppression.

It was through my various interactions with families that I realized that as a Family Service Worker, I was often limited to responding to crisis situations and barely scratching the surface of the potential work that I could be doing to support families in a holistic and sustainable way. I found through my work at Payukotayno and DCAS that my passion lies in working with families in a preventative and educational capacity, walking alongside and supporting families in their healing journeys through holistic, trauma-informed, and decolonizing practice.  

What led you to decide to move to Aotearoa?

My partner Matthew graduated from the University of Toronto in 2017 with a Master of Education, specializing in Adult Education and Community Development through their collaborative program in Indigenous Health. It was through his studies where we first learnt about how Māori peoples were successfully revitalizing their language, settling land claims, embedding their culture in mainstream society, and reclaiming a place in politics, health care, education and child welfare. Luckily, my partner and I are both passionate about working with and learning from Indigenous communities and also both have a serious case of wanderlust! Since our last move to Moosonee turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, we thought instead of reading about the successes and strength of Māori peoples and how they are creating a bicultural society in Aotearoa, let’s go and see for ourselves.

I then sought to expand my understanding of Indigenous ways of cultural empowerment, healing, and self-determination by seeking employment within a kaupapa Māori (Indigenous practice structure) community organization, to learn directly from Māori whānau and practictioners recognized for their work towards achieving tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty). Our intention for this move was to immerse ourselves in Te Ao Māori (the Maori World) here in Aotearoa and bring our learning back home after two years abroad, to embed what we’ve learnt into our work and enable us to better support Indigenous communities in Canada. 

What has your experience been like so far?

I am currently one year into my two-year work visa and I’m really enjoying my time in Aotearoa. I’m loving my work at Whakatū Te Korowai Manaakitanga Trust, my rental home has spectacular mountain and sea views, I’ve been exploring the unique landscapes around the country, making meaningful new friendships, and soaking up all the opportunities that I can to learn about Te Ao Māori (the Māori world). Whakatū Te Korowai Manaakitanga Trust is a kaupapa Māori (Indigenous framework) non-profit community organization that works with Māori whānau (families). My current role as a whānau (family) wellbeing social worker, involves supporting families through a framework of social work practice rooted in tikanga (traditional protocols), which includes the use of Māori karakia (prayers), te reo (language), and waiata (songs), for families who have been identified as being involved or at risk of child welfare or police involvement. My journey in learning about Te Ao Māori (the Māori world) has included cultural and clinical supervision with senior Māori practitioners, learning te reo māori (the Māori language), traditional songs and prayer in Te Reo Māori, connecting with and learning from kaumatua (elders), exploring the whenua (land), visiting the local marae and wharenui (traditional meeting house), and attending wananga (learning sessions). 

My time in Aotearoa has further propelled me into the career path of supporting Indigenous and marginalized families through a holistic and culturally rooted approach. In the short time that I have been here, I’ve observed the power and impact that an integrated and also independently thriving culture has in shifting the narrative on Māori identity for both those who are Indigenous and non-Indigenous. An example of how Māori culture is integrated into everyday life can be seen in the way that mihimihi (speech of greeting), karakia (prayer), and waiata (song) all spoken in te reo māori (the Māori language) are a commonplace practice for bringing together gatherings with both Māori and non-Māori peoples, whether in recreational activities, community gatherings, business meetings, or home environments. Being exposed to the bicultural context in Aotearoa has given me an opportunity to get involved in the strengthening of Māori culture as an ally, and I’m looking forward to continuing this work with Indigenous communities in Canada when I return. 

What led you to decide to pursue the Indigenous Trauma and Resiliency MSW?

I applied to the MSW-ITR program because I am seeking to deepen my learning about how holistic Indigenous forms of healing and conventional models of therapy may be interwoven to create decolonizing frameworks of social work practice. Drawing from my family’s history and the growth of my passion since attending the Field Study course at UofGH, my commitment to supporting the empowerment of Indigenous and marginalized families to heal from systemic oppression and intergenerational trauma has become a formative and powerful part of my learning journey on how I define who I am as a person, as well as my identity as a Canadian. My parents survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and sought to create a life free from oppression, violence, and trauma as refugees here in Canada. However, my family’s refugee experience has not been insulated from the effects of intergenerational trauma, disconnection from culture and family, and socioeconomic marginalization. As part of recognizing and reconciling my place in Canada’s current social context, I continue to pursue opportunities to support healing processes within Indigenous communities, in reciprocation of the ways in which my family has benefitted as refugees from both the generosity and colonization of the Indigenous peoples and lands of Turtle Island. I am seeking to engage in a learning journey through the MSW-ITR program that will build upon my personal experience as a daughter of Cambodian refugees and challenge me to reach further in decolonizing my practice with families and develop innovative ways to more effectively empower community healing and wellness. 

Going back in time a bit, what initially made you choose UofGH? What were the highlights of your time here?

Academically, I chose UofGH for the opportunity to complete both a degree in Psychology and a diploma during my studies, with their respective undergraduate thesis and practicum components. I was seeking to make the most out of my studies through academic learning and practical community work, and saw this as an opportunity to diversify what I was engaging in. On a broader level, I was looking for a university with a smaller campus and class sizes, to better connect with my peers and professors. As a new high school graduate I felt anxious about transitioning to university and being lost within a massive institution. However, UofGH eased many of those worries and ultimately provided me with an uncompromised quality of learning in an intimate and personal community learning environment. 

As a UofGH student I really enjoyed knowing most of my peers by name and also getting a chance to know who they are as people. I developed many strong relationships with my peers that have led to deep friendships.

This was particularly true for the group of students that I went on the Field Study to Moosonee and Moose Factory course with! We all collectively and simultaneously experienced a powerful awakening of Canada’s history, the beauty of Moosonee and Moose Factory, and also the depth and resilience of Indigenous culture and community. Unequivocally, my time on the Field Study course was the highlight of my entire undergraduate experience and has proven to be the spark that ignited my passion for working with and learning from Indigenous peoples.   

How did that field study course influence the path you're on now?

My field study course at UofGH was focused on learning about First Nations mental health, traditional healing models, and resiliency. It was the beginning of my journey in learning about Canada’s colonial history and the ongoing intergenerational and systemic oppression that continues as a result of this legacy. Travelling to Moosonee and Moose Factory, meeting with community members, and hearing their stories of struggle and healing opened my eyes to another perspective on my identity and what it means to be Canadian.

As a first generation descendant from survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide who came as refugees to Canada, the stories of First Nations peoples resonated with my family’s experience of displacement, poverty, and the trauma of war. I felt not only the similarities in the struggle, but also the resiliency of peoples, communities, culture, and traditional ways of life. Recognizing some of these parallels helped me to empathize with the intergenerational impacts of colonization on Indigenous communities, and it prompted me to ask myself what it means for my family to have suffered through genocide and as refugees, and to then have found a safe haven in Canada, made possible through the colonization and oppression of First Nations peoples sharing so many similarities to the horrors my family sought refuge from. Furthermore, what will I do with this knowledge and awareness; how will I work towards reconciling the cost of my family’s refuge in Canada at the expense of the colonization of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples?

Ultimately, my experience on the field study course has led me to continue asking myself these kinds of questions ever since. It completely changed my perspective and how I approached my studies in psychology, led me to attend the 2012 Truth and Reconciliation Conference in Toronto, began my ongoing learning journey in allyship, sparked my passion for supporting the resilience and revitalization of Indigenous cultures, and ultimately was the seed that led me to live and work in Moosonee and Aotearoa. 

I'd love to know more about your time living in Moosonee.

Moving to Moosonee soon after graduating from UofGH is undeniably one of the best decisions my husband and I have ever made. Not only did it jumpstart my career into social work, but it also allowed me to learn from and support the lived realities and struggles of the families of Moosonee, Moose Factory, and Attawapiskat. There was a massive culture shock moving from Toronto to a small rural community setting without road access, only one restaurant and grocery store in town, and wilderness truly just outside your doorstep. However, the opportunity to connect more deeply with the people and environment around us greatly outweighed the challenges of adapting to a new and different lifestyle. The greatest part of my experience would certainly be in the experiences I shared with, and what I learned from, the families I worked with, my colleagues, and community members. Those relationships taught me invaluable lessons about resilience, the depth and beauty of Indigenous cultures, and community.

From a professional perspective, some highlights were that part of my employment training included bush wilderness survival training and travelling across the Moose River to and from work throughout all the seasons: via boat taxis in the warm months when the river was flowing, via sleds pulled by snowmobiles when the river had frozen over just enough to cross in lightweight vehicles, via all sizes of cars over a ‘winter road’ when the ice layer was thick enough, and via helicopter during ‘break up’ when the ice was too weak to drive over but also too dangerous to navigate by boat. Personally and culturally, it was a blessing to be able to experience, learn from, and support resilient and beautiful parts of Moose Cree culture, such as taking part in talking circles, attending pow wows and drumming socials, and picking traditional medicines in the James Bay. We needed to leave earlier than we had hoped due to family crisis, but our relationship with our friends and the community is something we hope to maintain long into the future. 

What are your career goals?

I don’t have a fixed expectation for what my future will look like and I’m remaining open to the possibilities, while eager to continue in my learning journey discovering more about myself, my family’s history and the strengths of my culture, alongside my learning journey supporting the resilience, strength, wisdom and beauty of Indigenous cultures. Although I’m uncertain of the outcome of my MSW-ITR application, I hope to complete a Master’s program that will empower me to facilitate greater change in the communities I will have the honour of working with, by supporting me to develop a more critical lens through which to address complex structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the ongoing trauma of Indigenous and marginalized communities. Along my learning journey, I hope to maintain both a professional and personal relationship to Moosonee and the surrounding communities, to give back to a place that has gifted me so much.

Regardless of how things unfold, I’m committed to ensuring that my journey includes supporting the inherent resilience and potential within Indigenous families and communities through decolonizing processes that empower others to foster healing and wellness within themselves, their families, and at the broader level.