Skip to main content

Top scholar on Indigenous mental health awarded honorary degree

Dr. Suzanne Stewart, this year’s recipient of an honorary degree at the University of Guelph-Humber’s Convocation, hasn’t always felt accepted by the academic establishment.

When Dr. Stewart was a doctoral student, she pursued research connecting Indigenous mental health and educational challenges to the traumas inflicted by the residential school system. Again and again, her research was met with opposition, dismissal and even anger from some colleagues, students, professors, and psychology professionals.

Dr. Stewart, however, never lost confidence in her convictions. With parents and siblings who were survivors of the residential school system, Dr. Stewart knew her ideas had merit.

“I knew it was true because I’ve lived this experience my whole life,” she says. “There was no doubt.”

Nearly 20 years later, and Dr. Stewart is now recognized as one of the world’s leading scholars in Indigenous knowledge and mental health, and her once-controversial research on the horrors of the residential school system have started to gain widespread acceptance.

For Dr. Stewart – a member of the Yellowknife Dene First Nation, a registered psychologist, and Director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health – the honorary degree from our partners at the University of Guelph is another sign of how attitudes in academia are evolving.

“I think it’s very difficult for mainstream institutions like Universities to honour people like myself or other people who are doing things that go against the stream of society, and to do that in a way that’s genuine and doesn’t appear tokenistic. I think Guelph-Humber has done a good job of that,” Dr. Stewart said.

“I’m a little overwhelmed – I don’t really feel like I alone should be the recipient of this, given that so much of my work is collaborative and community-based. To be singled out individually is very humbling.”

A career effecting change

Dr. Stewart’s research and teaching interests now lie in Indigenous mental health and healing in psychology, including issues related to homelessness, youth mental health, identity and work-life development.

An Associate Professor both in Social and Behaviour Health Sciences at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, as well as Indigenous Healing in Clinical and Counselling Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), Dr. Stewart also served as Chair of the Aboriginal Section of the Canadian Psychology Association, she helped establish the first Master of Public Health program in Indigenous Health, and she has spent five years as special advisor to the OISE Dean on Aboriginal education. More recently, she was also named Interim Director of the Indigenous Education Initiative.

As she received her honorary degree during the University of Guelph-Humber’s virtual Convocation ceremony, Dr. Stewart was applauded for her ground-breaking academic research, activism and advocacy.

“We honour Dr. Suzanne Stewart for her significant contributions to the Indigenization of Psychology in Canada,” said University of Guelph-Humber Acting Vice-Provost Dr. George Bragues. “As a researcher, educator and mentor, she has been an advocate for culturally safe approaches for Indigenous people seeking healthcare.”

“One of the most recognized names in Indigenous psychology in Canada, Dr. Suzanne Stewart has helped numerous Indigenous clients, students and cultural allies through her academic and clinical work and through her activism and advocacy for Indigenous rights,” said UofGH Psychology Program Head Dr. David Danto.

“Dr. Stewart is a powerful role model for all students in Indigenous health research.”

As she accepted the honorary degree, Dr. Stewart found herself reflecting on her family and their interactions with academic institutions.

“I feel like my family had this horrific experience at school, and I’m here in this position, being acknowledged and honoured by the very same Canadian systems that perpetrated such violence on the people so close to me,” Dr. Stewart said.

“It’s really overwhelming – in a good way. It shows the systems are changing.

“I feel very grateful to be an active part of the change process, of the healing.”

Given that her family was close to mind, Dr. Stewart was also grateful that two of her children participated in the ceremony and helped award her the degree.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” she said. “Obviously my children haven’t always had positive experiences in school either, on account of being Indigenous. For them to see a school system supporting someone in their family is a big deal.”