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Thesis presents raw, compelling view from inside the child welfare system

Alumna Daniela Navia earns prestigious award for innovative thesis using art and storytelling to amplify the voices of Indigenous youth

Daniela Navia, double University of Calgary alumna, recently won the Western Association of Graduate Schools Distinguished Thesis award for her work: Uncovering Colonial Legacies: Voices of Indigenous Youth in Child Welfare (dis)Placements. Photo by Daena Crosby

By Andrea Kingwell
May 19, 2017

Daniela Navia’s master’s thesis is punctuated with raw and compelling first-hand reflections of Indigenous youth who have spent time in the child welfare system.

That perspective — looking at the impact of the system through the experiences of youth — was critically important to Navia, whose innovative anthropology research has earned widespread recognition including, most recently, the Western Association of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award.

“When you actually talk to people who come from marginalized experiences, it sheds light on the institution,” says Navia, BHSc’11, MA’15. “I wanted to promote understanding things from their point of view.”

Being a sociocultural anthropologist allowed Navia the freedom to conduct her ethnographic research within a community context. “Discussing how child welfare fits into the larger context of colonial structures opened a lot of doors for me; youth were willing to talk about what was really going on, and reflected on how their personal histories fit into a bigger picture.”

That historical context is central in Navia’s thesis, titled, Uncovering Colonial Legacies: Voices of Indigenous Youth in Child Welfare (dis)Placements. The legacy of residential schools may now be more widely recognized but, Navia says, “What we don’t acknowledge is we are making the same mistakes today.”

Three times as many Indigenous children in care now as at height of residential schools

As an example of the harm coming not just as a result of history, but of history actually repeating itself, Navia points to the number of Indigenous children in care today in Canada. At close to 30,000 nationally, it is triple the number of children housed at the peak of Canada’s residential schools in 1965. Although only one in 10 children in Alberta is of Aboriginal heritage, they make up 69 per cent of those in the child welfare system.

Navia worked in partnership with the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY) and 20 youth collaborators. Other youth-serving agencies in Calgary also assisted, including The Alex Youth Health Centre and Exit Community Outreach. Youth were invited to share their stories over several months through one-on-one interviews, painting, dance, beadwork and sculptures.

Storytelling and art make effective ethnographic research tools

“Visual culture has always been an important part of my life,” Navia says. She has collaborated with various marginalized groups in the past — incarcerated women, men living with HIV, and vulnerable youth — and has always incorporated an artistic component. “It’s a really crucial way to get beyond the top-down institutional stories that have come to us,” she says.

As a followup to her studies, Navia collaborated with youth in sharing their stories with public audiences, presenting across Canada and exhibiting their artwork. In 2016, the documentary (Dis)placed based on the research project premiered.

“What makes Daniela’s research stand out is her desire to make a real difference by pursuing academic work,” says her supervisor Saulesh Yessenova, associate professor in anthropology and archaeology. “She used a bold, innovative approach in a study that could have been addressed in many other more traditional ways. Times have changed, and Daniela’s is one of the careers leading that change.”

In addition to the WAGS award, Navia, who was born in Colombia, is a finalist for the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant awards. She has earned the City of Calgary’s David Crowchild Memorial Award, the J.B. Hyne Research Innovation Award, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Storytellers contest award (YouTube video), and the University of Calgary Chancellor’s Graduate Medal. Navia is now working for the Government of Alberta as the research consultant for the Arts sector.