May 30, 2023

Class of 2023: Second act gives social work student another chance to make an impact

20 years after her first UCalgary experience, Samaria Cardinal says she’s crossing the stage to show that anyone can do this
Samaria Cardinal in her shop Mystical Metis
Samaria Cardinal’s graduation with a Bachelor of Social Work this spring is a personal triumph after she overcame several life setbacks. Courtesy Samaria Cardinal

It should have been the most joyous time in her life. Samaria Nancy Cardinal was well on her way to completing her Bachelor of Arts in psychology at UCalgary and had recently discovered she was pregnant. That’s when, as she puts it, her life ended.

“I became very ill,” says Cardinal, “and I had to withdraw from the program. So, I never got my degree. I ended up having the child and I was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression. While I was having my issues, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. And that pretty well ended my life, I must say.”

The diagnosis closed the book on that chapter of her life and completely changed her life’s trajectory. However, it will also make her graduation with a Bachelor of Social Work degree this spring, at the age of 65, even sweeter.

“I am not just walking across the stage,” she says incredulously. “I'm going to dance and have a good time while I'm walking across that one!"

And she’s earned that dance. What followed the misdiagnosis was literally 15 years of hell. Her medical team prescribed shock treatment and 15 different medications, including heavy doses of anti-psychotic medications, to the point where Cardinal says, “All I could do was sit and drool. I had no life. The medical team didn't understand inter-generational trauma, they didn't understand Indigenous thought and culture. And as a result, I did not get the care that I needed to get better.”

‘You’re fired!’

The drugs made her memory worse (actually) than an Alzheimer’s patient. Ironically, it was when her physician accused her of lying during a test designed to capture memory loss, that her inner spark flared back to life.

“It was years leading up to that point,” she says. “I went into the office one day, and the doctor told me I was lying again. And I'd really had it. My partner was behind me. I was thinking of my daughter, who was growing up, watching a mother incapacitated by the system. So, I stood up in the room and said, ‘I’m out of here, you're fired! I'm not putting up with this crap anymore!’ They even had a security guard walk me out of the hospital to demean me further. But it took a long time to get there. Way too long when I look back at it now.”

Way too long translated into nearly two decades of her life stolen. Amazingly, once her partner helped her to painstakingly get off the medications, she almost immediately set about making up her lost time. She tried first working as an advocate in the health-care system, ensuring that what happened to her didn’t happen to anyone else.

Samaria Cardinal holding fabric on Calgary's Nosehill park

Samaria Cardinal on Nose Hill, a place with great significance for her and many Indigenous Peoples in Alberta.

Courtesy Samaria Cardinal

Hunting the new ‘buffalo’

However, she found that without a degree, she wasn’t taken seriously and couldn’t do the work she wanted to do. Cardinal comes from a family that valued education — her father is Douglas Cardinal, the world-renowned architect. Her aunt was Joane Cardinal-Schubert, the famous and also internationally acclaimed artist and Indigenous sovereignty activist. Both of them fought for respect, having to continually prove themselves while fiercely defending Indigenous knowledges and culture. Perhaps that background is one reason Cardinal says she has come to agree with the view that post-secondary education is the modern buffalo for Indigenous Peoples.

“The buffalo sustained us on the prairies, gave us everything we needed to survive. But in today’s world, we need a post-secondary education,” she says. “I tried for years to do the things I wanted to do without a degree, and I couldn't. When you get those degrees … those letters after your name, everything changes.

“And it's not just the letters. It's how it makes you feel every time you get a grade back. And it's a good feeling. You're like, ‘Wow, I can actually do this! I have something to say. I am intelligent.’ So, your self-esteem increases and you start realizing you have a larger capacity than you ever thought you did. And then you can go somewhere in life. So always remember that you can do it. I'm sitting here at 65 years old and with all the barriers I’ve had in my life — I am here doing it. You can do it too.”

Her first “buffalo” was at Mount Royal University in 2018, where she got her feet wet with a diploma in the Aboriginal Education program. Decades older than her classmates, people would stop her in the hallway and ask what course she was teaching! She persevered, even though she says she was consumed with imposter syndrome and fears that she didn't have the ability to succeed.

But she did. She made the Dean’s List with a nearly perfect GPA and every test or paper she aced raised her self-esteem and elbowed that “imposter” aside. Emboldened, she applied for the prestigious UCalgary Bachelor of Social Work program, convinced that she would never get in. But, of course, she did, and now a few years later, she’s set to graduate at an age when many Calgarians are contemplating retirement.

“I will be crossing the stage at 65 years of age,” she says, her voice choked a little with emotion. “I might cry. I suffered through a lot of hardship in my life. At times I was even homeless. I lost everything. And I never thought I would be able to go anywhere. And when I walk across that stage, it is to prove to me that I matter. And that I have strength to overcome obstacles that I never thought it could.

“I can do anything. And if I can do it, anybody can do it. So, I walk across that stage, not just for me, but for every individual who has had a really hard time in life. And had to overcome huge issues. And I'm walking across that stage for them too. So they can know we can do it.”

Besides her age, being Indigenous also made returning to school more challenging. UCalgary is a large and often impersonal institution. Also, since she was often the only Indigenous person in a class, she would be asked to share her thoughts — essentially called on to speak for all Indigenous Peoples, which was another burden. However, during her BSW she encountered Faculty of Social Work Elder Kerrie Moore, who told her about the faculty’s new Indigenous Lodge — since named Kiipitakyoyis (Grandmothers’ Lodge in Blackfoot) — and that really helped her journey.

“I love the lodge,” she says. “I feel I was so blessed and honoured to be there. It really provided me with a place that I can call home. A place where I'm comfortable. If I’m walking around the university and being in that huge institution becomes a little overwhelming, that's a place I can go to, and I can feel okay. And people there will understand me, and I can find ceremony there. And I can find a place of comfort.”

Mystical Métis

Being older comes with other realities. For example, she’s well over the cut-off age of 30 for most summer job programs. In her first year she took a job, and then felt crippled by guilt when she had to quit in September. “I just couldn’t do that again,” she says ruefully, “I felt too guilty about misleading them.”

So, in the true spirit of Canada’s most innovative school of social work, she opened her own business, Mystical Métis, selling Indigenous artwork and products through a storefront in the Crossroads Market and online. Not surprisingly, besides supporting her degree, the store has a hidden agenda.

“They're brought in by the beautiful designs and the merchandise, right? And once we get them in the store then we have them to educate them. ‘I got you in the store now! Ha ha!’ Right?” she says with a cackle.

For Cardinal, every customer and every sale is another chance to educate and make bridges. She answers their questions about Indigenous Peoples and culture and tries to bridge the cultural gap. She says the store is sometimes the first contact for people rediscovering their Indigenous heritage.

“We have individuals that were part of the ’60s Scoop, or they've just found out they're Indigenous, and they don't know where to go to connect. So, the social worker in me comes out. And I refer them to agencies, I tell them where to go, I provide a little bit of education to them, to assist them in their journey.”

At age 65, Cardinal isn’t done with education just yet. To do the work she wants to do as a counsellor and advocate, she feels she needs a few more letters after her name — her Master of Social Work. After completing her BSW, she applied for the MSW, thinking, once again, that, even with a 3.9 GPA, she’d never get in, but (take that, imposter!) she (of course) did get in, and next year at this time, she’ll attend another convocation ceremony. 

So, this story of courage and perseverance isn’t over yet. Cardinal says she’s making up for lost time. And it’s clear that her new life’s journey, in many ways, is just getting started.

Indigenous supports

  • Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary: Providing Indigenous cultural connection through programs and services for the urban population. Learn more
  • AWO-TAAN Healing Lodge Society: Provides emergency services, particularly for Indigenous women in abusive relationships. Offers emergency housing and counselling. Learn more
  • Elbow River Healing Lodge: Primary care services for First Nations (Status and Non-Status), Métis, and Inuit people and families as well as on-site Traditional Wellness Counsellor (Elder) by appointment. Call 403-955-6600 to learn more. Learn more
  • Hope for Wellness Helpline: Experienced and culturally competent counsellors are reachable by telephone and online ‘chat’ 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-855-242-3310 or visit their website
  • Indian Residential School Survivors Society: Residential school survivor crisis line. For crisis support, call 1-800-721-0066 anytime of day. Learn more
  • Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program: Cultural and emotional supports as well as mental health support counselling. For 24-hour crisis support to former Indian Residential School students and their families call 1-866-925-4419. Individuals impacted by the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls are encouraged to contact 1-844-413-6649. Learn more
  • Indigenous Mental Health Program: This Alberta Health Services program provides culturally appropriate mental health care and support for Indigenous clients. For intake call 403-955-6645. Learn more
  • Miskanawah Services: A healing therapeutic environment offering culturally appropriate services and programs to individuals and families in a way that incorporates Indigenous values, traditions, and beliefs. For urgent mental health counselling services call toll-free 1-800-232-7301, Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. Learn more
  • Native Counselling Services of Alberta: Offers programs and services to Indigenous Peoples including counselling, emergency housing and career workshops. Learn more
  • We R Native: Comprehensive online health resources for Indigenous youth (U.S.-based). Learn more

UCalgary Social Work is Canada’s innovative school of social work. We are the largest school of social work in Canada, and a perennial research leader. Social workers are needed everywhere, in fact social work is Alberta’s most in-demand profession. If you’re looking for a meaningful career, check our our full-range of fully online and blended (mix of on-campus and in-person) programs.

Join our celebration as another class of enterprising University of Calgary students marks the milestone of graduation and begins making a difference in society, in fields such as health care, engineering, business and the arts. Spring Graduation and Convocation takes place May 29 to June 2, 2023. Learn more 

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2023.

A note for soon-to-be UCalgary alumni: As you prepare to transition from student life, we encourage you to check out our Life Kit for Recent Grads — custom-built to inform you about the programs, benefits and services available to you as a member of the UCalgary alumni community.

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