Emily Haigh, UVic’s first Chief Mungo Martin Research Chair in Indigenous Mental Health, was born in Toronto and is an Anishinaabe-Métis of Robinson Huron Treaty Territory. Her maternal family is from Métis communities in Northern Ontario and Thessalonian First Nation, and her father is English.
“My maternal grandfather (Bellerose, Thibault) from Algoma District (Thessalon First Nation) in northern Ontario came from a long family of fishermen,” says Haigh. “He grew up with his parents and four siblings in a two-bedroom house with an annex.”
Haigh describes her grandfather as a person who placed a high value on education – often at family gatherings – and reminded all grandchildren of the importance of learning.
Honored and humbled by the generosity of the family
In July 2022, Haigh joined UVic to begin her five-year tenure. On September 22, an aboriginal naming ceremony was held at Wawadiťła, also known as Mungo Martin House, the ceremonial great house built by the late Chief Mungo Martin seven decades ago.
“I am so honored and humbled by the Mungo Martin family for their willingness to allow the university to use their distinguished relative’s name for the role at UVic and for having this vision as part of their legacy,” says Haigh.
She has already traveled to Fort Rupert to meet with Chief Mungo Martin’s great-grandson, Chief David Mungo Knox, and looks forward to building a strong relationship.
Chief Mungo Martin was a world-renowned Kwakwaka’wakw artist and a revered figure in the Pacific Northwest Coast and in contemporary indigenous art. He has made a major contribution to the creative arts, which play an integral role in changing cultural perceptions of mental health.
“I was struck by what I read about Chief Mungo Martin navigating two worlds – indigenous and settlers – and considered by many at the time to be a bridge through his totem pole restoration work,” says Haigh.
Haigh, as Chief Mungo Martin Research Chair in Indigenous Mental Health, sees part of her role as being a link between mainstream approaches to psychology and Indigenous knowledge and ways of life.
The research chair is funded by a $1.5 million donation announced in December from UVic political science alumnus Bruce McKean, all Canadian.
McKean originally suggested the name of the research chair to reflect an important childhood memory of visiting Thunderbird Park with his mother, standing amidst the scent of cedar shavings and watching Chief Mungo Martin at work on his carvings.
A collaborative approach
Haigh points to the many decades of systemic harm and abuse to generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and part of her work will be to address some of these structural issues in relation to Indigenous peoples’ resurgence.
My goal is to serve indigenous people first—a collaborative approach that benefits nations
—Emily Haigh, Psychologist and UVic’s new Research Chair in Indigenous Mental Health
Haigh notes that community-focused research is ongoing, and she also notes the incredible amount of work being done at UVic on projects like LE,NOṈET, the first of its kind in Canada to offer culturally relevant support programs to participating Indigenous students , including community and campus-based experiential learning, leadership and community building, and need-based financial support.
Haigh has followed the research of UVic psychologist Chris Lalonde, co-principal researcher on the LE,NOṈET project, whose work recognizes cultural continuity as a protective factor against depression and suicide in indigenous communities.
A journey that led to UVic
Haigh grew up in Ontario and graduated from McGill University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. During her undergraduate and graduate education, Haigh was supported through scholarships and grants from Indigenous organizations.
“Even when I moved to the US to pursue my studies, I was supported the whole way,” says Haigh. “I always wanted to give something back to those who helped me during my six-year apprenticeship.”
“I’m one of those people who wanted to be a psychologist from a very young age,” she adds. “I wanted to help people who were desperate or sad.”
Haigh recalls that when she was about seven years old she created a game called People Problem Helper that she played with her family. Recalling her childhood play, Haigh notes that it probably helped her understand her father’s depression.
“I am happy to share that my father was struggling with depression and was in treatment at the time. I must have heard references to this role of a psychologist – a ‘people worker’ – and it had a powerful impact.”
“My family is very close to me,” adds Haigh. Her brother is a forest fire officer and her sister just graduated from UVic with a degree in Indigenous Law (JD/JID).
Haigh’s deep-seated need to help others in emotional need is a drive she brings to her new role. Her training as a psychologist in the field of depression, suicide and self-harm is the foundation she brings to her new position in UVic’s psychology department.
For Haigh, who has wanted to return to her Canadian roots for several years, the timing for the new research professorship could not be better.
Haigh describes how she was inspired by UVic’s established reputation and commitment to truth, respect and reconciliation and decolonization practices across disciplines.
“As I reflected on my journey—when I got employment at the University of Maine—I realized that I had cleared all the hurdles and earned the freedom to refocus my work to explore a personally meaningful area of Indigenous knowledge that is to study health and healing,” explains Haigh.
The journey eventually led to UVic, with this opportunity to work with Indigenous communities that Haigh just couldn’t pass up.
“I think I’m one of 16 indigenous psychologists practicing or teaching in Canadian universities,” says Haigh. “Part of my mandate is to mentor future indigenous psychologists – something I haven’t had in my own career.”
Decolonizing psychological approaches
Haigh is committed to identifying students at UVic who are interested in pursuing a career in psychology with a focus on working with indigenous communities.
“I’m teaching a new course this fall called Introduction to Indigenous Mental Health and Healing,” says Haigh. “It’s full of wonderful students who are interested in this important subject.”
For Haigh, success will help train, mentor and teach the next generation of psychologists who will bridge the gap between indigenous knowledge and forms of knowledge with Western approaches to psychology. Haigh will use a community-based approach in her research, which involves listening to the needs of Indigenous communities and working together towards better mental health.
The Chief Mungo Martin Research Chair in Indigenous Mental Health is a commitment to decolonizing psychological approaches in a culturally safe environment.
The role of Chair also supports UVic’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), particularly UN SDG Goal 3 which focuses on health and well-being.
Read today’s press release