Creative writing puts recent arts grad on unexpected journey of learning and healing

Chyana Marie Sage never thought she’d go to university. Now, she’s off to Columbia University to forge a hybrid career helping prison inmates pen their own stories.


Chyana Marie Sage's learning experiences at the U of A helped her understand her lived experience of intergenerational trauma. Now, the prolific poet is headed to Columbia University to pursue a master's in creative writing and a career helping others write their own stories. (Photo: John Ulan)

Chyana Marie Sage introduces herself as a statistical anomaly.

“I never should have ended up at the U of A, never should have gone to university—it really is quite a miracle,” she said.

The recent graduate of the University of Alberta’s English and film studies program—heading off this fall to Columbia University for her master’s degree in creative writing—is currently penning her memoir, which she hopes to publish.

She’s already produced three volumes of poetry—one published with the other two set for release this year and next—as well as a children’s story. All of it is informed by her experiences growing up in a Métis community in Surrey, B.C., and later in Edmonton.

For that reason, she is completely open.

“My father was a drug dealer,” she offers off the mark. “I would come home from school and our kitchen table would be covered in mounds of crack.

“I was Daddy's little girl, very much indoctrinated by everything he said.”

Sage’s father was eventually imprisoned for drug trafficking and sexually abusing her sister. It shattered her family and left her feeling a bit lost, turning to drugs and alcohol to cope a few years after her family moved to Edmonton when she was 10.

She also struggled to understand the devastating legacy of residential schools—an impact felt on both sides of her extended family.

Her great-grandmother and surrogate parent, Thelma Chalifoux, had four children taken from her during the Sixties Scoop but went on to become the first Indigenous woman appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1997. Her name now graces one of the three residences in the U of A’s Lister Hall complex.

A fresh start at education

After her father was incarcerated, Sage turned to writing poetry to “make sense of my feelings and emotions.” She was expelled from Edmonton’s McNally High School in Grade 11, but by the following year “really wanted to turn my life around,” she said.

She enrolled in Fresh Start, a self-paced academic upgrading program, but one day she visited her old high school to see her old junior high principal and mentor, who had become principal of McNally.

That encounter turned out to be the break she needed. The principal re-enrolled her, and she began taking classes the next day.

Once that door opened, she never looked back, eventually earning grades in the high 90s in English and social studies. “It's amazing what happens when you apply yourself,” she said.

Her first choice for post-secondary education was massage therapy, since she had never believed university was even possible. But when she found out she could get student loans to go to school, something clicked.

“Wait, you mean the government will loan me money to go to school? Well in that case, let’s make it university,” she remembered thinking.

Opportunities for learning—and healing

With her passion for poetry, English studies was an easy choice. One course in particular­—the literature of trauma with instructor Karyn Ball—hit home in a big way.

“I just thrived in that class,” she said. “It was about these lived experiences I had gone through myself, but I was able to study the theory behind it. It was the first time I had heard the term ‘intergenerational trauma.’”

In her third year, another serendipitous encounter altered her path, this time at the Faculty of Arts School in Cortona, Italy, where she took a course with Sandra Bucerius comparing prison systems in Canada and Italy.

“I had a lot of knowledge of the Canadian prison system because of my dad, so it all kind of came together.”

After that course, she began working for Bucerius as a research assistant on the University of Alberta Prison Project—the largest qualitative study on Canadian prisons in the history of Canadian criminology.

“I ended up transcribing audio interviews at the same prison where my father was incarcerated all those years ago, so I'm hearing about similar crimes,” she said.

“For the first time, I was able to look at my dad through a different lens. It was in listening to those stories of men like him that I was able to heal and forgive. I was able to see him not just as his daughter but as one human being looking at another.”

After she graduates from Columbia, Sage hopes to put all of that experience and education into her own hybrid profession, combining creative writing with the insights of sociology to eventually work with prisoners again, helping them write their own stories.

“What interests me is intergenerational trauma. I want to marry my relationship with the prison project to my writing, and so I would love to be able to run creative writing workshops with inmates and maybe publish an anthology about it.”

But that’s all in the future. For the moment, she is still reeling from news of her acceptance at Columbia, and trying to raise the necessary funds through a GoFundMe campaign.

“I was just so dumbfounded and awestruck. After I got off the phone and collapsed on the ground, I started sobbing from the flood of emotion.

“How did Chyana Marie Sage from Alberta—this Indigenous girl with a drug-dealing father—get accepted to Columbia University for graduate school?”