EVERY VALENTINE’S DAY FOR THE PAST SIX YEARS, Anna has followed a similar routine. She’ll wake up early, make some coffee, and get ready for the day. Before leaving her apartment she’ll pick up her Elk hide drum, and hold it tightly against her chest as she walks out the door to face the world.
Her destination is always the same: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).
“For the past six years, I’ve walked in the DTES Women’s Memorial March, which is an event that honours the lives and families of missing and murdered women – most of whom are Indigenous – who have lost their lives on the streets of the DTES,” Anna says.
The march is always emotional. A large part of Vancouver’s Indigenous community attends. There’s traditional singing and drumming, and people lay down flowers and medicines on the corners where their loved ones were last seen.
Every year, Anna must work hard to fight off tears as she marches and drums—but this past Valentine’s Day (2018), she experienced a different kind of pain as she headed towards the march.
“Every 14th of February, I wake up thinking of all the people we’ve lost to preventable violence, which is always tough, but this year I kept on thinking of Colten and Tina and my heart completely sank,” remembers the 28-year-old, who is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
Anna was referring to two recent cases of violence against Indigenous people that hit close to home. The first was the case of Colten Boushie, a 22 year-old Cree man and distant relative of Anna’s, who was shot and killed in Saskatchewan in 2016. The second was that of Tina Fontaine, a 15 year-old Indigenous youth who was murdered in Winnipeg in 2014.
As Indigenous people, we have no choice but to come together to help carry each other’s loads. Our baskets are heavier than others’, and if we don’t help each other and do that work, then the weight will just bring us all down.
As she waited drum in hand for the bus that would take her to the march, thoughts of Colten and Tina kept on bouncing around Anna’s head. Just a few days earlier, a jury with no Indigenous representation had declared the man who shot Colten not guilty of second-degree murder, and with Tina’s trial in full swing, Anna couldn’t help but wonder if justice would finally be served.
All these thoughts were bouncing around Anna’s head when a middle-aged woman came up to her and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” the woman said. “Are you a shaman?”
The question caught Anna off guard. Her immediate reaction was to laugh, thinking that the woman was playing some sort of cruel joke on her. But she soon realized that this was no joke—so all she said before she put her headphones back in was: “No, I’m not a shaman. I’m First Nations.”
Anna felt heartbroken. She was upset about Colten and Tina, and about the disproportionate amount of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. She was also upset about the woman’s comment, and felt overwhelmed about the prospect of all the work that still needs to be done to educate people about what it means to be an Indigenous person living in Canada.
As she sat alone on the bus, Anna felt like she was carrying the weight of all these injustices on her own two shoulders.
“It had been a tremendously dis-empowering morning,” Anna remembers. “But as soon as I got to the march, something changed. As the ceremony started I looked to my left, I looked to my right, and there I was surrounded by strong, resilient Indigenous women dressed in regalia, and all I could see were cheekbones and brown hands like mine holding onto their drums. It was truly the most grounding, comforting feeling—I felt like I wasn’t alone anymore. I felt like I was at home.”
FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS, Anna’s connection to the Indigenous community has given her a sense of belonging that grounds her in times of grief and sorrow, and gives her strength when she’s feeling weak.
But things weren’t always this way. In fact, during most of her childhood and youth, Anna felt far removed from her Indigenous roots.
“I grew up in Calgary, off-reserve, and never really knew much about Cree culture aside from a few stories my dad would share with me,” she says.
Growing up, Anna was the only Indigenous person at her school. She rarely got to visit her grandparents lived, and was completely immersed in non-native culture.
Sadly, this meant that from an early age she was also constantly exposed to negative comments and stereotypes about Indigenous people.
“I remember one particular incident that happened when I was in Grade 6, and involved one of my teachers,” Anna says. “My dad went in for a meeting with her because she was keeping me in for recess every day to grill me with curriculum based questions. When he asked her what was happening she said that she kept me in because my learning was delayed, and related the fact that I was not a good student to the fact that I was First Nations.”
This incident (and many others like it) shaped the way Anna saw herself. They made her feel that being Indigenous was a bad thing, and also convinced her that she was destined to always be delayed in her learning.
These feelings only grew as years passed. By the time Anna was 18, she had completely internalized that message. She had not only begun openly rejecting her Indigenous identity, but even caught herself using racial slurs to refer to other Indigenous people. She had also given up on school, thinking she wasn’t cut out for success in the classroom. By the end of her senior year, she was so far behind in her classes that she failed out of school.
“The day I found out that I didn’t have enough credits to finish school, I was completely mortified. I felt like I had proven that Grade 6 teacher right, and I knew that I was going to have a really long journey to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.”
As the ceremony started I looked to my left, I looked to my right, and there I was surrounded by strong, resilient Indigenous women dressed in regalia, and all I could see were cheekbones and brown hands like mine holding onto their drums. It was truly the most grounding, comforting feeling—I felt like I wasn’t alone anymore. I felt like I was at home.
OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS, Anna’s journey to find herself would make her try out a few different professions. She worked as a bartender, served at restaurants, became a model, and even got certified as a makeup artist. Throughout that process, she slowly began regaining confidence in herself, and eventually decided to go back to school to get her high school diploma.
“I was 20 and was sitting in a summer class with 14 and 15-year-olds doing mathematics,” she remembers. “Although that was a big hit on my pride, I was also doing really well in those classes and in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but feel like it was shocking, because ever since Grade 6, I thought I was not smart.”
By the time Anna was 21, she was feeling a newfound sense of confidence. She had finally gotten her high school diploma after a year and a half of hard work, and had silenced the voice in her head that had been telling her she was stupid for nearly 10 years.
This newfound confidence pushed her to take a step further in her education, and that year she applied and got accepted into the University of Calgary’s Aboriginal Student Access program.
It was at university that Anna first began talking to other Indigenous students, and learned about things like intergenerational trauma, residential schools, the Indian Act and the Sixties Scoop—things that had shaped her life for years, even though she had never heard of their existence.
“I had just finished taking a high school level social studies class, where we studied the French Revolution and the Holocaust, and all of a sudden I started learning about these things that directly impacted my life here in Canada. Everything started coming together for me, and why there are so many pervasive stereotypes against Indigenous people,” Anna says.
This information was coupled with a newfound connection to Cree culture. At school she began attending ceremonies led by a Cree Elder, and began learning Cree songs and stories. This knowledge allowed Anna to begin understanding herself more—as though someone handed her the keys to an area of herself that had been locked up for years.
“It just felt so good,” she says. “It’s hard to put it in words, but for the first time in my life I felt totally free and accepted and felt like I didn’t have to hide who I was from anyone—not even myself!”
The transformation Anna went through at that time was immense: from feeling stupid and ashamed of her identity, to excelling at University and feeling proud of who she was. Anna felt empowered, and was ready to take an important step in her process of self-discovery—she’d transfer to the University of British Columbia’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies program and do her best to start helping others.
THERE’S A STORY TOLD BY STO:LO AND COAST SALISH AUTHOR LEE MARACLE THAT ANNA ABSOLUTELY LOVES. She first heard about it when she was at UBC, and today she repeats it whenever someone asks her why she works so hard to help others.
In Maracle’s story, a woman is struggling to carry a full basket. The basket is heavy and the woman can barely lift it, until a friend shows up and offers to help. The new woman takes some of the load herself, making it a bit lighter for her friend. Things get a bit easier, but the load is still heavy and the women are still struggling, until a third friend shows up, and again helps them lighten their load. Eventually enough women step up to help, and the load is shared by so many, that none of them really notices that they are carrying anything at all.
“As Indigenous people, we have no choice but to come together to help carry each other’s loads,” Anna says. “Our baskets are heavier than others’, and if we don’t help each other and do that work, then the weight will just bring us all down.”
Today, Anna has made it her life’s work to help others carry their loads. Two years after graduating from UBC’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies program, she works as a consultant at an advisory firm that assists First Nations organizations and communities across British Columbia in areas like governance, policy, development and communications. When she’s not hard at work at the firm, she advocates for First Nations youth living in foster care and spends time as a peer counsellor with youth transitioning out of care.
As she continues gathering strength from her newfound connection to her Cree roots, her goal is to help other young people connect with their roots too—making sure that they have the confidence needed to eventually carry a part of that load themselves.
“As I learned more about what it means to be Indigenous, I was just so humbled by all the people that came before me and set the platform for me to do this work,” she says. “Now I know that my duty is to go as far as I can and then pass it on to our next generation, because those are our teachings as Indigenous peoples.”
This story is part of a series aimed at sharing the experiences of young people across BC. As part of Foundry’s goal to work alongside young people, create connections and promote mental health and wellness, we are creating a platform for young people’s stories to be heard.
Article by Peter Mothe.
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