Speech given at 2017 IWD conference

By Myrna McCallum

I want to acknowledge that the land on which we are gathered this evening is Treaty Six territory and the traditional homeland of the Metis. I would like to thank the Saskatoon Women’s Community Council for asking me to speak tonight.

Let me start by sharing a story of mine that my daughter, Blueberry, insisted that I share. I was quite young and in grade 3 or 4 one day when the teacher asked all the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. As she went down the rows, each student called out nurse, teacher, lawyer, scientist, doctor. When she came to me, I said I wanted to be a waitress in a bar. The kids laughed probably thinking that I was joking but I was serious.

It makes sense that I would want to be a waitress in the bar and that they would want to be doctors, lawyers, nurses and teachers. I am sure their goals were a reflection of their realities and their understanding of what was possible for them. Just as my idea of becoming a bar waitress was a reflection of my reality and of what I understood as possible for me. Thank goodness goals do change and realities change right along with them.  

I grew up in an incredibly destructive and dysfunctional environment. From birth until I was on my own at 15, my reality reflected poverty, violence, crime, prostitution, addiction, sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and abandonment which ultimately led to a string of foster homes followed by residential school and then rehab – all before I turned 13 years old. Consequently, I only knew shame, worthlessness or fear.

Growing up an Indigenous female in Saskatchewan, I had to contend with racism and disempowering stereotypes which affected and influenced how I saw myself. These stereotypes seemed to be everywhere and always served to chip away at any sense of self-worth and belonging I attempted to muster. These harmful stereotypes informed and guided my life choices early on – when I was 6 and contemplated suicide for the first time; when I was 8 and huffed gasoline with my cousins; when I was 10 and introduced to prostitution; when I was 11 and overdosed for the first time. My choices – if you can call them choices – directly reflected who I believed I was, who I was told I was and where I thought I belonged.  

When I was about 16 years old, I saw a tv show called ManAlive, the host was interviewing a young Native guy. Of course, that got my attention because no one ever saw Native people on tv – I mean other than the actor on Beachcombers! This young man was talking about the justice system and his experience with incarceration. He said specifically, “It was a white man who arrested me, a white man who sentenced me to jail and a white man who locked me up. It wasn’t until I was on the inside that I saw my own people”. His words never left me. Imagine for a moment how this young man’s introduction to the justice system informed his beliefs about who he is, who he isn’t and where he belongs. Imagine, as well, how his experience may have affected and influenced the choices he went on to make about the direction his life would take.

At that moment, I got this idea that I was going to become a lawyer. I had no real understanding of what good becoming a lawyer would do for men like him or for those who shared his experience but I just felt certain that this was what I had to do.

My excitement at my newfound purpose quickly turned to uncertainty as I asked myself whether Native people could even be lawyers. Any lawyers I had seen – and I didn’t see many in my world – were white people. Fortunately for me, I was born a half breed in 1973 and the law preventing Status Indians from becoming lawyers in exchange for surrendering their legal identity and all the rights and privileges that go with it was no longer law (Indian Act, 1961 s. 110 Compulsory Enfranchisement) and consequently, of no direct application to me and this far-fetched idea.

The desire to become a lawyer stirred inside my mind for some time but I hadn’t shared it with anyone except one teacher. At this time, I was 17 years old, angry, insecure, intermittently homeless and I was attending Joe Duquette High School (now known as Oskayak) in Saskatoon. This teacher pulled me aside one day and told me she liked my writing and then she told me something I had never heard before. She said, “you are very smart – you can be anything you want”. I responded in anger because I thought she was messing with me but over time, as she wore down my defences, I started to become open to this idea that maybe I had some smarts and maybe I could become a lawyer.

Not too long after this initial conversation, I learned I was pregnant with the first of three children. I felt incredibly ashamed because I was convinced that I just met society’s expectations of who an Indigenous woman is: pregnant, uneducated, poor and single.

After feeling like a failure and contemplating giving up on life, I decided to channel my anger and frustration and hopelessness into something life-changing: education. I graduated from high school while my little girl, Alicia, slept in a baby carrier under my desk. I went on to complete a BA in Native Studies and I had my son, Eric, during that time.  I wrote the Law School Admission Test and scored well enough to gain entry to UBC Law School and in my first year, I got pregnant with my daughter, Blueberry. I ultimately quit towards the end of my first year because I was failing all my courses, parenting 2 small kids and enduring a difficult and unplanned pregnancy.

When I finally accepted that I had to withdraw, I thought my life was over. Funny, how many times I have had that thought – yet, here I stand. Anyway, a couple years pass and I come back to UBC law school. And this time, I finish what I started in 1998. In 2005 I graduated from law school and in 2007 I passed the British Columbia Bar Course and became a lawyer.

If my childhood was an indicator of who I would become or what I would do with my life, I definitely would not be standing here today. I was the kid who wore the same dirty clothes to school every day and when I complained to my mom, she forced me to wear her clothes. I was the kid who looked through dumpsters behind grocery stores so my brother and I could eat. I was the kid who spent many days and nights raising my brother in a rundown apartment – often times with no heat, no electricity and almost always no food – while our mom was on a drinking binge. I was the kid who lied to the teachers about where my bruises came from. I was the kid who hid my little brother away in a closet while my mom’s friends sexually assaulted me.

As I got older, I saw how booze and bad decisions ruined lives. My sister took her own life when she was 16 years old. My brother has become a very violent man and a repeat offender who uses drugs and alcohol to slowly kill himself. I guess this outcome should be expected, especially, in the case of my brother, who spent several years being sexually assaulted in residential school. How can anyone reasonably expect that a child can be put through such horrors and lessons in self-hate and come out on the other side a loving, compassionate, wholehearted person?

I suppose some will say and some have said, “But look at you. How is it you took the path you did when it would have been so easy to take the path that’s already full of your heartbroken and hope-less relations?” I can tell you, I am not special and I am not exceptional. I just wanted more from life than anything I had ever related to. I believed there had to be more – I mean, I had some non-Indigenous friends and they didn’t live like I did. So, over time, I became close to people who appeared to be everything I wanted to be: stable, loving, kind, happy, educated, strong, persuasive, confident, non-alcoholic, non-drug using, generous, wise, forgiving and spiritual individuals.

It wasn’t easy to identify these qualities and then adopt them into my own character and believe me I don’t possess them all just yet. And it was difficult to choose to remain on this path because it was a mystery to me and felt impossible at times. You remember my capacity to feel was limited to: shame, worthlessness and fear so naturally love, kindness and confidence were totally foreign emotions. Whenever I felt weak in my resolve – and trust me, weakness washed over me all the time – someone would always come into my life and remind me of the path I wanted to take. Often times these wonderful people didn’t stay long but they each stayed long enough to help me off my knees and get me walking again.  

Choosing the path less traveled doesn’t come easy particularly when this path leads you to places which trigger insecurities and introduces you to people who leave you feeling like you’re not worthy and you don’t belong. I mean had I realized as a young woman that becoming a lawyer would require me to work with people – some of which – exude and perpetuate an air of righteousness, privilege, superiority and affluence, I probably would have never went to law school. And let’s not forget ignorance and intolerance – more often than not – these attitudes are front and centre when politicians, judges, lawyers, police and other authority figures discuss Indigenous peoples and Indigenous issues.

As an Indigenous mom (and grandmother) of three young people who are now 26, 23 and 18 – I have become so frustrated and resentful  at how we are portrayed in the media and treated by persons in authority. I have taught my children that they are loved, they are valued, they are just as good as anyone else, they are entitled to a happy and healthy life and that education is the key to possibility. I have taught my children to become dreamers – the bigger the dream, the better.  

Sadly, my teachings contradict the messaging we see all too often these days: messages which remind us that we continue to live in an oppressive and colonial state which serves to reinforce this false belief that Indigenous lives are disposable.

“Indigenous women” no longer refers to a collection of persons but rather a thing which has become synonymous with the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the victimized, the disempowered, the impoverished, the missing and the murdered. It is no surprise that we are currently confronted with a suicide crisis among our young people, in particular our young women, who – in all probability – see their existence and their futures as part of some endless cycle of hardship and hopelessness and completely void of possibility.  I would like to say to those who continue to experience the unbearable burden of hopelessness, there is hope to love, to be loved and to heal.

My experiences may have left me wounded and often times wondering why should I bother to go on living and dreaming. My close friends and my babies who love me and accept me and those who have tried to love me have been exposed to my wounds – which present at times as anger, sadness, withdrawal, avoidance, insecurity,  indifference or an unwillingness to forgive. My wounds have caused me to give up on and walk away from most of the people I love at some point or another – out of fear, shame or a sense of worthlessness. However, those who remain in my life are with me because despite my wounds they refuse to give up on me.

I am so incredibly grateful for their patient, generous and loving hearts. Without them showing me what patience, generosity and love is; how would I recognize these qualities on my own and better yet, how would I learn to become patient, generous and loving myself? Wounded as I am, I am not broken. No one is. But to anyone who identifies as broken – you should know: that which is broken can be fixed.  

Many times as a decision-maker in residential school hearings, former students – who were incredibly damaged yet courageous – would say to me, “I wish I was more like you” or “I wish I was normal and confident like you”. Little did they know; they were exactly like me and I was exactly like them. Like them, I endured pain, trauma and loss. Like them, as a consequence of pain, trauma and loss – I experienced periods of anxiety, depression, thoughts and even attempts at suicide and an overall lack of self-love which ultimately informed some really poor choices.

I often describe anxiety, depression and hopelessness as spirits who appear in my life as unwelcome and uninvited visitors. In my early 20s, when I was pregnant with my son Eric, anxiety came to me and moved right in. It lived with me for several months and held me hostage in my own home. My doctor had another name for this spirit she called it “agoraphobia”. Not too long after anxiety moved in, depression came next followed by hopelessness.

Over time, I learned that I was not the only person anxiety visits. With cognitive behavioural therapy, I slowly began to regularly leave my apartment and re-enter the world. As I did so, anxiety, depression and hopelessness slipped out the backdoor. I’d like to say that these spirits don’t bother me anymore and once you defeat them they are gone for good but that would be a lie. I think that once they know you, they remember you. And, if we repeatedly expose ourselves to unnecessary pain and sorrow by way of soul-sucking relationships, draining jobs, drug addiction, binge-drinking or empty friendships you can come home one evening and find that one or more of these visitors are on your step eagerly waiting to take up residence with you.  

I said it earlier and I need to reiterate: I have found that it is so important to surround ourselves with people we want to be like, with people who possess the qualities we currently strive to possess for ourselves. And, most importantly, we must only engage in relationships which help us grow into whoever it is we want to be. It also helps if we find ourselves doing work which gives us deeper meaning and purpose.

I need Indigenous women in my life – to show me positivity and non-judgment and to include me in a sisterhood of strength and compassion so that I can do the same for other Indigenous women I meet along my path.

I need Indigenous peoples to support me, celebrate my achievements and recognize my contributions to our people. It takes a collective action to learn to support, encourage and celebrate each other after decades and decades and decades of experiencing devastating dysfunction – the result of residential schools, racism and other assimilation policies – which, at their root, taught us to hate and victimize ourselves and each other.

I also need non-Indigenous allies to introduce me to new possibilities. I have found that my greatest allies and personal champions have been, for the most part, non-Indigenous peoples. At times when I didn’t believe in myself or my abilities, they believed for me – encouraging me to take the next step, walk through the door, take a seat and tell myself that I belong here.  

We all belong to someplace, to something. I feel we live in a critical time where we must exemplify possibility for our young people. We need to show them that being whole and happy and successful is possible no matter your life experience. We need to model healthy supportive relationships. We need to model healthy lifestyles free of addictions and abuse. We need to take back our identities and define for ourselves who we are as Indigenous people, as Indigenous women.

I do not identify as marginalized, disadvantaged, victimized or disempowered. I identify as capable, courageous, compassionate, intelligent, determined, strong and resilient. I do not identify as a survivor. I identify as a thriver. Only I can determine how full or empty my life will be and I choose – at all times – to live in possibility.

Thank you.