BC Indigenous women put fear aside and become powerful leaders in fight for equality

By Krystle Alarcon - Vancouver Observer

As the young, Indigenous, women-led movement of Idle No More approaches its first anniversary on Dec.10, the Vancouver Observer profiles four indigenous women who are making a difference in BC. These four women are ignited by a passion for change because of what they experienced at home or in their communities.

When Cherry Smiley, 30, accepted Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case in Ottawa in October, she quoted an Indigenous poet and visual artist based in New York.  Smiley’s voice trembled, unaccustomed to the regal reception.  The award ceremony took place in a Victorian-decorated room at Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General, complete with a violinist playing.

 "As Gail Tremblay said, for an indigenous person, choosing not to vanish, not to feel inferior and not to hate oneself becomes an intensely political act.  I choose not to vanish, not to feel inferior, not to hate myself, and I am not afraid," Smiley said.

She was one of five women this year who received the award, which honours Canadian women who advance women’s equality.

Smiley, who is of Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) and Dine' (Navajo) descent, grew up seeing addictions and violence within her own family.

“I started having my own issues in university. As a teenager I was doing a lot of self-harm. I wasn’t able to understand my life and the life of women around me,” she said. But a women’s course in university changed that, even though it didn’t “have all the answers."

When she first moved to Vancouver in 2008, she worked with women fleeing violence with the Rape Relief Shelter. She met members of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network through her work and would eventually speak at United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 2011.

Last year, she launched a group called Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry, which advocates for an end to prostitution – which Smiley mentioned to the UN in the video below:

“In my grandmother’s stories, I hear echoes of a time when prostitution did not exist. When women and girls were valued, loved and respected. I carry these stories in my heart, and in my mind, and in my blood. And I have no doubt a better world is possible,” Smiley reiterated in her acceptance speech at Rideau Hall. 

Smiley described her maternal grandmother as a powerhouse. She is now 92-years old. “She would always say 'keep your head up. And be proud of who you are,'” Smiley said.

As a child, Smiley made an unbroken promise to herself that she would never drink alcohol. “The negative consequence of alcohol as a colonial weapon was very, very apparent in my family. I didn’t want to ingest that devastation. It was frightening and scary at the same time. I was afraid of what it can do to me,” the scholarship-winning SFU Master of Fine Arts student said.

Adora Woodhouse turned to drugs and alcohol to cope because of her childhood struggles. “My dad is an alcoholic, my mom has mental health issues. So I had my own little problems growing up and stuff, like being bullied just being Aboriginal. I felt singled out a lot,” she said.

She lived with foster parents and in a group home before she found herself in a rehabilitation treatment center.

“It was literally a life-changing experience. Before I was really insecure. I didn’t know who I was... I was lost,” she recalled. “I learned a lot about myself and how to socialize with my peers without being substance-induced. I used to have huge problems with other girls. I just didn’t like girls. We just learnt to get along with everybody. That was life-changing in itself,” Woodhouse said.

Now, the 23-year-old wants to pay it forward. She is studying to be an addictions counselor at the Vancouver Community College and plans to work with Aboriginal youth.

Her perseverance stands out for someone her age, living a touch-and-go lifestyle. She is working full-time as a flagger for a construction company, while studying, and still making time for her disciplined yoga routine.

But before she works with Indigenous youth, Woodhouse wants to reconnect with her Ojibway and Cree roots, as she lost touch with her culture growing up.

Sarah Hunt, a PhD candidate in Simon Fraser University’s geography department wants indigenous people to create a stronger link with culture to address violence against women.

Sarah Hunt aspires to be a professor after completing her PhD in geography. Photo by Amanda Laliberte.

Rather than appealing to Canadian laws, Hunt, who is of Kwakwaka’wakwa and Ukrianian descent, said Indigenous people would benefit from going back to their original ways of governance.

Hunt gave the example of two major cases that were launched in the Supreme Court of Canada in the last two years to legalize sex work. “We need to look within our networks, look at a smaller scale, rather than a big national poster campaign or change within the criminal code. Indigenous communities always had that.

“We defined ourselves locally. That’s what it is to be Indigenous, being a people whose culture and identity comes from the land,” the 36-year old, who identifies as a sex worker rights advocate, said.

Hunt said one way that a Native practice was used to change attitudes of violence towards Aboriginal women started in Victoria wherein men pin moose hide to their clothes as a visual pact to stand up against abuse. 

A former outreach worker and researcher for 10 years, Hunt pursued geography as she sees the potential to have Indigenous knowledge grow in the field. She also said she wants to be a leader, knowing that many First Nations people in the forefront are still men. 

“We need to put their voices at the center. That’s what I try to do,” Hunt asserted.

Samantha Grey, of the Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation, still wrestles with her Native background. “I’m very light skin Native and people would say ‘you’re not Native.’ I always resented that,” she said.

Grey was also trained by the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network and the Vancouver Rape Relief Shelter to speak at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2012.

After hearing many Aboriginal women’s stories of poverty and abuse, she decided she wanted a job that can make a difference in people’s lives. 

“I was just upset about hearing it.... I would start to get angry and want change,” the 25-year old said. 

Her conviction also came from her own upbringing. “Being raised by a single dad who struggled with addictions really laid the ground work for me, and many people that you talk with in social work have similar backgrounds.”

Grey obtained a certificate from Douglas College in social service and graduated valedictorian.

She has renewed her reason to fight for change. Grey recently gave birth to a blue-eyed, cherub-cheeked baby, whose father is from the Cowessess First Nation.

Now she wants to sign up for a bachelor’s degree program in social work. 

“I want her to grow up in a world not based on the color of her skin or what she identifies as. That’s what motivates me to do the work.  And maybe one day Aboriginal women would not be four times more likely to get murdered or sexually assaulted,” she said.