The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Stepping into truth and reconciliation, Calgary has seen resurging responses to calls of action, many of which are driven by Indigenous women. The Calgary Journal spoke with a few of the leaders who are bridging gaps and paving the way for change.

Alanna Bluebird-Onespot
Tsuut’ina Nation

Alanna Bluebird Onespot bodyAlanna Bluebird-Onespot is a poet and performance artist who uses art to empower youth. Photo by Andrea Wong.

"Protective warrior woman that bleeds red” is how artist Alanna Bluebird-Onespot would describe herself.

“That’s my role as a woman, because I feel like I could stand up for any woman, even against predators and men,” she says. “I’m a protector for those women and young girls, because I’ve been abused by a predator.”

Bluebird-Onespot grew up amidst trauma and in an effort to connect back to her culture, she became involved with a seemingly spiritual group, which led to more abuse. When she returned home, she says art was what saved her life from depression and helped her move forward.

I feel like I need to lead the way for the youth to show them that you can do it … You can be any kind of artist in a mainstream way, but also bringing our culture into it.”

With an interest in film and performing arts, her first opportunity came when she was cast as an extra in The Revenant during the winter filming near Canmore. From there, she was cast in HBO’s Lewis and Clark and Lost Face, where she ironically played the role of a warrior taking revenge on the men who abused her.

While art has been essential to Bluebird-Onespot’s own path of healing, she also sees it as a way to empower the next generation.

“Now, indigenous people are being included in the mainstream and we’re coming out more. I feel like I need to lead the way for the youth to show them that you can do it … You can be any kind of artist in a mainstream way, but also bringing our culture into it.”

This past year, Bluebird-Onespot was cast in “Making Treaty 7”, a theatre production that shows the Aboriginal Peoples’ perspectives on the history of Canada before and after colonialism. She also helped write the youth version, “We are All Treaty People”, which was performed in 50 schools across Calgary.

Bluebird-Onespot’s other artistic talents lie in poetry. She has visited schools in New Zealand with the Uplift Spoken Word Poetry Tour and has spoken at Calgary’s annual Indigenous youth conference A Youth Explosion, where she is also the creative director.

“I’ve been following in the path of working with youth and just being there for [them], so I’m always going to be incorporating art and youth together, helping them come into this world with their own talent.”

Jennifer Houle-Famakinde
Métis Anishinaabe

Jennifer Houle Famakinde bodyJennifer Houle-Famakinde has learned to rely on her heart at Calgary Family Métis Services. Photo by Andrea Wong.

As the first in her family to graduate high school and then university, Jennifer Houle-Famakinde set off to accomplish one goal: to provide acceptance and support for Métis people at the school level.  

Houle-Famakinde grew up in northern Winnipeg, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada with high rates of crime and gang activity. When she moved to Calgary in junior high, she was unaware that being Aboriginal would make her an outsider until she faced constant bullying from other students and discrimination from teachers. It was her experiences, though, that propelled her to work in child and youth care counselling.

By the time she was 30, Houle-Famakinde was established as an Indigenous family specialist, embellished with several awards and nominations and was even featured on bus ads. It seemed that Houle-Famakinde had achieved the high-point of her career. She felt important, she says, but while her job fed her ego, it left her spirit dry.

“That’s where the stress all starts building up. Here I was, building my high horse … I would just feel so stuck in the middle of this dichotomy of western ways of knowing and Indigenous ways of being. Knowing is in your brain, and being is your spirit. That’s who you are,” she says.

"Creator gave you that spirit as a gift and because you have the spirit, because you woke up and you can breathe, that means you can go on. You have that opportunity.” - Jennifer Houle-Famakinde

Houle-Famakinde realized she had fallen into “using your head more than your heart” when an Elder reminded her to focus on why she had started in this line of work.

“‘Wherever you go to work with people’, he said, ‘just remember that the families and the children should feel the most important people in the room, and you, as the helper, the least important, because if it wasn’t for those families and children, you wouldn’t have any role to play.’”

Resigning from her “cushy job,” Houle-Famakinde decided to join the Metis Calgary Family Services, which was founded by her mom, Lori Anne Houle, 27 years ago.


She has served as a support co-ordinator for the Indigenous Positive Parenting Program, named the first young Indigenous woman to join the board of Alberta Home Visitation Network Association, taken university-level Indigenous health and social policy classes online as well as raising two hockey-loving sons.
As the program development manager, Houle-Famakinde works with youth programs and provides counselling services to those facing homelessness and addictions.

In her many roles, though, Houle-Famakind has stayed on course with the goal she had made in her early 20s.

“My passion is really what I started the story with, and that is for a young Aboriginal person growing up to feel okay about who they are, especially in the school system, because education is so important for our people to be successful and to climb out of poverty.

“What I want is for our Aboriginal youth to know that no matter where you were born, you can do it … all you have to do is believe in your own spirit. Creator gave you that spirit as a gift and because you have the spirit, because you woke up and you can breathe, that means you can go on. You have that opportunity.”

Cindy Provost
Piikani First Nation

Cindy Provost bodyIn 1997 Cindy Provost became the first Blackfoot woman to work in the Calgary Police Service. Photo by Andrea Wong.

In a time of truth and reconciliation, Cindy Provost’s impact as the first Blackfoot woman in the Calgary Police Service has been purposeful, informed and compassionate.

For 20 years, first as a constable and now as Indigenous strategic engagement officer, Provost has worked to bridge the relationship between police and Indigenous communities.

On numerous occasions, Provost has met with Indigenous leaders, forging a way for police to work together with the communities and create understanding. During the height of the Idle No More movement, for instance, Provost was invited by organizers to help co-ordinate peaceful gatherings.

“The legacy that I'm very proud to leave behind so far within the Calgary Police Service is to have influence with that cultural mediator role, because that has everything to do with the dignity and trust behind respectful conversations.”

“The legacy that I'm very proud to leave behind so far within the Calgary Police Service is to have influence with that cultural mediator role, because that has everything to do with the dignity and trust behind respectful conversations.” - Cindy Provost

Provost has also has engaged with service sectors such as Alberta Health Services, school boards and child welfare in response to the issues relating to the health and wellness of Indigenous people, especially families.

“A lot of these systems have operated from 'we'll fix you and we'll fix your family' with very little to no knowledge of indian residential school[s], intergenerational trauma and their impacts that are still a part of the communities today,” Provost says. “If somebody within service delivery isn't informed, then how can that be a respectful and informed conversation that affords dignity for the individual on the other side receiving help?”

Within the police service, Provost acknowledges the story of historical distrust and their involvement in Indian residential schools. To move forward and create change that is sustainable, Provost works on designing consistent education and training within the police service.

Provost knows from her own personal experience the challenges that Indigenous people face. When she came to Calgary to work as a constable, it was not a childhood dream of hers but a means of survival.

“In 1997 I was running away and fleeing domestic violence and really trying to come to terms with not only my own healing and recovery, but to have an ability to take care of my children. And at the end of the day, it was always about affording them that opportunity to have hope and a career path moving forward.”

Through the Calgary Police Service, Provost says she was able to find a home away from home and a place of camaraderie. Her past keeps her grounded, but she also draws from it when she is engaging in conversations.

“All that says is we are in this time and space together, and I'm going to be my authentic self. I don't know if I'm going to see the individual again, if I'll see the family again, but at this point in time, they know that I'm listening, that I'm engaged with them, that I have a network willing to say, ‘I think I can help you’. So it's about bringing all of those together and again with the spirit and intent of moving forward towards a health and recovery plan.”

Chantal Chagnon
Cree Métis

Chantal Chagnon bodyChantal Chagnon shares culture through music and activism. Photo by Andrea Wong.

For Chantal Chagnon, music and storytelling go hand-in-hand. Often accompanied by the beat of her drum, Chagnon’s optimistic voice can be heard singing traditional stories or speaking up for Indigenous issues.

After escaping an abusive relationship and returning to Calgary in 2008, Chagnon says she reclaimed who she was and became re-involved in music.

Now, Chagnon is a leader who stands up for others and has done so many times co-ordinating social justice causes like Calgary’s march for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women or speaking with organizations on truth and reconciliation.

“I think that's what activism is, is that ability to stand up for what's right, stand up for what you believe in, but also be able to explain why. I think the most powerful tool is education,” she says.

"When I teach, I will teach in a positive way. I will teach through compassion and love and education, because it's about sharing. You need to bring everything together in a positive way." - Chantal Chagnon

When Chagnon isn’t presenting in public, she can be found in Calgary classrooms, where she helps students learn about Indigenous culture through stories, songs and drumming. She also works with the Calgary Bridges Foundation for Youth where she engages with newcomers and seeks to create deeper understanding that emphasizes respect and coming together.

“I want healing for not only my life but also for future generations ... so I aim with those goals in mind everyday. When I teach, I will teach in a positive way. I will teach through compassion and love and education, because it's about sharing. You need to bring everything together in a positive way.

“Whenever I sing, whenever I share, it just comes from my spirit, and that's why it never stops. But it was my point of healing as well, and it was to understand we're not alone in this. Everybody has very similar experiences...Everybody wants to be understood and to find that sense of self, and if I can help in any way, I love to.”

Teneya Gwin
Cree Métis

Teneya Gwin bodyTeneya Gwin brings Indigenous perspectives to Calgary’s public libraries. Photo by Andrea Wong.

When Teneya Gwin was called in to fill the new Indigenous design lead position for the Calgary Public Library, she found herself as the only self-identified Indigenous person amongst a staff of 800.

Gwin’s position was a response to the White Goose Flying Report, which contained a promise for Calgary’s libraries to teach non-Indigenous people about residential schools and to revitalize Indigenous culture within Calgary’s urban setting.

Gwin’s work on strategic planning took an inside-out approach, starting with hiring procedures to recruit Indigenous people.

“I noticed that we need to really change not only the output of our programs and services but also internally, because we’re not going to be an inviting place for Indigenous people if they don’t see themselves reflected in our organization,” Gwin says. “I truly believe we’re a stronger community when we work together and not in silos.”

“I think reconciliation truly means that we don’t have to have these conversations anymore. We can work in harmony and live in harmony.” - Teneya Gwin

Now joined by eight other Indigenous staff, Gwin has been able to implement programs that continue to focus on truth and reconciliation.

Gwin’s emphasis on truth included creating education and awareness amongst Calgary Public Library’s current staff. These learning experiences saw 300 employees participating in a Blanket Exercise and 50 executive staff attending culture camps at Tsuut’ina Nation.

Engagement and going into Indigenous communities, Gwin says, is another large component of her job. Until two years ago, those living on reserves had to pay a fee to access library resources that were otherwise free to the public.

“My one friend was saying ‘the library is not great, they don’t want us there,’ so there’s that perception creating barriers,” Gwin says. “I’m still working really hard to try and build those relationships with the communities in Treaty 7, to know that our services are free and we’re trying to make our spaces more welcoming”

With the New Central Library opening in November 2018, Gwin is working on new programs such as a placemaking project featuring Indigenous artwork, language classes with the Calgary Friendship Centre and an an elder’s guidance circle.

Gwin’s entire family has been involved in Indigenous initiatives. Her grandfather Dr. Chester Cunningham, for example, founded Native Counselling Services of Alberta. It was in her blood, she says, to work for community and positive change.

“I’m basically working myself out of the job if you think about it. Big picture, everyone would be thinking about how do we reflect indigenous culture throughout all of our programming and how we engage with communities appropriately.” Gwin says. “I think reconciliation truly means that we don’t have to have these conversations anymore. We can work in harmony and live in harmony.”

Doreen Spence
Cree Nation

Doreen Spence bodyAfter an extensive nursing career and work with the United Nations, Doreen Spence continues to foster wellness in the community. Photo by Andrea Wong.

Procuring a list of all that Doreen Spence has overcome and cultivated in her 80 years of life is a challenging feat to say the least.

Spence witnessed first-hand the racism and hatred towards her people, children from her reserve taken to residential schools, and Indigenous patients suffering in hospitals. In response, Spence has pursued the health and wellness of communities throughout her career and beyond.

“I always had the knowledge within me that I was a part of this planet to break every method stereotype of Aboriginal women,” Spence says. “When I walk into a room, people should know I'm not the typical Aboriginal woman that they stereotype, and that was always in the forefront of my mind coming through all that I've survived.”

As a child growing up in Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Spence was told she would never attain anything beyond grade three, but she completed her studies through correspondence, and by the time she was 17, she was the teacher running the schoolhouse on her reserve.

“When I reflect back, I think of not the difficulties of getting through things,” Spence says. “It was the feeling of empowerment after you made it happen and how you defied all of these people wanting you to fail.”

During one summer where Spence worked as a ward aid treating Indigenous people for tuberculosis, she realized the chaos her people were living in. After filling out an application as an “immigrant” to qualify for nursing school, she was accepted into the program.

On her first day of class, the instructor told her she wasn’t supposed to be there, that she didn’t belong, but two years later, she graduated at the top of her class and was the first Indigenous woman to earn a practical nursing certificate.

“When I reflect back, I think of not the difficulties of getting through things,” Spence says. “It was the feeling of empowerment after you made it happen and how you defied all of these people wanting you to fail.”

Aside from her 40-year career as a nurse, Spence has led several wellness initiatives. She founded and directed the Plains Indian Cultural Survival School as well as the Canadian Indigenous Women's Resource Institute, which provides support and raises awareness for Indigenous issues.

Spence also spent two decades with the United Nations to create the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which became a centerpiece for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. In 2005, Spence was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“To create a healthier community it takes like-minded people to work together and to collaborate with the most important ingredients — love, respect, honesty, truthfulness and the integrity is so critical,” she says.

Since retiring, Spence still considers herself “one of the busiest old women on the planet”.

As an Elder, she runs a sweat lodge where she holds one-on-one meetings with community members and provides traditional ways of healing. She also volunteers regularly at Calgary’s universities building community relations.
It is her culture, Spence says, that has brought her this far.

“With our young people, my advice to them is don't ever lose sight of the teachings, those values, the essence of who we are as Indigenous people. Once you know all of that, you exude that. There's nothing more you need. We know where we've come from, we know our purpose.”

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