Trans-Canada Culture Shock explores the small surprises, unexpected discoveries and rude awakenings that come with making a move within our borders.
As a young person growing up on the Misipawistik Cree Nation (formerly Grand Rapids First Nation) in Northern Manitoba, Sonya Ballantyne dreamed about life off the reservation, leaving home at just 17 to attend the University of Manitoba outside of downtown Winnipeg. Fifteen years later Ballantyne is an accomplished writer, director and an advocate for diversity in filmmaking (check out her Ted Talk here), but back then she was a terrified student who didn't know how to do laundry and didn't understand why nobody wanted to share her pizza.
Here, Ballantyne talks about her Canadian culture shock experience and why she had to leave the reservation to discover her Native identity.
Even before leaving for university at 17 you grew up straddling two cultures: living on the reserve and going to school off of it. What was that like?
It could be pretty isolating. I wasn't so into some of the more typical high school experiences. I didn't go to bush parties, I wasn't interested in any of the boys because I had grown up with them and was related to most of them anyway. I had no sense of identity and I think that's why I got really into things like being nerdy — sci-fi and certain movies. I find it so funny because I didn't realize then that all of the first contact stories [from science fiction] are based on Native first contact stories. Of course that's what I identified with.
To what extent did your childhood involve traditional Indigenous culture?
I was into pow wows as a kid, but my grandmother was a big influence and she didn't want us to take part in that sort of traditional activity. When she was a kid, she wasn't even allowed to speak Cree. My school was off the reserve — directly across the river from my house. Residential schools wasn't something that was talked about and there was an idea was that Native people didn't really need to know their own history. It's funny — when I was around 13, I got really into the band U2, and through that I was introduced to activism. I was learning about cultural genocide — I was so worried about Burma and Myanmar and not even understanding what was going on in my own backyard.
Was leaving the reservation something you always wanted to do?
I think I always knew I wanted to get away. On the reservation it was really difficult to develop my own identity — everyone was very involved in everybody's business, and the thing you did when you were nine years old was still being talked about years later. Growing up I always dreamed I would move to New York and become a writer — I loved Blondie and The Ramones. It wasn't easy to be a goth in Grand Rapids.
Being away is how I realized how important being Native is to me.
How did you go from dreaming of the Big Apple to registering at the University of Manitoba?
I realized that university was the only way I was going to get away, so I applied.
What do you remember about your first days as a student?
I remember being totally unprepared and terrified. I hadn't ever done very much for myself — I'd never done laundry, my mom had always been the one to make sure I was up in the morning. The first few days I was crying non-stop.
How did the reality of your new home line up with how you had imagined it?
One funny memory was my first time going to a club. Some of my new friends took me to this bar called Monty's and before we got there I was so excited. I had these ideas in my head about nightclubs from the movies I had seen — and then I was so disappointed! I remember thinking — this is like the bar in Grand Rapids.
What else surprised you?
Now it seems obvious, but I was really surprised by how few Native people there were. I'm sure it has gotten better today, but I had gone from being surrounded by people who looked like me to almost zero. In my first year, the only other Native person was my friend Richard who was from an even smaller community than mine.
Did you experience racism as one of few Indigenous people on campus?
Once I started going to the Aboriginal Association on campus, people started making snide remarks — asking me where my funding came from. Some guy told me that his parents' tax dollars paid for me to go to school. It was the first time that I realized that being Native was a big deal for some people. That it was bothersome. The thing about being Native in a white environment when you're somewhat successful is that people think they can make comments about Native people and then say, "Oh, well it's not about you. You're one of the good ones." I got that a lot.
I had gone from being surrounded by people who looked like me to almost zero.
Were there major differences in terms of behavior, social habits?
The women here laughed so quietly — like, hee hee hee. Native conversations are a lot different. Another thing that surprised me was how no one shared anything. When I was in the dorm people would come to my room because they knew I would make them Kraft dinner or something. Or every time I bought a pizza, I would take it into the main room and share.
That's a pretty great way to make friends.
Ha — yeah. I didn't like the idea of I had something and someone else didn't. That's part of our culture.
Do you remember the first time that Winnipeg felt like home?
I think it was when I made real friends, started to make plans and have people to do things with. For a long time, I didn't feel like that in either place. When I would go home to visit, people would ask me if I was a white girl now. They had this idea that I thought I was better than everyone on the reservation, even thought that wasn't true. Being away is how I realized how important being Native is to me. Until then, I didn't really understand what it meant.
What do you miss most about Grand Rapids?
I miss the sky, being able to see the stars. I miss being able to be alone in the wilderness. Here there is always somebody around. I also miss having parents nearby. I remember first meeting people at school and finding out they spoke to their parents once a month. I couldn't believe that. I talk to my mom several times a day. I can appreciate the irony. As a kid I always wanted to get out of the shadow of my mom and dad and even after so many years I am still talking about them. I'm Bruce and Gladys' daughter. I just had to go away to realize that.