CBC Vancouver presented CBC Vancouver Inspiration Series: Dream Makers, a panel event that highlights successful aboriginal women and celebrates the unique experiences that have led them to become leaders in the community.
The panel discussion Tuesday morning, moderated by CBC's Duncan McCue and hosted by Lisa Charleyboy, featured four female leaders who shared their stories of how they overcame challenges to achieve success.
The speakers were:
- Melanie Mark, a community advocate
- Dorothy Grant, an acclaimed artist and fashion designer
- Laurie Sterritt, the director of Aboriginal Employment, Education and Procurement at B.C. Hydro
- Dr. Gwen Point, the Chancellor of the University of the Fraser Valley
Here are some highlights from the event.
When you get out of bed in the morning, what motivates you?
Melanie: The resilience in our community, and knowing that we've stood tall despite some of our barriers, but knowing that there's a lot of work to do. So a long list of activities that need to get done, and always being reminded by my daughters each and everyday that even though we're tired, even though you just want to sleep in and hit snooze one more time, you got to dig deep and do the important work.
We're all in the middle of a big city here, running big city lives. How do you stay in touch with culture here in the city?
Gwen: There's no question that it is a part of who you are, and I make it a part of who I am. I tell people I'm First Nations, whether I'm dressed in my traditional regalia or I'm dressed in street clothes. I make it a part of my day. I go from a longhouse to my job, go from my home to a sweat lodge. And I've had the privilege, of course, of teaching about First Nations. When I ask the elders, how do you teach about a longhouse, how do I teach about a cedar tree? They told me, don't talk about it, do it. So education — I bring my students to a longhouse. I make it a part of my everyday.
How, as indigenous women, do you balance the responsibility to your community versus being an individual and individual success?
Dorothy: I think it's by example, In 1989, I did my first fashion show in Hotel Vancouver and it received incredible response. About three weeks later, I took that same show to Skidegate and I asked young people and elders to be my models. We did the very same show, but with different models. My community just embraced it and this was very early on. I've kept that connection with my people and that's been very important for me, that they, in the beginning, endorsed what I was doing because nobody at the time was doing anything like this, so it was really stepping out on the ledge. To have their support was a major thing for me. Each sort of success that I've had, I feel like my community's been behind me.
I want to talk about the barriers that you guys have all faced as indigenous women. Was there ever a turning point moment for you?
Melanie: Child welfare had direct impact on my family. My brother grew up in foster care and my mom struggled with addiction. So I would have to say I brought empathy to work. But I also took an approach that I'm going to learn this system, I'm going to be an expert in this system so I can fight the system. And it's helped a lot of families, and refueling that anger with passion. Just rechannelling the energy. The early days were hard and angry, and the glass was really empty. There wasn't a lot to look forward to.
Laurie: My career has been fairly colourful, but I think the major turning point for me was I had a real severe fear of failure when it came to post-secondary school, which I think is quite common in aboriginal communities. I met an administrator at UBC who believed in me, and he coached me along, and he kept saying, "You can do it, you can do it." Up until then I had registered and dropped out of several calculus and statistics courses. Once he had convinced me I could do it, I believed in it and I passed both of those courses with flying colours and then entered the commerce program at UBC. I think, at the time, I was the only female aboriginal person in the school.
It's so important that we have some mainstream coverage of [murder and missing indigenous women], but I do wonder, is it also a challenge for indigenous women when that image of women as victims is so often [in the] media?
Melanie: I think the media has a responsibility to tell the story and to do truth-telling about the facts. Unfortunately, we have a lot of vignettes and it's about selling, sometimes, the story, without honouring. We're talking about women's lives. We're talking about people having humanity and dignity, so I think the media has responsibility to shape some of that narrative. I think the other piece is this isn't about complaining and protesting.This is about calling on justice.
What advice would you give your 10-year-old self about how to go forward?
Laurie: My 10-year-old self probably needed to hear that being human means that you make mistakes, you're flawed, but I think there should be more room for forgiveness, self-forgiveness. Believe in yourself and if you don't have the support you need in your life, go out and find it. I've found in my career path that there's always been somebody willing to jump in and help, and just even lift the veil, whatever the mystery is around the next corner of my journey.