Q&A: Amy Smoke says reconnecting with her Mohawk roots turned her life around

University of Waterloo social work student Amy Smoke will be speaking at Take Back the Night, an annual event dedicated to ending gender-based violence, about how reconnecting with her Mohawk culture helped her overcome addiction and put her on a path to helping others.

Smoke speaks at Take Back the Night march Thursday

Attendees at Waterloo Region's thirty-second annual Take back the Night march gather in front of Kitchener City Hall. (Gary Graves/CBC)

Waterloo Region's thirty-third annual Take Back the Night march takes place Thursday night at Kitchener City Hall and this year, its focus is on Indigenous women, who experience much higher rates of gender-based violence than non-Indigenous women in Canada. 

University of Waterloo social work student Amy Smoke will be speaking at the event, sharing some of her story of overcoming addiction and homelessness, and how reconnecting with her Mohawk culture helped her get an education, and put her on a path toward helping others. 

She spoke to Craig Norris, host of the CBC's The Morning Edition.

The following interview has been edited for style and clarity.

CBC: What is the signifance of Indigenous women being focused on and honoured at Take Back the Night?

Smoke: "The country is obviously starting to take notice of First Nations people. The topics surrounding historical violence against us, the assimilation policies, that's all being brought to light....residential schools. With the murdered and missing indigenous women inquiry beginning, everyone is starting to take notice of this horrific stain on our history, how we feel ignored, how we've been sort of pushed aside and crimes against us go unsolved, and unnoticed it seems."

What are you going to be talking about tonight? 

"I'll start with the shocking statistics of violence against aboriginal women, vs their non-aboriginal counterparts. You know, we're three and a half times more likely to be victims of violent crime. We don't report crimes often enough. They go unreported and therefore unsolved. And then my own experiences as an aboriginal woman and experiences in my own life."

When you were younger you struggled with addiction. You say you had violence in your own life. How did you go from that to where you are now?

"My culture, and in post-secondary institutions mainly. The aboriginal student support services saved my life. The people that work there are strong, they are healthy, they are wise, they are leaders, and I have looked to them to bring me back to my culture, the original teachings. I'm trying to learn my language. All of those things keep me really balanced, and sane and peaceful. It's just the best wey to live."

What did those people do? How did they guide you?

"In particular, Conestoga College's Aboriginal Services, the manager Myeengun Henry there just gave me unconditional support. He's an amazing man, who just does so many things for his people. He took me in the moment I walked in the door, got me into school, didn't even think whether I was a good person or not, I hadn't even shared my story with him. And getting into University of Waterloo, I found the same sort of support from all of the people there, all of the staff at St. Paul's (University College) are so supportive of First Nations students in all of their endeavours."

How can young Indigenous women learn to reconnect with their heritage the way you did?

"First thing, you've got to ask for help. Turn to someone that you can talk to. Tell someone, tell anybody. I sought out the aboriginal services, and aboriginal organizations here in the community, and surrounded myself with the people who I felt most comfortable with, people who were probably experiencing the same things I had and were on the same journey that I was on as well. When you can connect with someone you can identify with and have the same background as you, it's a big huge network of support."

You've said it's your duty to be a role model. What does that mean?

"It's a big job, but it's something that's just part of me now. As I've become healthy I realize that it's just something I am supposed to do. I speak. I talk. I am Mohawk, so I can just talk for days. Anyone that will listen I will my story to. And that's in itself a form of healing. I get better every time I tell it. I'm prouder every time I tell it." 

What sort of stories get shared with you?

"A lot of times it's the same thing, they (Indigenous women) can't get out, they keep going back to the same man. And we smile and ignore that fact. When they're ready to leave, they're ready to leave but it's a hard life to get out of. We generally share those types of stories."

Do you hear many of the same kinds of stories? 

"They're kind of all the same. While our stories are unique to one another, they're scarily the same. I've often given the same advice: seek your culture, go back to your people, those are the people that will love you most and see you through this to the end."

How will what you're doing influence the way your career takes shape?

"I'm just here to help. I'm here to listen, I can give advice from what I know, what I have teachings on, and the resources I've had in the community. Unfortunately, I have had to live in shelters, and visit food banks, so I know where they are and I can help you. I have contacts and resources all over town and if I don't, someone at the Waterloo Aboriginal Education Centre will."