Kanien'kehá:ka welder finds a career path in her grandfather's footsteps

After a car crash nearly killed her 15 years ago, Erica Lee Page says she's lucky to still be here. But she considers herself fortunate for many other reasons, too.

Erica Lee Page is a fighter with a song in her heart

Woman looks at camera while wearing a welding helmet
At a job training session, Erica Lee Page quickly realized interior decorating wasn't a good fit. So it was suggested she try out welding. (Lance Delisle/CBC)

"That's my baby!"

A small blue parrot flies overhead in the spacious kitchen of Erica Lee Page, a Kanien'kehá:ka woman from Kanesatake.

"She's a little crazy," Erica says. "She likes looking outside the kitchen window."

"Do you think she wants to fly away?" I ask.

"No, she loves it here … it's her home."

Erica can make you laugh as easily as she can transport you to another place with her singing. She sees herself as being very fortunate throughout her 41 years on this planet.

In 2007, she was in a car accident that nearly killed her. She was the passenger in a truck driving on a rainy night in Kanesatake, about 60 kilometres west of Montreal, when the vehicle slid off the road and hit a tree.

"I don't remember the crash, but I managed to break 20 bones," she says — broken ribs nearly puncturing her lungs. She knows how lucky she was to survive.

Just a few weeks earlier, she took home a medal at the Quebec Cup for boxing in her weight division.

"When the doctor told me that I will never be able to fight again, all I wanted to do was cry," she says.

In the weeks she spent recovering, Erica made plans for her future.

"I knew I had a second chance. I knew I wasn't going to stay in this hospital bed all my life," she says.

Erica pours us coffee, warm and inviting with a bit of cinnamon to make it special.

"You have to treat yourself once in a while, don't you think?" she says.

Returning to music

With the quest for her Golden Gloves over, she returned to another love: music. It helped her come to terms with her situation.

She had grown up singing hymns in church, where her grandmother played piano and uncles played guitar.

"Even as a child, my mom said I was singing before I was talking," she says. "Not long after leaving the hospital, I sang at my cousin's wedding."

A woman is seen singing into a microphone.
Erica Lee Page grew up around music. After a car crash upended her boxing dreams, she returned to that first passion. (Submitted by Erica Lee Page)

She turned to songwriting, getting her through good times and bad. After a miscarriage, she wrote a blues song, Bye Bye Baby, which came to her in a dream.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long for Erica to experience more loss, more pain and another change in her life.

"Erica's a fighter, like me!" laughs Tess Lalonde, her neighbour and dear friend.

Lalonde, an artist who designs traditional ribbon shirts, admires Erica's good nature and ability to always be kind and give from her heart.

"She's smart and a hard worker. She's very talented, with whatever she does," Lalonde says. "And she's a survivor like me."

Time to move on

When a seven-year relationship declined, Erica realized It was time to move on. So with nowhere to go, she packed up her possessions and her animals and moved out from the only reality she knew.

"I had no prospects, no future plans. I was cleaning houses and I had no money," she says of that difficult time.

So Erica signed up for and completed her high school equivalency. She then decided to go to a job training session, planning to learn how to become an interior decorator. But after one day, she knew that wasn't for her.

So the instructor suggested she try welding, which happened to be the career her grandfather had held.

A woman is seen holding a piece of metal.
Erica Lee Page holds a piece of welded pipe. (Lance Delisle/CBC)

Erica remembers playing with her grandfather's welding material at his home.

"I had so many dreams about welding from the time I was a small kid with my grandfather," she says. "So I said, maybe I could do that."

The commute to her trade school meant taking two buses and a train from Kanesatake to Deux-Montagnes, Que.

"I would never miss a day. I was determined to finish the course," she says.

And she did.

After completing school, Erica worked various fabrication jobs. She soon found a passion in welding pipe for a company that builds massive refrigerators.

"There has been days that I've been tired or in a bad mood. Maybe things are going wrong. And I won't lie, I cry," she says. "It's like boxing. Nobody likes to be against the ropes. And when you do get on the ropes you get out. Find your exit!"

She now has an apartment of her own, with a gifted upright piano in the living room — photos of her grandmother and grandfather sitting on either end.

"They're with me everywhere," she says.

As I finish Erica's special coffee, I ask her what advice would she give an Indigenous person living on reserve who feels like giving up.

"Honestly, I didn't think I was going to be a welder," she says. "You can do anything that you put your mind to. No matter how daunting it is. It doesn't matter if you're living on reserve. Always try."


Lance Delisle

CBC Columnist

Lance Delisle is from the Kahnawake Mohawk territory. He's been involved with broadcast radio and journalism for over 30 years.