Memoir by women's advocate and community planner Elaine Alec a story of survival and transformation
'Every time someone shares their story they help erase the shame for others,' Alec says
Elaine Alec (Syilx-Secwepemc) has made a career of working with First Nations across the country to build stronger communities and organizations.
She'd long wanted to write a book that could inform other planners working with Indigenous Peoples but it was her recent community work, focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, that inspired her to start writing again.
Alec's debut book — a memoir titled Calling My Spirit Back — is a personal story of survival and transformation. It's also an account of intergenerational trauma, the hard work that goes into healing and breaking cycles, and how the teachings of a nation and lived experiences can be channeled into work that can heal and strengthen communities.
For a long time, Alec said she didn't see herself as a survivor, even as she was living through the chaos of intergenerational trauma and addictions.
"I didn't think I was a survivor of anything because it was happening all around me. It was just so normalized my entire life. I was just making it, just like everybody else," she said.
In disclosing some of the deeply painful experiences in her life — sexual abuse, violence, racism, heartbreak — Alec lays bare the parts of her story she's carried deep shame about, in particular about the "type of mother" she was to her first son, who she gave birth to when she was 18.
"There were times when I wanted to hold back and not talk about things," she said.
"But I knew there were other people that were going through that and if I could go through those things and still forgive myself, if I could go through those things and not continue to feel ashamed about that — that they could also forgive themselves and move forward."
When asked who her book is for, she said young women living through similar experiences are top of mind.
That wasn't the audience she initially intended to write for but as she was working on her book, she shared her story with a young woman who later told Alec it inspired her to leave an abusive relationship and find a renewed confidence in the goals she'd set for herself.
"That totally changed the way I wanted to put this book out," she said.
"I decided at that moment that I want more young women like her, who want to work towards a better life, who feel alone, who might be struggling."
In her book she writes, "Every time someone shares their story they help erase the shame for others."
Alec said she remembers being drawn to books about Buddhism when she was looking for resources early in her sobriety. They reminded her of the teachings from her tema [grandmother].
She then started connecting with Mexican author Don Miguel Ruiz's work and noticed how he was sharing Toltec teachings in his writing. She thought about what she'd been taught and how they could "contribute to people reaching out and wanting to find ways to move through their healing, move through their trauma," she said.
Putting teachings into professional practice
Knit throughout her memoir are teachings Alec learned from family, mentors and her nation.
She explains how she uses that knowledge and her spirituality as the foundation of her professional work as an Indigenous community planner. At the core of her work is employing a Syilx approach to planning and decision making, ensuring protocols and agreements are put into place to cultivate a safe space for people to work together.
She explains how creating safe spaces is crucial in her work, recalling the community sessions she did talking about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and putting together action plans.
"We had some really tough conversations around what's happening in communities that we don't want to talk about. The incest, the perpetrators in communities who are still there, and we were able to have these conversations because we utilized indigenous knowledge and ceremony," she said.
At the end of her book she writes, "When people ask me, 'How do I create and cultivate safe spaces?' I have a difficult time explaining it to them because it has been a long journey.
"It's a journey of understanding and embracing your story and sharing it with others. We can't expect others to share their stories, their hearts, their thoughts, and their truths if we are not willing to do the same."
Alec says that while trauma is at the root of her story, it's not her only one. Today she is a partner in the Indigenous planning firm Alderhill, she is the former women's representative of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs — and now she is an author. She is happily married and has three children.
Alec's memoir Calling My Spirit Back is currently available as an e-book and will be released in paperback on July 24.