Resilience personified: An Indigenous woman's perseverance pays off

Growing up in poverty can be challenging, and it's a familiar story to many urban Indigenous communities — especially those in Winnipeg’s North End, including a mother of five who's now in university and hopes to mentor other women.

After years of personal struggles, Candace Abdilla is a successful 1st-year university student and mom of 5

Candace Abdilla, 33, is now studying at the University of Winnipeg and raising five children after years of struggling with her own drug addiction and trouble with the law. (Lenard Monkman)

This is part 1 of a 3-part series looking at stories of Indigenous resilience.

Candace Abdilla is a mother of five who knows the struggles that come with poverty — and from addictions and run-ins with the law — all too well.

But the Winnipeg woman is turning her life around.

Born to teenage parents who were both intravenous drug addicts, Abdilla remembers being taken away and placed into the child welfare system when she was nine years old. She lived with a foster family in the town of Powerview-Pine Falls, Man.

It was the only time in her life that she spent outside Winnipeg's North End. Her parents were able to regain custody when she was 13, and she returned to Winnipeg.

A year later, in 1999, Abdilla became pregnant with her first child.

A year after that, Abdilla says she got caught up in Winnipeg's street gang lifestyle and lost her first child to child welfare — all by the time she was just 15.

"It progressed from there. I started selling drugs," said Abdilla, adding that her own drug habit began at that time as well.

'Never knew anything about my culture'

By 2008, Abdilla was a mother of four, but she had also picked up two drug trafficking convictions and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.

She was sent to Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge for Aboriginal Women in Maple Creek, Sask. It is run much like a minimum-security corrections facility, and offers services and programs that reflect Indigenous culture.

She says she has the lodge to thank for exposing her to her culture for the first time.

"I never knew anything about my culture before I went to jail," said Abdilla.

Being at the healing lodge allowed her to experience the sweat lodge for the first time, she said, and it's also where she obtained her general education diploma.

Still, she describes her time in jail as the toughest period of her life.

"Being away from my kids for 20 months, I didn't see them. I didn't get any visits. I had to call. I would hear all of the crazy, messed up stuff that was happening with my kids' dad," said Abdilla.

I know what's going to happen if I keep going down this road. I'm just going to keep going to jail, my kids are not going to know me. They're not going to respect me.- Candace Abdilla

While she was in jail, her children were again taken into custody by Child and Family Services.

In 2010, Abdilla got out on statutory release after doing 20 months of her 30-month sentence.

In an effort to turn her life around, she got a job and tried to stay off drugs.

"When I got out and I didn't get my kids back from CFS, I started using again and I started selling again," she said.

In 2012, Abdilla came home and found her front door kicked in, along with a note. The police had raided her home and found drugs inside. They were interested in speaking to her. She turned herself in a few days later, and was charged with possession and released on a promise to appear in court.

At the time, she was taking five 80-milligram oxycodone pills a day. She was also selling the opiates to fund her own habit.

"I knew I was busted again, and at that point in time, I knew that it was not worth it," she said. "I know what's going to happen if I keep going down this road. I'm just going to keep going to jail, my kids are not going to know me. They're not going to respect me."

Turning point

Abdilla was sentenced to two years of conditional house arrest and regained custody of her kids in August that year.

She managed to beat her opioid addiction through methadone treatment. After two months of treatment, she found out she was pregnant and stopped taking methadone immediately.

"I had to admit to CFS that I was using and that I was willing to do anything that they asked me to do," said Abdilla. "They made me do drug treatment programs."

She joined the Native Addictions Council of Manitoba, an Indigenous-owned and operated treatment centre, and was able to have regular visits with her children.

Abdilla graduated from high school in June 2016. (Submitted)
She also decided to go back to school, and credits a program called Taking Charge! with helping her to get back into school and find daycare for her children.

The non-profit personal development program is meant to help single parents get back on their feet, providing assistance with things like resume writing, personal advocacy and accessing resources.

"Once I got my kids back, I thought about things that I wanted to do because I didn't want to sit on welfare," she said.

"I had to challenge a lot of the beliefs that I had growing up about what it means to be 'solid,' and the respect thing and all of that stuff that goes on in the 'hood.'"

She ended up earning her high school diploma in June last year.

Now 33, Abdilla is in her first year with the urban and inner-city studies program at the University of Winnipeg, an accomplishment that fills her with pride.

"I'm getting really good grades. I haven't gotten anything less than a B minus, my professors say that I write really well. Everything is pretty good."

Abdilla is determined to finish the four-year bachelor of arts program. She would like to work at an agency that allows families involved with Child and Family Services to reunify.

She is also considering working in the criminal justice system and "paying it forward," she said.

"I would like to work with women offenders, to help them get back on their feet, talking about the steps that I've taken and hopefully mentor women."


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1