3 stories of Indigenous resilience over the holidays

Spiked eggnog, family reunions and big shiny presents bring joy to many at this time of year, but for some the season also packs a stressful punch. Three Indigenous people share their stories of coping with pain over the holidays.

Those who have faced adversity share how they cope with difficulties that arise during holidays

Trevor Angus and Wife Yvonne. After being sober for eight years, Angus's sole focus is his family, his children, his wife and his artwork. (Supplied by Trevor Angus)

Spiked eggnog, family reunions and big shiny presents bring joy to many at this time of year, but for some the season also packs a stressful punch.

CBC News spoke with three Indigenous people who shared stories of coping with pain and the triggers that come with the holidays. 

Trevor Angus on avoiding triggers

Little tuffs of wood shavings fall to the ground as Trevor Angus chiseling away at a cedar panel.

A great marriage, a beautiful home and a rewarding and lucrative career as a carver are the cornerstones of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en artist's life.

But his life wasn't always so put together.

"I was heavily into cocaine and alcohol. It's a total trigger for me to see that, even if I see it in a movie, it gets my brain going and I want it, I get antsy," Angus said from his studio in Langley, B.C.

"At this time of year I avoid situations where I feel vulnerable."

'Union,' a painting Angus created to represent his marriage to his wife, Yvonne Angus. (Angela Sterritt )

Trevor's addictions began in 2001 when his younger brother killed himself.  In the same 18 month period, he lost nine other relatives and friends to suicide, car accidents and a work accident.

"It was a devastating time for me and my peers, because we were all very close knit," Angus said.

A lot of the drinking was used to numb feelings around those deaths, because it was so hard on him.

When drugs and alcohol took over at age 29,  Angus stopped drawing and carving. He devoted his life to what he called his love: cocaine.

Eight years ago, Angus turned his life around. He quit drinking and using drugs and devoted his life instead to his family and his art.

"I had to turn my entire life around, and in a big way that meant letting people go and finding new friends who were also sober and who could change my perspective," Angus said.

He advises others struggling with holiday triggers to reach out by calling friends and families, to use the resources that are available and to avoid where people will be drinking or using.

"Remember why you are on this path to begin with. You have to look at what got you to where you are today," he said.

"My dad is my inspiration. He has been sober for about 30 years now — and we both know if we didn't quit, we probably wouldn't be here today."

Patricia June Vickers on truth telling

Ts'msyen and Heiltsuk psychotherapist Patricia June Vickers knows all too well the pain some people grapple with at this time of year. 

Patricia June Vickers relies on her own story and the stories of residential school survivors to help her through hard times. (Supplied)
"Because Christmas is a time of remembering, if a person has memories of suffering and loss that are connected to this time of year, then it makes it challenging," Vickers said from her office in north Vancouver.

In her 20 years as a therapist, Vickers has heard countless stories of struggle from clients, but she also has her own story to rely on.

"The violence that happened to my grandmother and father in residential school was atrocious," she said.

The cycle of violence haunted her family for generations. In 1989, she found out her father was sexually abusing her two daughters.

"It blew my personal world to pieces, and my belief in God to pieces," she said.

'I wanted all the secrets out'

Vickers's said she was fortunate enough to have a support system and took the first step by calling a crisis line.

"It was quite a journey of healing and coming to understand how we as a family got here and how my father got here, as a man, a father and a grandfather," she said.

In 1993, her older brother sought help at a treatment centre. Many family members traveled to see him, including Vickers' father.  But still enraged by his sexual abuse spanning years, every family member refused to help him get to the centre, even though he had suffered debilitating strokes. So he took the bus to the centre in the Southwest States on his own.

When you tell the truth in a family, it's unimaginable, the wisdom and the beauty that comes from that.- Patricia June Vickers

His wife, and many of his children and grandchildren visited him there and took part in a healing circle.

"I wanted all the secrets out, because that truth telling is the most important thing. It was intense and powerful and  powerfully healing," Vickers said.

Forgiving was not an overnight event, but the Vickers family began the process of confronting abuse and sharing what a devastating impact it had on the survivors.

Vickers admits she has not heard of another family taking on such an extraordinary endeavour.

She says healing is about constantly practising non-judgment and compassion toward others and herself. Her family continues to work at the process of forgiveness.

"When you tell the truth in a family, it's unimaginable, the wisdom and the beauty that comes from that and that is trans-generational."

Bonnie Morgan: Resilience in adversity

Educator Bonnie Morgan's hair hangs in a long soft ponytail as she speaks about hope around the holidays.

Bonnie Morgan and daughter Isabella. She says looking to her ancestors for strength is what gives her coping mechanisms and her resilience when facing her own adversity. (Bonnie Morgan)

Tattooed on the Secwepemc woman's neck are two black feathers, now faded to blue to represent she and her grandmothers' connection to the land, language and ethno-botany.

"The medicine from their teachings was to heal through adversity and to be accountable at all times," Morgan said.

Morgan has been an Indigenous educator for the Langley School District for nine years. The 46-year-old mother speaks with confidence, but she is no stranger to hardship.

"This past year I went through a divorce and the housing market left me homeless at the beginning of May," Morgan said.

She and her nine-year-old daughter, Isabella, stayed on friends' couches for five months until they were able to move into their new place.

Morgan said changing the narrative of her story from victim to champion is what helped her get through it all.

"I let my daughter think that we were on an adventure. I told her we had many friends so we had many homes," she said.

"She learned to live with little, whatever she could fit into a small suitcase."

Residential school survivors give strength

Morgan said the stories of residential school told be elders give her strength to transform difficult situations into learning platforms.

"They are my heroes. My mom, Flora Morgan, went to residential school at St Joseph's Mission in Williams Lake, [B.C.]. She faced horrific abuse daily," she explained.

Today, Morgan's mother takes care of Indigenous foster children because she wants to give back after having her childhood stolen.

"Through her story and her strength I have been taught that healing can happen. I have been shown what a resilient, strong, cultural Indigenous woman that's been through hell can look like. Amazing. Strong. Hopeful," Morgan said.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.