Out in the Open

Grief, autonomy and belonging in Canada

For Terese Marie Mailhot, feeling at home as an Indigenous person is complicated.
The Maria Slough on Seabird Island, British Columbia, where Terese Marie Mailhot grew up. (Ovila Mailhot)


I think I was born with anticipatory grief, the ghost of inherited loss, and the feeling that I could not escape who I was no matter how much I read, or how sophisticated I became.

This felt like the fate of being a First Nations woman from Seabird Island, British Columbia, where we were relegated to a few hundred houses, surrounded by the Maria Slough—the small body of water the white farmers let their cows wade—the one that used to be safe enough to swim in.

My brothers often looked at the slough surrounding our people and laughed at how sad the murky water looked. We are from river people, who migrated and lived with an abundance I will never know.

I came from the type of fixed grief there was in being a welfare mother without a GED or a good job. Social workers were always on my back, and nobody really cared, except sometimes, when they cared enough to judge.

Before I became a young mother, there were closed fist punches to my face. Starving, a latchkey kid, because my mother did three-day shifts and couldn't always afford to stock the fridge, I'd weigh my options: call the social worker to get out of my mother's house, or revel in that chaos—run the streets like my friends were, or run off with a boy like my friends did, or get pregnant, or take a long stroll, facing the semis along the highway. Dying was a viable option when I had been hungry long enough, starved long enough.

As a now educated woman, as an author published in places like the Los Angeles Times, I attended a luncheon to sign 150 copies of my memoir for potential book sellers. My book is about sexual violence, more specifically, the sexual violence my father inflicted on me, and how I've transcended that violence into a safe space, the space many are given since birth. Explaining who I was without inciting pity was difficult. It always is.

"Is it hard to talk about what happened to you?," a young book seller in a jean jacket with blond, coiffed hair asked me.

"I used to wait tables, and I used to do a lot worse for money. This is better," I say.  It's true. They laugh, but it's true. They have furrowed brows, pity possibly, but it's true. There's nothing like truth to me. Explicitly stating the truth is a privilege for some, or maybe it's being heard that is the privilege. This is all Indigenous land, but I do not feel like I belong anywhere I go anymore, especially sitting in front of a fifty dollar trout, explaining my past and my pain.

At this book function with cloth napkins, drink tickets, and trout, I remembered once, years ago, trying to get a mattress from the welfare worker on my tribe. I had just moved back to bury my mother and assume her home, and assume the responsibility of getting my brother to his job at Canadian Tire—all that. There were no extra mattresses in Mom's house, only the one she died on.

"How much money did you move with?" the worker said. She needed to know I could not afford anything on my own.

"Nothing," I said, with a few hundred dollars for my child's formula and for ground beef and rice to last me the month.

"Okay," she said. I felt like it was a small victory, or luxury, to be gifted something new and my own, for once. I had never had a new mattress. Having nothing and admitting it to social welfare gets you somewhere, that's what a poor Indian can learn.

I have flashbacks of asking people for things, money, or time, and I have flashbacks of speaking as some white woman writes about me in her file work. It was all anticipatory grief—grieving for the pity I had to elicit to get things of my own. A conservative, who has not existed on the other side of a welfare desk, might think, "You did that to yourself. You could have pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and not accepted charity."

I always consider this person, and how I have made myself. I have exceeded anyone's expectation of me, including my own. And still, I believe people need help, and some people, especially where I'm from, should have the help they need to keep children from starving, or worse.

I can't go home without seeing the grief and beauty of my people. A grief the cows wade in, the grief for a river my people can't build their houses by anymore. Until we are free to migrate with autonomy in our hearts, belonging, and pride, I am not home and I might never arrive. 

Written and voiced by Terese Marie Mailhot. Her forthcoming book is called "Heart Berries: A Memoir."
Author Terese Marie Mailhot and her forthcoming memoir, Heart Berries. (Courtesy of Terese Mailhot/Penguin Random House)