How Indigenous elders made Regina home for a Rwandan refugee

In her documentary, Tina Pittaway tells the story of a young woman from Rwanda who came to Canada with high hopes. We’ll call her Grace. And the Canada she discovered isn’t exactly the place conjured up by the picture postcards.

A documentary by Tina Pittaway

In 2008, a young Rwandan refugee, we'll call her Grace to protect her identity, arrived in Regina with high hopes.

She'd come a long way.

In 1993, when she was just a child, Grace and her family left Rwanda at the beginning of the civil war.

First they fled to Kenya, then to the Philippines before landing in Thailand, where the pressures of living illegally weighed on the family.

For years, they waited as applications for refugee claims went nowhere.

What I have learned in such an Indigenous entrenched land, I don't think I could have had that somewhere else and I think that probably is what saved me. I don't think I could have survived if I went anywhere else. I needed to go to Saskatchewan. That's where I needed to be. That's my home.- "Grace" from Rwanda

Then Grace — who couldn't attend university in Thailand because of her illegal status — got a lucky break.

She was accepted into the University of Regina, through a program called World University Services Canada (WUSC).

But the excitement was short-lived, when Grace realized the image of Canada she had her in mind, didn't match reality.

"My first week in Canada, this Somalian girl … she said, 'This is where you get milk, and this is how you turn on heat, this is the laundry room, watch out for the Indians, make sure you wear your coat …

And I said, 'What? What do you mean watch out for the Indians?' And she said, 'You know, watch out for the Indians,' and I said, 'You mean, like Indians from India? She was like, 'No, these are Indigenous people.'

In Thailand, I remember always noticing other people who were in the same plight as we were, and my Dad always saying, 'You know, you have to keep your head down. We're just trying to survive. Don't stir up anymore troubles. Don't join any rallies. Don't do anything.'  So I thought, 'No, I'm in Canada. I'm not getting involved, or I'm not even going to think that there's a problem.'"

It came as a shock to Grace that she, and others, could experience racism in Canada.  

"I just never thought it happened on this side of the world — especially in Canada. I thought I was fleeing something and I realized I wasn't. That it has encompassed the whole world. Realizing that I left colonialism to land in another country of colonialism and I left genocide to enter in another province that was going through cultural genocide."

Grace found guidance and comfort with an Indigenous community at the University of Regina.

"Some of the classes were taught by elders … I remember how I felt, 'this is familiar.' And it was such a weird feeling because I had never, ever seen something like that … it just felt like I was coming home."

Upon graduation, Grace worked as a counselor in a shelter for abused women and their children but she found the high-stress environment hard to handle.

"I spoke to a close elder friend. I said 'I'm gonna move away.' And she said, 'Where are you gonna go?' I said, 'I'm gonna go to Sweden.' She said, 'You think they don't have problems? You think they don't have their own colonialist past?' And of course they did. So then she said, 'You have to pick where home is and then you fight for home.'"

"She said, 'You were given this gift that came from the first Indigenous people that allowed people to come through and helped them survive the winters ... and that has opened the door for you to be here. That benevolence paved the way for you to be here. And so how you accept that gift is through service.'"

"So that's what I do every day ... letting go of a better past and being able to give back what I can."