Women As The New Warriors

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Heather Poitras, right, Indigenous Woman's Achievement in Community Leadership Award winner.

It has been an emotional week for Heather Poitras. While this is the second time she is in Banff for an Indigenous leadership course, a lot has changed in her life this time around. At the start of the program Heather introduced herself to the group and shared her story, which has been filled with unimaginable hardships and struggles including the recent passing of her eldest son.

Heather grew up near Kehewin Cree Nation in Treaty 6 and is a registered member of the Sawridge First Nation of Treaty 8. As a spiritual guide, with teachings from both Treaty 6 and 8 Elders, Heather knows the importance of sharing her story. The group of women sitting around the room have all shared similar experiences and struggles, and it’s in these moments of personal connections that relationships and support for one another is built. Heather notes “We learn from each other and we’re validated in the work we do when we’re all together.”

Heather looks to her spiritual beliefs and the power of prayer to guide her work and life. She speaks of the Seven Generations Prophecy, which prophesized the hardships and changes Indigenous communities would face, and the important role youth and women would play in making the community whole again. This notion speaks strongly to Heather, with approximately one quarter of the Indigenous population in Canada being fourteen years old or younger she believes it is vital for them to know and understand their cultural identity and history. Heather believes her most important role in the community is to pass on the culture and learnings so it can continue to be shared and celebrated.

As a single mother of five, who lost two of her children one to a miscarriage and one stillborn child at eight months, Heather has always used Indigenous tools and teachings from her ancestors to teach her children and now eight-month old granddaughter how to be confident, respectful, and proud. This past year has taught her the importance of planning for the future, and the role that children and women play in shaping what is to come. “After I lost my dad I saw the world differently, after I lost my son I saw the world differently, and now with my granddaughter the world has changed even more.” Growing up her father would remind Heather and her siblings “Everyone in the circle has a role and responsibility; if something doesn’t get done we all suffer.” Because of the changes in roles and way of living in Indigenous communities, women now have to stand up and be the warriors, provide for their families, and raise their children.

As a direct descendant of Chief Big Bear and Chief J.F. Dion (one of the founders of the Metis Nations of Alberta), leadership has been part of Heather’s lineage and upbringing, and something that Heather has continued to highlight with her own children.  As a busy working mother, she sees the importance of making time to continue learning and attending courses. As the winner of the Annual Indigenous Women Award from the Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute, which recognizes Indigenous women who have made an impact in their communities, Heather was able to attend the Indigenous Women in Leadership program. “As I learn more, I teach them [my daughters] more, and they will know more than me, and be better off than I was.”

Before the program, she was feeling tired still healing and coming to terms with the emotional and physical struggles she faced over the past years, but the program has revitalized her.  With the support from the faculty, Elder and the group, Heather is ready to go back to work and be more strategic and empowered to make changes, “I am leaving Banff with more energy, passion, and a desire to continue on our own battle, in our own way.”

Her experience here has given her the tools and support she needs to go back to her community and continue sharing her culture and teachings. For Heather, the most impactful part of the program was the women she met, “Sometimes it can feel like you’re all alone, but coming here I look at these women in awe, and although we have a lot of work to do, we’re getting there. We’re resilient.”

As she leaves Banff, Heather is excited to go home and share her experience with her daughters and granddaughter, with a new sense of purpose, and pride. “It’s ok to talk about ourselves now and how much we’ve accomplished; we don’t have to be humble about how far we’ve come and how far we will go.”