Monday, May 25, 2009

I laughed, I cried, I danced like a wolf.

On Friday I attended the Women In Leadership Foundation's (WIL) 5th Annual BC Aboriginal Women in Leadership Forum: Seeds of Success. We encouraged women from all backgrounds to attend the event. But to be honest, until I was there, I wasn't really sure as a non-Aboriginal woman what I would take away from it. But at the end of the day I felt so empowered as a woman that next year I will bring ALL my girlfriends.

Within moments of sitting down in the theatre next to my friend Marlis (who did all the graphic design for the event) I realized I had made a clear mistake. I hadn't thought to bring Kleenex. We knew we were going to experience something different when Maya Kanigan (WIL) and Sheryl Fisher (Squamish Nation) opened the day talking about how this event was about "Honouring the women warrior in us all". And then Sheryl's mother Audrey Rivers took us through a traditional opening prayer and a women's warrior song to open the day.

What really made this event different for me was the truly open, honest, authentic and sometimes raw stories told about how each of these women have been successful in their lives. Yes each had attained professional success, but their stories were really a testament to their personal success. The panel included a banker, chief, artist, entrepreneur and a business woman. Three of them were moms (and many at some point single moms). All had overcome significant obstacles to success such as: teenage parents, residential schools, being surrounded by addiction, foster care, poverty, suicide, divorce, single parenthood, loss of cultural identity and being a marginalized minority in the country of their birth. Each learnt from the stories told by their elders (Grandmothers were a significant theme). And while all of them faced adversity all their stories focused on the positive, the attainable, the future generation of Aboriginal women. The warrior in us all.

The session was moderated by Michele Baptiste, National Manager of Aboriginal Relations for Scotiabank. All the stories were fantastic. And I would love to tell them all here. But they seem too personal for an unknown 3rd party to try and give them their due. But I will summarize some of the great nuggets of truth that I took from their speeches.

Jessie Williams - Special Projects Officer, Four Host First Nations

Jessie provided a strong start to the day, with some relevant lessons for all of us:

  • We are responsible for who you are today and who you will be tomorrow. You need to know and believe in yourself = this gives you the power to make it happen.
  • Listen to your dreams NOT logic - as children we don't put limits on our dreams, we should be the same as adults.
  • Don't be afraid to make mistakes. For her fear was the idea of NOT accomplishing her goals and that motivated her.

Some of her inspiration came from:

  • her parents - who no matter how many problems they had always encouraged her to be/have more
  • her grandfather - who taught her to never let anyone tell you that you are less than you are
  • her grandmother - who taught her how to be a woman & a mother and how to be loved
  • mentors - you can't achieve anything on your own you MUST surround yourself with supportive people and seek guidance from others. By seeking their guidance you are honouring that person
  • herself - most inspiration comes from within
Chief Lisa Shaver, Chief of the Penelakut Tribe

Lisa is a fantastic story teller. She had us moving from tears to laughter again and again as she spoke. Her stories were laced with the theme of stubbornness that seems to have followed her throughout her life (and is likely one of her success tools). Her tips for success included:

  • Have to live your own life.
  • Cultural identity is a key to your strength - for her this came from the stories of her grandmother. You need to find your own path, but know and learn from cultural teachings.
  • Have to become the change you want. She has to be an example to her children, life and community. We are the answer to our children's future.
Denise Brillon Hill - Entrepreneur & Designer of

Denise clearly has a strong sense of self and her values. Denise believes it is never too late or too early to fulfill your dreams. To her the foundation is a strong set of values, these values create passion and that passion will lead to your success. Values are what give your life direction, and hers include:

  • Show honour
  • Never too young or too small to have a voice
  • Speak your truth
  • Speak for those who have no voice
  • Value originality and don't be afraid to step outside the box
  • Be yourself
  • Value of friends and family should NEVER be compromised for success.

Business to her is about relationships with people and NOT just exchanging money. We can show our community, business and government where our values lie when we make our own purchasing decisions. Is it really good value to drive to a big store to buy big bags of things that clutter our lives? Why not support the local family run vegetable store instead?

She also has a vision for Aboriginal goods and that is to move them beyond being just tourist items. Her company Artifaax is well on its way of helping Aboriginal products become part of the mainstream.

Renae Morriseau - filmmaker, actress and writer

Renae began and finished her talk with a quote (which I hope I got right): To create story you must be physically energized, emotionally attuned, mentally focused and spiritually aligned.

Her story was somewhat different from the others as she grew up in Urban Winnipeg amongst a variety of cultures. She even danced in a Ukranian dance troupe at one point.

Her role as a full time artist is to tell stories. The different stages of her life and career taught her the critical thinking of storytelling and to see the Aboriginal perspective. Something in her compels her to keep asking questions and telling those stories. She is looking for ways to continue to tell the Aboriginal story whether through comedy, drama or documentary. She also continually asks herself who do you attract? Who are the people around you that motivate you?

Renae is a strong, attainable role model who works in a field she is very passionate about, and through that work is also honouring her culture. Renae's most recent documentary "The Trail to Moose Lake" about the elders Fort McKay will launch next month.


Some of the best candid moments came during the Q&A. Daycare was resoundingly named an issue for becoming successful as a woman. And all women tend to take care of everyone else before ourselves. When the panel was asked how do you take care of yourself and your health, the answers ranged from:

  • Be your own best friend and not an enemy
  • laugh, love drink women
  • think health and happy
  • breathe
  • connect to your inner child... what gives you joy?
  • self awareness
  • shopping
  • Important not to focus on competing with the men, but to ensure you look after yourself first

The session finished with another song and a dance. We were all included and yes, my part of the audience danced like wolves - including howling. The session was followed by scholarships given to 2 talented young Aboriginal women to contrute to their education. And finally a sharing circle.

So what did this day mean to me? Well I'll quote Maya Kanigan, as she spoke about what WIL means to her...

"Every women in this room will be a role model to another women in her life. WIL is about bringing these individuals together to learn from, inspire and encourage each other to make a positive difference to the future of women's leadership in Canada. Each of us has the power to make a difference - WIL is about working together to get there. "

An event such as this brings women from ALL backgrounds together to work on our collective future.

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