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The Importance of Identity: an Interview with Catherine Davis

We met Catherine last fall when she accompanied Anishinaabe Elder and precious collaborator Shirley Williams to a meeting at COPA in September 2018. She first met Shirley in the 1980’s in a Native Studies course at Trent University for educators that had been out in the field practicing without a degree, and who were now required to earn one in order to continue teaching. Although Shirley was highly regarded at the university - in the classroom, behind her back, the educators would make fun of her for her Indigenous identity. As Catherine describes it, ‘’I did not have the courage to address it. I was in that ‘’canoe’’ of not knowing where I belonged. That is how I met her’’.

Catherine is no longer in that canoe.  As part of the Ph.D. she is currently working on, she needed to work with an Elder, and so that is how she came to be at COPA with Shirley. ‘’I am helping her, and she is helping me. She is a hardworking Elder! I have been to lots of meetings with her, where she gives her blessing and then stays on for hours to share knowledge and participate fully in the agenda’’. Shirley has worked on several projects with COPA, contributing her wisdom and counsel, and also her Anishinaabe language skills to our toolkits and storybooks.

Left to right: Laura St. Amant, Shirley Williams, Catherine, and Deb St. Amant at COPA

Sometime after her visit to COPA as part of our Circle Widens project, Catherine agreed to a conversation with me about her own story, from which appeared to me two vibrant threads. The first beautiful strand is the story of her being ‘’called’’ home to her identity as an Indigenous woman, and her embodied migration from North Bay to the Alderville First Nation community where she now lives, off-reserve (like more than 50% of First Nations people). She characterizes her migration as something that just ‘’happened’’ to her, and that has happened to others in her family as well. It is a story of disconnection, from traditional ways, and then of the conscious decision to take on her Indigenous identity.

The second thread that appeared in our conversation is her study of narrative, and her use of storytelling to tell the truths of Indigenous lives and reveal their absences from our history.

Let’s begin with Catherine making her way back home.

‘’…. many of us would say we felt a calling, a mystical pull towards our understanding of our identity. I’ve heard it called blood memory and some elders refer to as being “called home” (Davis, p.46) “.  

Catherine was raised off-reserve in North Bay. Her mother had married a non-native husband and could not return to their home community of Kipawa, in Quebec. As a child, she says she was aware of their Indigenous identity. Her mother was visibly identifiable, but Catherine was not. She remembers hearing racist comments growing up, which made her feel that there was something wrong with who she was. And the fact that her mother was disconnected from her own community made her family feel that they did not belong anywhere. In this uncertainty and disconnection began the calling for home, and a journey that took her throughout Ontario – from North Bay to Toronto to Oshawa and eventually to Alderville.

  Catherine’s grandparents, photo from MA thesis

It was Catherine’s grandparents who had first moved off-reserve. They had made a conscious decision not to practice their Indigenous traditions or speak their language. These were tough decisions, made out of LOVE. Indigenous identity was dangerous, so they took only what they thought they needed of this identity when they left the reserve. ‘’I am sad they had to do that’’, says Catherine. And yet, looking back, Catherine’s mother Marie tells her that the way they lived was traditional - her parents’ house was a casual open space; welcoming and with lots of people around all the time. It was a news centre – where extended family members from out of town came to find out what was happening and who was not getting along with whom, who was getting married and having babies– all sorts of people news.

As a child, Marie says she always knew what they were, that they were First Nations – she says it was never hidden from them. Thus the connection to identity, however stretched, was never completely lost.

Language was another matter. Catherine’s grandparents had lots of kids, no vehicle and not a lot of freedom. The only private space they shared was the language they spoke in common but did not share with their 12 kids. They spoke the language to each other exclusively, and it became ‘’an intimate transaction between them’’, as Catherine says, but was lost to their children.

As an adult, Catherine eventually started moving slowly but intentionally back into Indigenous ways. And then she moved to Alderville and transferred her band membership to that community. She took courses at Trent University and became involved with the community. She worked part-time, volunteered, and became more and more deeply involved with the community. Becoming part of this community was part of that conscious decision to take on her Indigenous identity. And when her kids were born, naturally it was important to her that they would know who they are.  

Her grandmother, still alive when her eldest child was born, understood the importance of knowing who you are. Paradoxically, it was she who actually encouraged Catherine by saying, ‘’you need to learn that language’’. And so, Catherine struggles to learn the language her grandmother once considered too dangerous to use.

And Catherine’s children? They understand their culture, traditions and identity naturally. They identify proudly as Anishinaabe from Alderville.

Marie is also more open to Indigenous ways, and now practices her traditions. She goes to the Friendship Centre in North Bay, and when she visits Catherine, she is always looking and learning, absorbed by the activities in the Alderville community.

Catherine’s mother Marie, Catherine, and her daughter Joy

 When her children were small, Catherine returned to North Bay to attend Teacher’s College. She credits her mother for helping her succeed at that, by taking care of her young son and encouraging her. Catherine finished school and went to work as an educator. But she soon began to notice that too many Indigenous kids in her school board were being diagnosed with special needs. She also saw that they were not getting the help they needed. So, she set her mind to find out exactly what they DID need, put together proposals and developed an after-school program for Alderville students. This was before Truth and Reconciliation, when the school system was not so welcoming of collaboration with Indigenous communities. She kept working at it until she did develop a working relationship with the school board, and her program became part of their Indigenous education. But Catherine’s goal was to continue with her own education, and so she continued while working full-time.

She did her Masters in Aboriginal World and Indigenous Education studies at Queen’s University. And in her master’s thesis, she tells the real story, in her own words, of her mother, Marie, whose story represents that of many Indigenous women. Her beautiful narrative of Marie’s life is punctuated by a conversation about the disenfranchisement and abandonment of native women. She says, “Experiences, like Marie’s, offer balance and is the first step in the Truth and Reconciliation process. Stories have the power to heal and telling the truth is where we start (Davis, p. iii) ”. 

As I can personally attest, Catherine’s master’s thesis is a beautiful and compelling story that illuminates Indigenous history in a personal and revelatory way. It is readable and achingly relevant to the dilemmas of Indigenous women, the complex relationship of many Indigenous people to their language and identity, and the challenges of education in a post-reconciliation world.

Being a lover of study and learning, she began working on her Ph.D. last year at Trent University, in Indigenous Studies. Within the context of it, she continues her storytelling. She uses the narrative form to capture and hold the stories of Elders. These are the stories that are relevant to her experience and to her community, stories that come from close to home, and that make sense in her community. They are stories that educate and illuminate Indigenous experiences and teachings. She sees these locally situated stories as regional resources for Indigenous communities. Her goal is not only that students will learn from these stories that come from close to home, but that they will also notice the absence of Indigenous stories from history.

Catherine says that non-Indigenous people must also once and for all understand this absence of Indigenous people from Canadian history.

Students at the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies at Trent U. 

Catherine works as a teaching assistant at Trent University for Indigenous 1001, which all first-year students must now take as a part of reconciliation. This is how the university system is incorporating reconciliation into their programs. Catherine says there is little resistance to this on the part of students. In fact, non-Indigenous kids often have emotional responses. Some feel guilty and some are conflicted. It is their turn to question their identity. And meanwhile, the Indigenous space at Trent is welcoming non-Indigenous people in to learn more.

Catherine has wise counsel in her master’s thesis for educators who are seeking to incorporate more Indigenous material and ways of being into the classroom:

Describing a study of students in school learning about Indigenous history and traditional ways, she says that teachers: ‘’don’t have to be Native (though that is great news if more Indigenous students have a calling towards the profession) to teach our First Nation students well. They need a willing spirit and strong dedication to the calling of teaching. Having the right attitude will move them towards seeking out resources, changing their format, developing their knowledge and engaging their students. I see these teachers in the educational system, but I see the others too, - too often (Davis, p.137-38) ’’. 


She says, ‘’Teaching staff and teaching practices do make a difference and can be agents of change for the Native student. (Davis, p. 66), but ‘’It’s a common mistaken belief that including First Nation experience solely benefits the First Nation student and not others (Davis, p. 69) ’’.

 Wise words. We all benefit from reconciliation.

 I asked Catherine to share with me a book or two that she thinks everyone should read in order to know more. She chose two: 

The Reconciliation Manifesto, by Arthur Manuel 

Unsettled Expectations, by Eva Mackey.

 Miigwech, Catherine.

COPA’s toolkit for educators, Joining the Circle, is one part of our collective effort on the journey of reconciliation. This is a journey that involves what COPA terms the cycle of positive change that features learning, reflecting, growing and changing. Joining the Circle is designed to help ensure Indigenous students and their families feel that they belong and are able to realize their greatest potential.   



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