Jeanne Hebert is Woman Who Walks on the Water in the Mist, an Anishinabkwe Wisdom Keeper, and a precious COPA ally. She has been an important advisor and collaborator for the toolkits we created with the aim of supporting the success and well-being of Indigenous students and their families in Ontario. She has also been on the Advisory Council of the Circle Widens project, and as the project winds to a close, I wanted to chat with Jeanne about the project and about her work with COPA. We spoke about that and much more.
Jeanne’s grandparents were both survivors of residential schools. They had 9 children, and Jeanne and her mother lived with them when she was growing up. Despite the effects of the trauma her grandparents lived with, and her grandfather’s alcoholism, Jeanne says that as a child she always felt well cared for. But when she went to school, she experienced with a shock the full effects of colonization.
In our series of short films of Leaders Speak from the Heart, Jeanne tells us about an incident that occurred in school when she was 7 years old, a story about a marble bag and how her innocence was suddenly and painfully taken away. It is a moving illustration of the impact of racist bullying and discrimination, and the long term effect it has on children who have no advocate, no support, and whose voices are not heard. Everywhere that COPA has traveled in the course of the Circle Widens project, we have heard the painful stories of racist bullying past and present, and the ongoing impact of it on Indigenous children, families, and communities. So it is not surprising that the marble bag story still has an impact on Jeanne. When she tells it, the tears continue to come - even today when she is in her 60’s. But with the tears, she says, comes the healing as well.
Jeanne says that what COPA has done is to create an advocate for the children who are being bullied.
After this rough introduction to life outside the protective circle of her family, Jeanne’s sisters were the ones who first taught her about her traditions. It was thus that her journey of healing and understanding began. The legacy of the discrimination she has lived with during her life she says is one of resilience. I would like to add as well that the joy emanating from her words and her voice as we speak, is palpable. She is inspiring. She says she has learned that you just have to keep going and be a good human being. She says: “We will create the change we want to see”. Jeanne is a Knowledge Keeper, a Wisdom Keeper, but does not call herself an Elder, because she says that this is a title that is given to one only by others.
Jeanne was a banker for 30 years! And THEN - she decided she wanted to work with other people, so she made a big change. She called it a middle life change and the western doorway, a sacred direction on the Ojibwe medicine Wheel. “The western direction is the adult stage, the berry stage. It is here that the growth from summer has come to ripen. It is the time of harvest, and so for much of creation the physical journey is over, and that life crosses back into the spirit world” (Lillian Pitawanakwat)
In her passage through the western doorway, Jeanne quit banking and became a social worker. She worked for many years as an Indigenous patient navigator at the De dwa da dehs nye>s Aboriginal Health Centre in Hamilton, and retired last year - or tried to. Instead, she began to volunteer at the Niagara detention centre - sometimes 2-3 X week, and was even offered a job as a NILO - Native Inmate Liaison Officer. She also took on a role at Loyalist College teaching social worker practitioners how to provide Indigenous informed social work. What a rich sharing of her wisdom and energy in retirement!
And she has continued to be a good friend to COPA in the meantime. In fact, Jeanne has spent 5 years collaborating with us! She describes encountering COPA as “love at first sight”, and says that when she first met us, she looked right into Mohini’s (Mohini Athia) eyes and knew that “ whatever she is doing is GOOD!!”. As time went on, her hunch was validated, and she discovered that she loved the way COPA worked. As Jeanne says, it is all about the connection between people. As we developed our toolkits for Indigenous families and communities, we collaborated, consulted, and communicated with everyone, all the time - ensuring that what we were creating arose from their needs, and was relevant and transferable to all the communities for which it was intended. And because of this close grassroots collaboration, it includes and represents the voices and concerns of families, kids, and community.
Members of the Capsule Family
During our conversation, Jeanne reflected on the process of developing the COPA toolkits, and we talk a bit about the Capsule Family characters that are featured in the short films included in both toolkits. She remembers there being a lot of discussion about them at the time we were starting to work on them, some of the comments being in the vein of: “they are not like our people”. Well, Jeanne says, “yes they are - because our people come in many shapes and colours”. Using the Capsule Family characters made it more inclusive for ALL kids, she says - and that is what’s important. It creates a space for kids to self-identify, and so the characters needed to be done in such a way that EVERYONE could relate to them.
COPA’s focus on Indigenous languages in the toolkits is important because as she says, “language is everything - the language is our culture, our ways of knowing, and our rituals”. She feels the resources are not just helping families, but communities and nations too. The kits feature films in a total of 7 Indigenous languages, and a language tool as well.
But when A Circle of Caring went out to families and kids, Jeanne says “the most fun part was going out into communities to present it and get feedback - I loved it! Everyone loved it! The drum box and the booklets were big hits. The drum box was not just packaging - it was very symbolic. Everything in our culture is symbolic, and that was a tangible symbol to give out to kids and families”.
Jeanne feels that the short films in the toolkits have impacted kids and families in a very good way. She likes how short they are because they go straight to the subject; showing an issue, a challenge AND a solution, in one or two minutes. They present important themes with kindness, dignity, humanity and a little bit of fun too. She feels that repeating the Circle at the beginning of every film is important, as it promotes the opportunity to discuss, and encourages conversation in a circle - where deeper ideas can be learned and communicated.
Based on the success of A Circle of Caring, COPA was asked to produce a toolkit specifically for educators. And so the second project Jeanne and COPA worked on together was Joining the Circle, which was designed to empower educators with resources to Indigenize and decolonize the classroom and to support the success of Indigenous students. In Jeanne’s words: “Educators have a BIG role, and are mentors and knowledge keepers. They have to be able to speak with parents and kids about the impact words have. You are worth it! should be the message they share with every child. In our schools, the teacher’s role should be to share Indigenous knowledge, and with truth and reconciliation, more resources need to be available!”
Circles and squares
Jeanne says that living under colonization is like being in a square, and that when you are not thinking in a circle, you have to decolonize more. The circle itself is decolonizing, and it collects allies and continues to grow. It represents new ideas, and an Indigenous perspective - a circle of people of “good mind”. The way she sees it - the circle is becoming bigger and bigger and bigger, including more and more people all the time. She describes COPA as circle people and feels that this is why the toolkits are such beautiful resources.
“When we show them the toolkits and films, adults start to talk about their own experiences of bullying, and it highlights how we lose ourselves through discrimination and racist bullying”. Tools like this, she says help to awaken Indigenous languages and ways of being. When you are an Indigenous person looking for self - language reconnects you to traditional ways of knowing, she says. This is the beauty of it. “You have to know who you are - in this awakening, we must go deeper, into the blood memory. We come with all these teachings within us, and we only lose our sense of self because of colonization. But when we start to remember - it is like peeling an onion back. ONCE YOU ARE AWARE AND FIND VISION, YOU ARE NEVER NOT AWARE. Once the awakening of spirit in Indigenous people begins, you can’t stop it. And you will bring your family and your community with you into your awakening”.
We asked: What ELSE is needed, Jeannie?
“More of this! More networking, partnership building, and collaboration! We knew that it would come to this point and the Circle Widens project would end, but the funders have no idea how important it is to us, and what they have given us: our language, tools, and more.” She believes that more study is needed to see how the COPA toolkits are being and can be used - for language learning, etc. She says that all of it needs to be expanded to more people: in the community, in the schools, and intergenerationally too.
Baamaapii! Until we meet again!
Jeannie’s book and film recommendations:
Muskrat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savageau (how ancient stories of Native American cultures are used to help today’s children to find their way in the world)
When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson (introducing residential schools - about a granddaughter who asks many questions)
Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga
Seven Generations: A Plains Cree Saga by David A. Robertson
Red Earth, White Lies by Vine Deloria
First Contact - 5 episodes, all available here: https://aptn.ca/firstcontact/video/
First Contact takes six Canadians, all with stereotypical opinions about Indigenous People, on a unique 28-day exploration of Indigenous Canada
The Children Taken Away (60’s scoop): APTN Investigates: The Children Taken Away