It is 6:40 am on July 5 and I am sitting on the rocks at the Bush Pilots Monument, overlooking Great Slave Lake. I have come to greet the lake and let her feel my presence, after six months away. I survey the dark blue waters, count 12 houseboats, and watch someone paddling their bright yellow canoe to shore. This lake is never without activity, providing sustenance and entertainment year round. The slight summer breeze acts as bug repellent, allowing me to close my eyes and relax into prayer. I inhale the beauty of the rugged landscape and I exhale my gratitude for the healing that it has brought to me. I feel peace and a sense of belonging unfold like a blooming flower. This land knows me. Not from a childhood spent climbing these rocks, or boating and fishing on the lake with my family. It is my blood and bone memory—unlocked when I set foot on this land at the age of 26, when I reunited with my birth father—and strengthened during my time spent in solitude and quiet conversation with the land.
Every summer, I return to the North from Lloydminster, Alberta, drained from a heavy workload of university studies, being a mom to three daughters, and volunteering my time for my Indigenous-focused health promotions program. The summer before last, June 2018, I arrived in a state of numbness and grief from having visited my brother in the ICU at Calgary’s Peter Lougheed Hospital. The disease of alcoholism—a disease of disappointment and despair—was threatening to claim him. I sat at the foot of his bed, my hand gently placed on his leg, unable to hold his hand because both of his arms were in restraints due to a previous incident of him ripping out his IVs during a seizure. With my back to the watchful eyes of his dedicated ICU nurse, I wept, and whispered promises. I reflected on our childhood, both of us adopted from birth, and I made a commitment to honor his life, and to live in my truth.
There were no lakes where I grew up. The landscape was wide-open—blue prairie sky and farmer’s fields divided into perfect square sections of crops. The summer palette consisted of various shades of green, from moss to emerald, bursts of yellow canola, and the occasional plots of brown where the land lay fallow. It was tamed land: cultivated, seeded, sprayed, and fertilized for high yields. It was the farmer’s responsibility to find the right ratios of chemicals and fertilizers to produce the perfect crop. As long as Mother Nature cooperated with the will of the farmer, growing and producing were under his control. Where I grew up, prayer was reserved for church, not for the land.
My adoptive parents are hardworking, god-fearing, conservative farmers that like to talk about the weather (the central topic of discussion in any farming community), their lawn (it takes eight hours to mow and looks like a golf course), their dog (taught him not to shit on the lawn), the news (their favorite anchor was Lloyd Robertson), and small-town gossip (people’s failing health, new babies, affairs, and renegade children). I am the middle of five children in my family with four of us adopted during the late-’70s to mid-’80s. My youngest sister and I are identified on our adoption papers as having Indigenous ancestry.
I discovered I was Métis around age 11 when I accidentally-on-purpose found my adoption papers in my dad’s filing cabinet. It didn’t faze me since I had no idea what a “Métis” person was, plus I was a white-coded (fair-skinned with blue eyes) Métis being raised by settlers. Racist store clerks never followed me while I shopped. I was never bullied at school with racist taunts.
From an early age, I knew that I was different from my parents and my siblings. I self-identified as a feminist at age 10, in a community with strict gender roles where almost every mother I knew stayed-at-home, including mine. When my mom bought me a Conservative Party membership in my early teenage years, I ripped it up and threw it out. I knew I was a liberal before I could vote. Even though I had plenty of space to play outside, I was an indoor child. My main activities included reading, doing schoolwork and watching television, which became a full-time hobby after we went from farmer vision—a total of three channels—to a satellite dish. I was a fat kid. My sedentary lifestyle continued into high school and my Grade 12-graduation dress was a size 16. I ate to cope with the feeling that I did not belong in this rural, farming life. I ate to cope with the pain of family secrets. I ate to cope with the fat shaming and bullying that I endured in high school. Food was numbing comfort.
My battle was with weight, while my brother’s battle, being gay, was much more dangerous due to being raised in a conservative Catholic household and community. His existence was a sin, according to the church. The Catholic Church, the historical harbourer of pedophiles and perverts, advocates for homosexuals to practice chastity. Hypocrisy is an art form for the Catholic Church. In my opinion, repressing human nature is a sin, and innocent people suffer because of it. We were enrolled in a Catholic school from kindergarten to Grade 9. My brother knew he had to stay closeted in order to survive. When my brother finally came out to me, around the age of 20, I did not love him any less. My parents, on the other hand, held tight to their Catholic beliefs. I became my brother’s codependent partner throughout his addiction; the hashtags #Pleaser #Fixer imprinted on my forehead.
The first time I visited Yellowknife was March of 2006. I looked out the plane window at the wild landscape of rocks, stunted pine trees, and scattered bodies of water. The farm girl in me was asking, what could this harsh land possibly produce? Not knowing that the land held more wealth than what any farmer had under his control. Mother Nature was responsible for producing two of the most valuable and toughest gemstones in the world: diamonds and the people of the North.
Northerners taught me the only way to survive is through communion with the land. Before you take anything from the land you must do an offering and say a prayer. My paternal family has a 200-year-old relationship with the land originating with François Beaulieu II. The North taught me how to introduce myself in relationship with my family—the Mercredis and Beaulieus—and our connection to the land in the North Slave region. My grandmother is Anne Enge and my birth father is Bill Enge. He is a big man with a bigger personality. A breed that only the North could produce: Métis politician and champion of Métis rights, charismatic storyteller, crusader for social justice, astute businessman and a man who loves to tease, then indulge in a big, hearty laugh.
During the first encounter with my birth father at the Yellowknife airport, walking through the door as an apprehensive question mark, he engulfed me in a bear hug. I disappeared into the North. On my first evening in Yellowknife, I met all of my family at the Black Knight pub. We were the loudest table in the room (quite a feat on Friday night).
Back at Bill’s condo, during our first quiet moment together, I pulled out my childhood photo album to show him who I was. Every photo contained a precious childhood memory that he had been robbed of: birthday parties; Christmas concerts; field trips; family vacations... all the loving acts that parents do for their children on a daily basis. I was not prepared for his grief—the masculine tears. I did not know how to comfort a giant, grieving Métis man. I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember the pain that was written on his face from the loss of his child. The grief was soon replaced with joy. We had new memories to make.
When I participated in my first National Aboriginal Day celebration in 2007, I was overwhelmed with mixed emotions. I had never celebrated this holiday before. In the south, no one I knew celebrated being Indigenous. I did not know how to celebrate being me. I felt like a Métis forgery. Was I allowed to wear our red sash without having paid my dues of struggle and sacrifice for my identity and history? Moreover, can you be an authentic Métis without having eaten bannock or jigged? It was a day of firsts, including celebrating the culture and contributions of Indigenous peoples across Canada. It was also the day that I fell in love with Yellowknife’s community spirit, fantastic food and vibrant arts scene. “Dance like no one is watching” was invented in the North.
I became acquainted with the ways and people of the North during the next two summers while living in Yellowknife and working as a summer student on a two-week-in and two-week-out rotation at the Diavik diamond mine. My favourite experience was meeting Indigenous people from small communities. My ears learned new sounds listening to entire conversations spoken in Tłı̨chǫ. I helped an Inuit woman pass her safety test, the whole time covering her mouth with her hand and giggling in response to my questions. I was offered my first bites of dry meat from a co-worker that made me promise I would not tell anyone else. Dry meat, seemed to me, more precious than diamonds. I took pictures standing beside the monster machines on the mine site that cracked open the earth. I marvelled at how mankind dug a giant, spiralling hole in the middle of a lake on the tundra.
I participated in recreational northern activities, which usually involved cold beverages and the music of George Jones. My uncle, Arnold, who helped design the Yellowknife golf course, told me I should take golf lessons. I tried my best to adapt to the unnatural golf landscape of sand and carrying around my own synthetic turf. I hiked to Cameron Falls, and felt slightly dizzy standing on the cliff overlooking the falls with no railing. Like most first-time visitors to the falls, I imagined my death on the rapids below with one slip. Northern life conditions you for living on the edge. I listened to the CKLB Saturday afternoon call-in radio show, learning the northern interconnectedness of cousins and common-laws. Can you even call yourself a Northerner if you haven’t two-stepped at the Gold Range and stayed until closing? One night, walking home from the Range to the condos located on top of the Yellowknife mall, I was on the receiving end of a native woman’s jealousy and was given a good lickin’. Lesson learned from my first encounter with northern violence: I am no match for an angry northern woman!
No one in the North escapes the lateral violence, which is a rite of passage I wish did not exist. When I would tell my dad about how rude and hateful some people are to me about identifying as Métis, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “They’re just pissed off because they’re not Métis!” Northerners are masterful at deflection through humour. Or maybe it’s a political skill after years of being the target of violent attacks. “Water off a duck’s back,” my dad repeats when I tell him about the insults or negativity. He is waterproof, probably because he’s native to this land. I am a duckling trying not to drown in the torrential downpour.
Being Métis is not based on appearance, or having had mixed blood at some point in your genealogy. It’s based on an ancestral lineage and our historical occupation of the land. I have received a Grade-A education from my dad about the history of Métis peoples in Canada and the complexity of our identity. My vocabulary has expanded to include: Section 35 of the Constitution Act (1982), Powley tested Métis, consultation and accommodation, Aboriginal harvesting rights, agreement-in-principle, land-claim negotiations, tokenistic reconciliation, and the Métis heroine—in Bill’s view, at least—Jean Teillet. Learning about my Métis culture, family lineage, the history of the Northwest Territories, and living on my ancestral homeland has healed me. It gave me the courage to go to therapy to deal with my own childhood trauma.
I recognize that the trauma that my brother and I suffered—both being given up for adoption, childhood secrets, and feeling like we did not belong—sucked us into a dark vortex of loathing and self-hate. The difference in our stories is I found the truth of who I was in the North, and I helped myself by helping others.
My brother survived, went onto detox and rehabilitation and now lives in Vancouver. We are planning a summer hike on the B.C. coast together; an impossible dream only two years ago. Every time I attend my Al-Anon group, I am reminded that trauma lives and feeds off of unhealed wounds. Through my healing journey, I have come to know that prayer, failure, and courage are the holy trinity of recovery. In the North, the land teaches us this holy trinity every day.
Shelley Wiart is Métis and a member of the North Slave Métis Alliance, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. She is currently enrolled full-time at Athabasca University studying sociology and women and gender studies. She is the co-founder of an Indigenous focused holistic health program, Women Warriors, aimed at improving Indigenous women’s health outcomes.