Colleen Cardinal joined Media Action and an enthusiastic audience at Bar Robo on March 30, 2017, to speak about her experience as an Indigenous adoptee, a mother and grandmother, and her work as co-founder of the National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network.
Colleen is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. She spoke with fervour of the injustices inflicted upon Indigenous communities globally by violent, assimilationist systems like child welfare services. In her own life, Colleen and her sister were taken from their home in Saddle Lake First Nation, Alberta, and placed with a non-Indigenous family in Ontario. She didn’t learn that she was Indigenous until the age of 11, by which time she had internalized so much racism that this knowledge caused her great pain. She eventually fled the home with her sisters to escape physical and sexual violence.
By sharing her story and working with other Indigenous adoptees, Colleen has witnessed the damage caused by the Sixties Scoop. Her work aims to help others heal by practicing inclusive traditions and acknowledging the pain and strength of fellow adoptees and child welfare survivors.
Her journey has been one of learning to care for herself, how to find community, and how to work together to resist colonial impacts.
— Media Action Média (@MediaActionCA) April 2, 2017
In college Colleen learned the Ojibwe language and customs. A member of the audience was curious how allies might go about learning Indigenous teachings, both to be more sensitive to the Indigenous experience, and also to understand their views about nature. Colleen said that people take for granted that Indigenous people know their culture, but it is something she and many others have had to consciously work toward. The consequences of assimilation and uprooting of Indigenous peoples has necessitated the unlearning of colonial customs, and the sharing and regrowth of Indigenous cultures. She said that she and other Indigenous people have the right to learn their customs first, and allies can engage by showing support, and openness to learn without imposing their own beliefs.
Although she is from Treat 6 territory, she was raised in Robinson Huron Treaty in Ontario. When asked about the complexity of her identity, Colleen answered, “I am Plains Cree, my children are Plains Cree and my grandchildren are Plains Cree. We know who we are.”
Although for some time she was discouraged by not easily learning some Indigenous customs, she knows now that “I don’t have to be a dancing, beading, singing woman to be nēhiyaw — I resist and I teach, that is my identity.”
A core message of Colleen’s work is that everyone must be critical of the messages in the media. When her sister was murdered in Edmonton, the media coverage dehumanized her body, and perpetuated racist stereotypes about Indigenous people. Colleen works to change the narrative. She speaks truth even if it is hard to hear. She says, “ I’m not Willy Wonka, I don’t sugar coat s—t.”
Thanks to Colleen for so openly sharing her story.