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“We should be coming out and staking our claim” An Indigenous woman on reclaiming her land, identity in Yellowknife

We’ve been bringing you a series of short stories from the Indigenous community in Yellowknife, Canada exploring alcohol use, addiction, resilience and healing. The “Turning Points” project, from the Global Reporting Center, is a series produced, directed and authored by Indigenous people who wanted to share their stories. This is Catherine Lafferty’s — a story of native language, education, family, abuse, alcoholism, and coming home.

To learn more and to see the full series of stories, visit The Turning Points project website on GlobalReportingCentre.org.

Transcript

Catherine Lafferty:

I feel very serene and calm. I can breathe and I can see clearly. I have clarity.

Being on the land, that's what it does. It brings out the truth in who you are and that's the most healing thing.

My early memories of Yellowknife were growing up in a one-bedroom apartment with my grandmother. And we never went out on the land.

My grandma was wary about going out on the land. So, whenever I'm on the land, I'm pretty cautious. And same as on the water.

And I'm trying to get that back because I know how important it is to reclaim my identity.

(NAT) 'Kay guys, get in.

There was a lot of Tłı̨chǫ language and Slavey language in my house. My grandma kind of mixed the two up.

(NAT) You're okay.

But I never did take the time to learn and now as an adult, I'm taking the time to learn my language.

I think my grandmother wasn't particularly proud of her language. So, if she taught me the language, maybe she thought that she was setting me up for failure.

Yellowknife is a drinking town. It's been interesting to see how alcoholism has affected our family through the generations.

This is my grandma and papa out at, um, Old Fort Rae. This is me and my mom and my dad.

When my mom wasn't well, she was drinking heavily and couldn't take care of us and that's when I lived with my grandma.

(NAT) Looks like it's untouched since we've been here.

My grandparents had six children; they had three boys and three girls. And they tragically lost all three of their boys. Two of the deaths for sure were from alcohol-related incidents.

So, it's taken a toll on our family. And there's just so many things that alcohol brings.

You know, I've witnessed domestic violence. I've been in a domestic violent relationship.

I had a partner that, that was abusive, chose alcohol over his family, and, um, lost everything. So, I didn't feel like I could stay anymore. I wanted to change for myself and for my children.

The only option I could see in front of me was going back to school. And so, I sold everything and I had left.

And unfortunately, I had to leave the North. It was very difficult. I was a single mother.

I didn't know anyone and, um, I was barely able to afford food. And somehow we managed.

Ever since I graduated, my life has changed.

I always thought, you know, people that are educated are way better than me. But then, when I walked into the school that day, I realized that I'm just the same, it's just that I've had to claw my way up.

This is my book, Northern Wildflower. I'm pretty proud of it.

I just wanted to tell a story that people could relate to - especially young, Indigenous women. And my story is about growing up in poverty. And growing up with a loss of identity and a loss of culture. And how education kind of saved me.

When I go out on the land, I bring my children with me.

(NAT) Woo. You're stranded. (laughs)

You know, it's funny 'cause they don't ever really want to go, or they complain and say, "I don't want to go." But then when they get there, they're completely different people.

They're engaged. They're learning how to spear a fish, and how to check nets, and they're just gaining so much confidence in themselves.

When they're in the city, I'm constantly worried that they're going to get in trouble with the law. Or they're going to go to some party and pass out in a snowbank.

I kinda let them know because of family history, it's probably just best to stay away from alcohol. So, I have to make sure that I'm leading by example. And sometimes you know, I'm, I'm not perfect. And, um, I'm working on myself. My mother is now working on herself. Um, and it's, it's nice to see.

(NAT) Wouldn't it be nice to live out here?

So, this site is where I'd like to eventually build my home.

I have to apply for a permit to occupy with my land. Then it goes through a land department approval. And then it will go to the Chief and Council to approve. Basically, it's just staking a claim.

If I were to be able to have my home right here, it's just amazing. It's a dream. Just to be able to live off-grid, where I have solar power, and you know, live pretty free without bills.

This is what our people should be doing. We should be coming out and staking our claim.

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