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Focusing back on First Nations

Yvonne Desabrais has instilled in her children, Mitchell and Natasha, a proud sense of history and culture. - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Yvonne Desabrais has instilled in her children, Mitchell and Natasha, a proud sense of history and culture.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

Yvonne Desabrais is a proud aboriginal mom of two teens in Maple Ridge. If not an activist, she is very involved in her community. She volunteers to help First Nations people, has raised her kids with a proud sense of their history and culture, and believes in the Idle No More movement.

She brings her perspective to the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District as a six-year member of the Aboriginal Advisory Committee, and believes it works in helping First Nations students graduate.

“I love it – I feel I have a voice, and I am being heard,” she said of the group.

Yvonne home schooled her children for kindergarten and Grade 1. Looking back, she said it was simply a lack of trust in the education system.

“Our cultural history is that we don’t do well with systems,” she said. “We don’t trust those in power, and that’s a mind-embedded thing, that we don’t even [consciously] know.”

Yvonne didn’t graduate herself, having left home at age 15, but she is educated about the issues. She volunteers at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, where she works with the disproportionate number of aboriginal women.

Census data shows 3.1 per cent of Canadian adults identify themselves as aboriginal, but make up about 18 per cent of those in custody.

Yvonne’s own life has not always been easy, but she is in a good place now, and her community work is impressive.

She also works for the Friends in Need Food Bank, and brings women from Alouette there to work. She has been on the planning committee for the Aboriginal Achievement Awards in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows – the committee was hoping to have at least 200 people show up for the event, and got double that.

And, she is vice-chair of the Fraser River All-Nations Aboriginal Society, which formed in the summer of 2011 and is trying to find a gathering place for the district’s First Nations people.

If that’s not enough, she is also a co-chair of the Port Haney Neighbourhood Change Initiative.

Yvonne did two years of home schooling, but the education of her children didn’t end there.

“I have really exposed them to native culture, their ancestors, and the facts.”

Her son Mitchell, big and stoic, graduated in 2011, and it was a proud moment for her.

“He walked across the stage,” she said. “He struggled. It was close. Near the end he really needed to bear down.”

He appreciated the extra help he received from a case worker at his school.

“I realized ‘these people are here to help me, and get me through what I need to get through.’”

Mitchell’s drama teacher urged him to be a professional actor – he played the leading man in Romeo and Juliette, but he is attending Vancouver Community College to study culinary arts. He lives in Maple Ridge on his own, and works in a restaurant.

“I feel proud whenever someone asks am I native – I say yea,” he said.

He takes pride in the culture and history of his people, and says, “we’re still trying to bring that history into today.”

At his words, his mom wipes her eyes.

Her daughter Natasha, in Grade 11, is getting behind, and will have hard work to do to graduate on time. She is hoping to pursue a career in the film industry, and is creating a portfolio.

She said she enjoys exposure to First Nations culture through the school district, but believes it should not result in students being taken out of the classroom – particularly if they are in an isolated situation. Sometimes she was the only student involved.

“I missed out on class stuff,” she said.

At Haney secondary, neither kid was harassed because of their native heritage.

“You wouldn’t get a bad time for what race you were,” said Mitchell. “I was a chubby kid, and I got it for that.”

Natasha does not look aboriginal, and sometimes finds herself calling someone out for a racist remark.

“I’m the whitest and blondest native there is, but I’m native,” she said.

“My friends make jokes sometimes, and I’m like, ‘That’s not cool, because I am native.’”

She is determined to graduate, and it is important to her mom.

“I know how you struggle without a diploma,” Yvonne said. “Even for minimum wage jobs you need to have it.”

The Idle No More movement strikes a chord with them, and Yvonne believes it can only be positive for First Nations people to become more interested in politics and issues, and bettering their lot.

“We are focussed on it, and our community is involved,” she said. “It has a purpose. There are good points worth listening to. I support Theresa Spence.”

“The time for change is now,” she said. “We need to focus back on the people.”

 

Day of Action

The evolution of the Idle No More movement continues to draw  attention to First Nations’ issues across Canada. A day of action and more protests are planned for Monday, Jan. 28 when Canadian MPs return to the House of Commons.

 

For more see: School district makes inroads in aboriginal schooling

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