Homecomings and new beginnings

Anna McKenzie’s intentions as Communications Aunty
Homecomings
A storm encircled my father, daughter, and I, as we drove from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation back to “Winnipeg.” The clouds shapeshifted and bent as we passed through forests of birch trees and the wide open canola fields of “St. Laurent,” a historic Métis community. Photo by Anna McKenzie.

A lot can change in a year — so let me reintroduce myself. My name is Anna Mary McKenzie. My father is Peter McKenzie of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. His parents were Mary and Murray McKenzie. I have Scots Métis roots from “Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, ” where my grandfather Murray was born. He relocated to “The Pas” after contracting tuberculosis, to be kept at the Clearwater Lake Sanitorium, where he was given a camera. It was there that he fell in love with photography and had a successful career as a photographer, capturing images of Indigenous Peoples of the North. He also established a radio show where he spoke the Cree language, and he was the president of the Native Indian/Inuit Photographer’s Association.

On my mother’s side, I am English and Irish. My grandparents immigrated to “Montreal, Quebec” and then to “Calgary, Alberta” in July of 1957, a week after they married. My mother is a first-generation “Canadian.” I grew up in Mohkínstsis in Treaty 7 territory, along the borders of the Tsuutʼina Nation. I was raised by my mother’s family, with intermittent trips in the summer to the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and “Thompson, Manitoba.” I often felt disconnected and confused about my own identity and why there were so many differences between my two families. I spent the entirety of my twenties reconnecting with my identity, which was painfully robbed from my family and I.

My Grandfather, Murray Louis McKenzie, pictured in “The Pas, Manitoba.” Photo by Richard Harrington. 

I have a partner, who is from the Snuneymuxw First Nation, and three beautiful and vibrant Indigenous children. My two step children are Snuneymuxw, and my daughter, June, is Snunymuxw, Opaskwayak Cree and Scots Métis. 

I’m returning to IndigiNews enthusiastically as Senior Aunty and Communications Aunty, as well as a Contributing Storyteller.

Truth sharing

Last year, I left IndigiNews as the “Vancouver Island” child “welfare” reporter to pursue a joint law degree in Indigenous legal orders and the common (“Canadian”) law at the University of Victoria (UVic). I had worked on the birth alerts series, and other stories relating to child “welfare,” which left me feeling angry and upset at the ways in which systems are failing our people.

Amplify Indigenous voices

We don’t shy away from the truth. We shine light on the dire consequences of inaction, we share stories of strength, and we feature the individuals who give us hope. 

I had just lost an Indigenous Youth who I worked with as she prepared to “age out” of the so-called child “welfare” system. Then the news broke of the findings of the 215+ at the former residential “school” in Tk’emlúps. As the only Indigenous outlet with roots in the interior, it felt as though we had to shoulder the responsibility to teach the entire journalism world how to report on this tragedy in a way that wasn’t going to cause more harm. That, in and of itself, harmed the reporters on the team at the time — many of us already dealing with uprooted trauma. The last self-location piece I wrote discussed this.

The news prompted the beginning of a horrific truth-sharing journey for my dad and I. My father and his siblings’ experiences at the Sacred Heart Day School, my grandparents’ time in residential “school,” and grandpa Murray’s time at an “Indian hospital.” I received these stories willingly, but I know that I will never be the same. I’ll never forget the terror in my father’s voice when he told me the truth. 

Homecomings
My Dad grew up across from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, next to the train tracks. Separated from his homelands by the Saskatchewan River, my Dad walked the train tracks with his older brother for fun. Not far away from here is the Sacred Heart Day School. It was good medicine for us both to see my daughter play freely, without persecution for simply being Indigenous.

When I left IndigiNews, I felt heartbroken and spiritually-drained – but also motivated. I was about to embark on my journey in law school. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a mother, a writer, and a lawyer. 

I wanted to go to law school specifically so I could support nations in implementing Bill C-92, also called the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families. The Bill received royal assent on June 21, 2019, the day after I gave birth to my first child. It gives Indigenous governing bodies supremacy over provincial law to draft and implement their own laws relating to our children’s wellbeing. Many provinces have been hesitant, and have pushed back. 

When I started at UVic, I was the only mother with young children in my cohort, and the back and forth between “Nanaimo” and “Victoria” on the Malahat highway was treacherous. I would put my kids down to bed, and then frantically attend to my readings and assignments. We endured multiple rounds of Covid in our household, and at one point, the highway was washed away by an “atmospheric river”.

Needless to say, I was not in the right headspace, and not prepared for how gruelling the experience would be. I look forward to continuing my legal education once my children are older. I know in my heart and in my spirit that that’s the path I was born to take, but for now it is not a journey that serves me or my family.

Journeys back

As I shapeshift back into a new role at IndigiNews, I am looking forward to supporting IndigiNews on our outward communications, and to revisit my identity as a writer and storyteller. I have an added year of experience having gone through law school and a new cohort of kin and allies who supported me in the most beautiful ways as we grappled through our classes. Returning feels like my own mother’s embrace, which I have relied on heavily over the last year. 

I am writing this self-location piece days after returning home from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. My Dad, daughter and I made the journey to “Winnipeg,” and then drove six hours North to visit our ancestral waters. I return back to Snuneymuxw feeling both depleted by the travels and the ongoing truth-sharing occurring within my family. I also feel renewed, after being able to I watch my daughter build a sandcastle along the shores of Clear Water Lake.

This is who I am, this is a piece of my story. Truth is paramount. I lead and speak from the heart.

This time, I’m coming to IndigiNews with a new mindset – I feel supported.

Homecomings
My daughter playing on the shores of Clear Water Lake. The waters sparkled, almost winking at us as we played.

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