Born in The Pas, Chelsey Meade moved to Peguis First Nation when she was nine years old. Meade, who is Cree and Ojibway, found a true home on the reserve, and also found she excelled at school. She won the 2011 Manitoba Aboriginal Youth Achievement Award in Academics. Now, at just 17 years of age, she’s in the middle of her first year at Brandon University and is a proud advocate for her people.
So what is life like on a First Nation?
It was really different than living in town. I really enjoyed living in town, but honestly I preferred living back home in Peguis. When I first got there, I was at a Grade 5 or 6 level when I was in Grade 4, so mid-way through the year, they tested me, and found that I was ahead. So that’s when I moved up a grade.
But living on a reserve is really different than living in a town or a city.
Were there positives and negatives to the situation?
The plusses are that you know everybody — you’re around your family. I felt a lot more comfortable there, living in Peguis. It’s a tight-knit community.
I’ve talked to many Aboriginals over the years who’ve told me that they loved the closeness of people on the reserve. And sadly, I’m betting racism is still an issue, and that you probably experienced that as well.
Yeah — in The Pas, growing up. There were barely any native kids where I went to school. So it was kind of different.
When we were younger, it wasn’t a big deal, but when I got into Grade 3 or Grade 4, I started noticing it a lot more.
Did you just notice that you didn’t have many native peers, or was there some victimization, too?
It was just kind of like I was one of a very few number. The kids — the girls — I hung out with started treating me differently, I noticed. And I didn’t understand why because I’d never been exposed to racism. Now that I look back on it, it’s like, wow — that does seem kind of racist. But at the time I had no idea.
This is your first year at BU. What are you taking?
General first-year classes. I’m not too sure what I want to go into. When I first applied, I was, ‘Oh yeah — I’m going to be a doctor.’ Got into classes and I realized, ‘Oh — maybe this isn’t what I want to take.’
Science just isn’t your thing?
No. I enjoyed it in high school, but it’s really different here. And I’ve been taking other courses like philosophy and history, and I’ve found those way more interesting.
The scariest part about going to school was everybody was telling me ‘Oh, you should take a year off — I don’t think you’re ready.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I could try. Maybe I’m not ready. But I can find out.’
We were talking about the differences between The Pas and Peguis, but compared to The Pas, Brandon is a big city. What were your first few weeks or months like here?
It was a really big culture shock! I didn’t know how to bus it, I didn’t know anything. I was scared to walk around because I heard so many stories about living in a city. A couple of my friends got jumped in Winnipeg and I thought, ‘What if that happens here?’ It was really nerve-wracking.
But I’m living in residence — I just thought it would be an easier adjustment and a good way to meet people.
And have you found that to be the case?
Yes — I do like it a lot. It is challenging — sometimes you just need your own personal space. But I think it’s a really good place to be for my first year here.
And no more fears about Brandon, I hope, because we’re a pretty safe city…
Yeah — I found that out.
When you were on Peguis, I was told you started an after-hours club for young people?
I didn’t really start it — I don’t want to take the credit for it. But a bunch of us kids last year in Grade 12, were kind of coming together and saying, ‘Oh wow — we need something to change.’
In November of 2011, there were more than seven suicides in our community. And they were all from ages 16 to 28. I lost a couple of my closest friends, and it was really hard. And the community was really down.
So a bunch of people started talking, and it was all youth. It’s called Peguis Youth Movement now, and they have a Youth Night every Friday night from 8 ’til 12 at the school. And it’s just a way to keep kids from going to parties and drinking. So it’s just where you come and hang out with your friends.
They started it in June and kind of took a break for the summer because everyone was so busy, but they started it back up in September. And every time I go out home, I’ve been to them, and they’re really amazing. It’s so much different out home now. The youth are starting to get engaged and they have stuff to do instead of drinking.
What sort of activities do you do at the Youth Nights?
Basically just gym activities — play volleyball and basketball. They also have board games, a ping-pong table, and we play little made-up games like popping balloons on your feet or something. It’s really fun.
I don’t believe they get any funding right now well, they get a little bit, but they fundraise for themselves, and just this past December, they took a trip to Winnipeg to stay overnight in a hotel and have a banquet. And they went paintballing. And there were over 40 kids, so it was really amazing.
Before, when you asked if there might be negative aspects to living on a reserve? There aren’t many jobs — I think there’s a 90 per cent unemployment rate. I was lucky enough to get a job in high school — I was a waitress and a pizza-maker. That’s what kind of kept me away from drugs and alcohol. But a bunch of my friends didn’t have jobs and didn’t really do anything — all they knew was to go out and party — that was their social gathering.
But I do miss home a lot now, because I see how big of a change is happening.
That’s really encouraging! And you’ve kept up your activism, too, because you’re involved in the Idle No More movement, right?
Yes, somewhat. When I first learned about it, I had no idea what it was about. I was like, ‘Why are all these people gathering together?’ I was focusing on exams and trying to go to school.
But Idle No More, from what I know, is just trying to educate people about what going on with Aboriginals in the communities and personal stuff. Like here, I’ve come across racism a lot. It’s just that people don’t know the history about native people — the treaties and everything.
I got into a debate with a person who was saying, ‘I believe what Prime Minister Stephen Harper is doing is good,’ trying to get rid of the treaties. And I was like, ‘How could you say that?’ And she was like, ‘Well, it’s equality. If native people don’t have the treaties they have equal rights like everybody else.’
And I started telling her about the history of native people, and I told her that I worked hard in school and my parents worked hard to save up enough money, but I know that myself and a lot of other native kids would not have the chance to come to university or live on their own or stuff like that without the treaties and health care. I was just telling her my side of the story — what I believed. But she still said, ‘No.’ She didn’t want to learn about it. And that really upset me.
So encountering that here is what made you get involved with Idle No More?
Yeah — I just wanted to educate people about it. I’m still learning about it — I don’t know all the facts. But I’m still trying to keep an open mind with the movement. From what I understand, it started from the Bill C45 which threatened the waterways, and it goes in violation of the treaties. And some people I knew said, ‘Well, who cares, basically?’ And I said, ‘Well, it doesn’t just affect native people — it affects the environment.’ I feel like a lot of people are against the movement because they’re not open to seeing that, and the racism and everything gets in the way — they don’t want to know the full facts.
Is there anything in particular you’d like to stress about your experience here — about people’s attitudes toward native Canadians?
All I’d ask is for people to get educated — just learn the facts. You can make your own decision from there. But don’t be narrow-minded, thinking, ‘Oh — lazy Indians get everything for nothing.’ I’ve heard that so much through my whole life. It is hard — I’ve had to do SO much more compared to other people that I knew, just because I’m native. I would get treated differently. And I would have to work harder to show them I wasn’t getting everything for free like they think.
People always say, ‘Oh — it’s in the past. You have to move on. You didn’t fight for your rights — your grandparents did.’ And I say, ‘Well, they did it FOR us.’
All I really want to see is native people and non-First-Nations people get along and be able to live together. Why does everything have to be separated by race?
The treaties are a big part of Canadian history, and First Nations people are a big part of how Canada came to be. And I wish people would respect it, and learn about it, and not go around bashing it just because you see the one drunken Indian in the street. Get to know why he’s there, and get to know the history behind what happened.
I lived in Peguis, which is one of the nicest reserves that I’ve been to. And I have family from up north, and the northern families have horrible living conditions. Everybody thinks we get this free housing, free education, but some of it isn’t up to standard. It may look good on paper, but the commitments that were made are not being met. Sure, we get free housing, but we get 10 houses a year. My mom’s been on the waiting list for 24 years.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 26, 2013