Holly Fortier is an Indigenous-awareness trainer, filmmaker, actress and advocate. She spoke to Faith Today about her identity as a First Nations Christian woman and what the Church has to learn.
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Faith Today (Karen Stiller): Holly, you wrote this wonderful "Witness" column for our May/Jun issue. You shared about your journey as a First Nations woman and Christian in Canada, and you also shared a little bit about your mom. Can you tell us more about her story?
Holly Fortier: I love sharing my mom’s story. You know, we have been really negligent in Canada on sharing, you know, the true story of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. My mom lived entirely off the land. She practised a traditional way of life, which means hunting, harvesting, gathering from the land. Could you imagine living off the land for all your food, shelter, clothing, tools, toys, medicines, everything? She didn’t speak a word of English [as a child]. And she was deeply loved.
Most of our education as Canadians has been on that kind of romanticized view of First Nations, but there is a government policy within the Canadian Indian Act that was based on a racist ideology that we needed to separate Canada from the First Nations people. The best way they thought to assimilate the "Indians" was to take the children and raise the children. So they opened up 139 Indian residential schools in Canada. They were operated by church organizations, and it was the RCMP that started to go to the communities and take the children by force. And it was a law. So if there was a knock at the door, you had to surrender your children, which I cannot even imagine as a parent.
The government, the churches and the RCMP were all in it together, so really those were the oppressors for Indigenous Peoples. We’re from northern Alberta, we’re Cree-Dene. The RCMP came to the community at Christmas time. The river was frozen, so they travelled by dog team back in that day, and they came and took my mother from her family and from her community by force, kicking and screaming. It was very emotional. They took my mother who was six at the time, my auntie who was eight and a little auntie who was four years old.
An old man told me that he watched when they took the three little girls. He told me that he watched and had no idea where they went, and that they never came back. They were instructed after that, "If you ever see anybody coming down the river again, make sure you run and hide because they’re going to take you too."
So do you see how this anger and hatred really developed between the cultures? She spent the next 13 years at the residential school. The stories that we hear that come out of residential schools are of neglect and abuse, and the stories that I hear from my mother are exactly that. I am a filmmaker as well, and I did a documentary on my mom’s story. And it was really challenging, you know, as a daughter to share the story, but it’s such an important story for Canadians to understand. To move forward we need to know where we come from.
One of the worst things that happened was when she was 18. The funding runs out, so they actually put you on a bus and your bus ticket actually takes you to Edmonton, so my mom gets off on the streets of Edmonton. Can you imagine being 18 years old, having no education, no self-esteem, no money, no support? My mom said that most of those girls and boys that got off on the streets of Edmonton ended up as casualties. Most of them committed suicide. They were getting charged as vagrants. Vagrant means you have no job, no home. They didn’t know the court system, of course, and it was a nightmare.
They took my mother who was six at the time, my auntie who was eight and a little auntie who was four years old. … when she was 18 … [ she was dropped ] off on the streets of Edmonton.
These are our parents.
FT: Part of your life’s work is educating Canadians and the world about this, but what was it like in your family growing up? Did your mom know how to parent?
HF: That’s a really good point because how do they parent? People are always asking me, "What happened to your mother and how did she get out of that?"
My dad was a geologist up in the Athabaskan oil sands when there was nothing up there but the boreal forest. He would hire First Nations men because they knew the land so well to do all the surveying. And they told him the stories of the little girls and boys that got taken from their community and went to residential schools. My dad found my mom and those two had a great love story.
My mom became very actively involved in politics, she had many initiatives. She was very active and she also was an entrepreneur. She actually opened a home that was the first in Canada for Indigenous youth that was run by Indigenous people. These kids came to us, mostly from foster care and adoption breakdowns, who were neglected and abused in those situations, and my mom said, "I want to actually just put the culture back in the kids." So we taught the kids how to dance. And the culture really helped the youth. We worked with over 2,000 youth.
I asked my mom how she knew that would work. And she said, "I was just doing the opposite that I was told to do in school my entire life."
She was told she was a savage and they beat them for speaking their own language. Mom said to do the opposite, to put the culture back in the kids, and therefore it was healing. We saw the restoration in the children. I was very fortunate that my mom kept us connected to our culture. It was really important to embrace who we are as Indigenous people.
FT: In my school experience growing up, I feel like I learned all the wrong stuff. You’re correcting some of that with your work with Indigenous awareness training. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do?
HF: I started a business a few years ago. I had been working in my community doing a cultural program for mostly industry, but also businesses and government agencies. My community is ground zero of the world’s third largest oil reserves. We’re totally surrounded by industrial development. In Canada there’s a lot of policies, especially from Section 35 of the Constitution Act, on the duty to consult and accommodate, so when industry does it properly, they build a meaningful, respectful relationship with Indigenous Peoples and communities.
So my community had me deliver cultural training that was just a two-hour program talking about how to work effectively with our community. I saw the need for that more and more. People kept saying to me, "Do you know anybody who does a cultural sensitivity and Indigenous awareness workshop?" I was trying to think of someone who could do it, and [then] I volunteered. I don’t know what came over me because I’m not a historian or political analyst or a lawyer, and I don’t even like public speaking. And it just took off. I have never advertised or marketed a campaign and I’m so busy.
And I think it’s such a beautiful experience. If we take the time to look at other people through their story, it’s like we adjust the lens. That’s my hope in my Indigenous awareness training, that we can have a much better relationship than we have had historically. We have had 150 years of colonization and, you know, lateral decision making by the federal government, and we ended up in a severed relationship. I wish that every Indigenous person had the opportunity I have to deliver Indigenous awareness training to Canada. I’ve delivered to thousands of people and I’m hopeful we turned a corner. This is an example of the hope that I have, this conversation that we’re having right now.
FT: How can the Church be a leader in the work of reconciliation? Or how do you even feel about that?
HF: That’s why I feel so privileged to be able to speak to you and also to have written the article because I really want to speak to the Church. Honestly, the Church was the oppressor. There is that separated relationship with the Church and so, honestly, the Church has to do something different. For too long the Church has been saying, "Your way, your tradition, your culture, you need to change it to our way, our tradition, our culture."
But who’s saying that you know that is correct? When we look at the Bible right from Genesis to Revelation, it’s inclusive. It says in Genesis that we are made in God’s image. I am made in God’s image. I’m a First Nations woman, and I am made in God’s image. We go to Revelation 7:9, and I love this story of John saying that every nation, every tribe, every people, every language is going to be around the throne of God. The Bible is saying that I am welcome and that I belong. But for so long the Church has said, "No, you have to get rid of your way – your housing, your music, your traditions, your clothing." I’ve experienced it personally when I became a Christian, and I felt that this week.
It says in Genesis that we are made in God’s image. I am made in God’s image. I’m a First Nations woman, and I am made in God’s image.
FT: It sounds like the same mistake being made all over again. "You must change."
HF: There are colonial structures that have been in place and sometimes, you know, we have to look at ourselves and just say, "Do we have any residual thoughts or unconscious biases? Where do we get this notion that this person is less?" We have to look at that.
We witnessed the knee on the neck of George Floyd and through that I decided that I was going to be a student. Even though I do antiracism work, I decided that I was going to be a student. And I started to write down inspirational teachings and I became actively antiracist. I became a student of that. I’ve just leaned into this, because, you know, racism is a tough topic, and you know that even a racist will say, "I’m not racist because I’m not wearing a white [KKK] hood." I think that we all have to look and just say, "Do I have unconscious biases? Do I use microaggressions?" Because we all do.
We all have to admit it. Now is the time to lean into those conversations, especially within the Church. In 1 Corinthians where it talks about the Body of Christ, if one part is hurting, the whole Body hurts. If, for example, we look at Indigenous people with anything less than compassion and your heart being open, then we better check ourselves. What did Jesus want? What does the Bible teach about this?
FT: What is your desire for churches, for the typical Canadian congregation that may be just starting to learn?
HF: First of all, I always say to people that we’re not a problem to be solved. I would say reconciliation starts with me. When Senator Murray Sinclair presented the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [report], he said, "Canada, here’s the report. Now let’s be friends." Every time I say that I get moved with emotion because there is lots of gentleness, and openness and kindness.
Let’s stop saying, ‘What can I do for Indigenous people?’ and start saying, ‘What can I learn from Indigenous people?’
So let’s do our own truth finding, you know. Listen and lean into conversations. Go to museums and cultural sites and learn, not just about our history, but our collective history. Take courses. If there’s any cultural event like a powwow, maybe just join in, and watch and see how beautiful and rich our culture is. Listen to our music, buy our art.
I have friends that are artists that are amazing craftsmen. I’ve asked them, "Canadians are wondering, ‘Can we purchase your art? Can we buy, wear and use it?’ " The answer is, "Yes, if it’s real." If it’s inspired Indigenous, not Indigenous inspired, you’re appreciating the culture, not appropriating the culture.
Let’s focus on our successes. We have such a rich culture. Let’s stop saying, "What can I do for Indigenous people?" and start saying, "What can I learn from Indigenous people?"
FT: Thank you, Holly.
Listen to Karen’s full interview with Holly Fortier at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts.