By MIMI LILIEFELDT
The traditional three-bedroom semi sits on a quiet street in the Upper Beach. I am welcomed inside by Jessica Pitanwanakwat, the single mother of three who resides in this home. Jessica is an Indigenous woman who was born in Sarnia, Ontario and has led a life full of personal and generational trauma.
Jessica’s quiet demeanor belies the amount of wisdom and self awareness she has amassed over her lifetime. Throughout our discussion I hear her concede her own patterns of behaviour and call out the systems of oppression that have failed her and her ancestors.
“I grew up in an alcoholic family. My grandpa went to residential school and the intergenerational trauma of all that has been passed on. My great grandfather was a veteran, and he escaped the Indian agents to protect my grandmother and her siblings (from having to go to residential school). They led a more traditional Indian life but over time my grandmother lost those ways because of society (looking down on Indigenous people and their way of life),” Jessica told me.
As a child Jessica also felt the weight of her heritage. “At the time I was pretty much the only Native kid in the school, and I was ashamed of myself,” she shared.
During her childhood, Jessica and her younger brother moved with their mother from Sarnia to St. Catharines to Sudbury. When I asked the reason for all the moves, she said, “My mom moved from St. Catharines to Sudbury to have a better life, to get away from all the partying and the drinking and stuff like that. She did quit for about 10 or so years.”
Jessica became a mother herself at 22 years old and achieved her high school diploma at 24 years old. After graduating, she moved to Toronto, “having my son gave me more inspiration to finish school and go to college. I moved by myself; it was something big for me. I had every mixed emotion.”
With meagre funds and little knowledge of the city, Jessica moved into a basement apartment at Dufferin Street and Rogers Road and had to commute across the city to Centennial College’s Scarborough campus. “I would drop my son at daycare and then I went all the way to school there. I did it for a whole year and I was so stressed,” Jessica told me.
Having a small child and travelling a great distance didn’t fare well for her spa assistant courses. After missing classes due to scheduling difficulties, and consequently failing some classes Jessica understandably gave up at the end of the year. “I had funding from the Reserve (Indigenous Services Canada has several different post secondary school funding programs) that’s why I moved because I had these opportunities, but it didn’t work out the way I planned it. I was out here by myself and didn’t know how to handle it,” she said.
Unsurprisingly there are many inadequacies in the system for Indigenous education. Particularly in Jessica’s case, they weren’t accounting for her needs as a single mother who needed more support, guidance, and funding. Giving someone just enough money to scrape by is setting the bar shamefully low.
How is someone supposed to thrive when they are living in vermin infested apartments with unsympathetic landlords? What resources are available and accessible for a young mother who was new to the city?
“I started partying more and I went on Ontario Works (social assistance). Every year I was moving because of the living conditions I was in and a lot of times because I was Native, they gave me a harder time. The areas I had to live in were not nice. I would lose my furniture and have to start all over again every time,” Jessica told me.
As a person with economic privileges, this is something I never thought about. When you don’t have extra money, you can’t pay for movers and must get rid of your furniture and have to buy more every time you try to improve your living situation. Along with the multitude of systemic injustices that began with colonization, generations of Indigenous people have had to live not only with ongoing trauma but also these types of powerless cycles.
For most of her life, Jessica’s way to cope with her abusive mother and (later on) partner has been to escape through drugs and alcohol. She told me, “My mom made me feel like I wasn’t worth living. She didn’t love herself, so she projected those feelings onto me. I almost died a few times because of drugs, I was attracting the wrong people. I didn’t care about myself, but I didn’t want to die because I had my son.”
At 29 Jessica met her ex-partner. “He was emotionally unavailable; I had to stop depending on other people to love me and love myself.”
Today, at 40, she has finally gained an understanding of herself and her purpose. She still has many struggles to overcome and wishes there was more support within her own Indigenous community. Recently she experienced a traumatic incident (for legal reasons we are keeping the details out of this story), but she claims when she reached out to Aboriginal Legal Services, she was left hanging. The same, she said happened when she contacted the Native Women’s Resource Centre looking for support.
Though most of her closest family members, friends and partners have let her down, there was one person she said that showed her love. “I had a very strong relationship with my grandma, she had a beautiful spirit. She always hugged me and made my favourite foods. She made me feel worthy. She taught me how to cook and sew. The love she had never had to come with any attachments or expectations.”
Her grandmother’s passing was devastating to Jessica, but she turned to her Indigenous roots and spiritual practices to honour her. In her own healing and recovery Jessica told me how important her culture has been for her transformation. “What has kept me strong is connecting more with myself, my creator, and my ancestors. I had never done that before, but I thought, ‘Wow, this is keeping me grounded.’”
As Jessica continues her journey, she envisions helping people like herself. “I want a piece of land (on the reserve), for myself and my kids to have. I want to learn how to live off the land. I never had that. There was nothing there for me, I want to help keep our traditions and our ways of life. Plus, I want it to be a place where people can go and heal.”
I am grateful to Jessica for reaching out and telling me her story. She has done a lot of healing on her own but hopefully through sharing her experience, she won’t feel so alone, and others can learn and heal from it too.
Mimi Liliefeldt is a Beach resident and business owner. She can be reached at email@example.com
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