Black Lives Here: Understanding diversity of Indigenous communities a first step to showing true support

Sarabeth Metu Alivaktuk Holden owns Red Tape Brewery on Main Street with her husband Sean. Photo by Mimi Liliefeldt.

By MIMI LILIEFELDT

When you’re a racialized person living in white society, one of the hardest things to do is be yourself. The pressure to assimilate is huge and the systems are set up so that there isn’t room for those who don’t conform. This means many people, often without conscious thought, dampen or completely abandon their cultural or even genetic characteristics.

Thankfully there are people like Sarabeth Metu Alivaktuk Holden, a local Inuit woman, mother, brewery owner, and writer, who has always known how to be herself.

Sarabeth and her husband Sean own Red Tape Brewery on Main Street just south of Gerrard Street East. She also published the first of her three children’s books around the same time as opening the brewery in 2020.

While most of us spent the start of the pandemic eating pizza and watching Tiger King, Sarabeth, a self described “hustler”, was working around the clock making her dreams a reality. The dream was for her and Sean to own their own brewery.

“He (Sean) was a homebrewer. He started brewing before we met. He lived in a condo and had a second washroom that he would use the shower stall to ferment all his beer. It was always a dinner table conversation, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to open our own brewery?’ because we loved it,” she said.

After giving birth to their first child, a series of events presented Sarabeth and Sean with some seed money, and they decided to put it towards their dream.

“It wasn’t house money, it was nice car money, and we were like maybe let’s build a brewery and maybe one day we’ll be able to afford a house. So here we are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt! Living the dream!” she said with a wry laugh.

Though the stress of entrepreneurship naturally takes its toll, Sarabeth clearly finds joy in being a mother to her two boys.

When I asked what inspired her to write her books she said, “My children. I always sing songs and try to make diaper changes a little bit easier. And one day I was like, ‘I need to write that down.’ So, I wrote it down and I hummed and hawed over it for a few weeks, made some edits and read it to friends and family and anyone who would listen. They also thought it was funny, so I emailed Inhabit (an Inuit owned publishing company whose headquarters are in Iqaluit).”

Through the promotion of her books (she has two published with another coming out soon) Sarabeth got connected with CBC Indigenous who reached out to her to do a story for CBC Kids. She was asked to tell a traditional Inuit story. “CBC is making a lot of effort towards bringing more Indigenous content and diversifying that content because a lot of what’s out there and available to the public is First Nation, they don’t have a lot from Inuit and Metis,” she said.

There is an important distinction that Sarabeth points out, “There’s a lack of understanding. A lot of people want to support Indigenous business or people, but don’t understand the diversity of Indigenous people. And how different we are. This is a lot of land!”

She’s right. I am ashamed to admit being one of those people who wants to support Indigenous businesses and people but didn’t give any thought to the diversity of their cultures, communities, or experiences.

So I looked it up, as you should too, but for general awareness here’s what I learned straight from the Government of Canada’s website: “The Canadian Constitution recognizes 3 groups of Aboriginal peoples: Indians (more commonly referred to as First Nations), Inuit and Métis. These are 3 distinct peoples with unique histories, languages, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs.”

Of these distinct peoples, “There are more than 630 First Nation communities in Canada, which represent more than 50 Nations and 50 Indigenous languages. Many Inuit in Canada live in 53 communities across the northern regions of Canada in Inuit Nunangat, which means ‘the place where Inuit live.’ According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census of Population results, 587,545 Canadians self-identified as Métis.”

Sarabeth’s experience as an Inuit woman is a blend of cultures. Her mother was born in a winter camp on Cumberland Sound and moved to Pangnirtung when she was a small child. Her father was born and raised in Montreal, but his family was from New Brunswick.

“I was born in Halifax and raised between New Brunswick and Nunavut,” she said. “We would go back and forth. My dad was a retail manager for Zellers, so we moved every two years. And every time we went up north to visit my mom’s family (in Pangnirtung) we would go for a few months because it is so expensive to go there.”

Going back and forth was often an adjustment, but what stood out was Sarabeth’s mother’s experience as an Inuit woman in The Maritimes.

Sarabeth shared some of what she knew, “People talk about systemic racism, but I think my mom’s birth experience with my sister was an example of that. My mom was bleeding and she said, ‘something’s wrong’ and the nurse was like, ‘no you’re fine.’ My sister ended up drowning in the birth canal and so she has severe brain damage, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. She was in NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for the first three or four months of her life. She survived and is still alive, she’s 44 now but she lives in a long-term care home.”

Her mother and sister’s story is heartbreaking but not unusual. It is a well documented fact that Indigenous women repeatedly face discrimination and poor health care. Social inequities and racism are ingrained in our systems, they are so deeply imbedded that for anyone who is not impacted, it barely registers how inhuman it is.

The acts of discrimination range from minor to downright criminal, but even the lesser seeming transgressions are negatively impactful. Sarabeth shared a story from her childhood that stuck with her, “I remember going to a grocery store, a co-op. We’d just moved to a new town. We’re with my mom, who didn’t drive at the time, so my dad dropped us off. There’s a woman standing at the membership table, and my mom was like, ‘I’d like to sign up’ and (the other woman) she’s like, ‘We don’t have any memberships.’ . . . We left the grocery store. We couldn’t join. This was 1990. . . I was confused. What do you mean we can’t get a membership? Why are you sitting there with all these applications?”

In this story there may have been no physical injury, but the result was still harmful. The confusion of a small child and a grown woman’s humiliation add up to the strong message that you are not worthy. This pain lives inside.

People who are constantly marginalized don’t have to have the painful thing happen to them directly. The pain can be passed down, witnessed, or imminent – the fear of knowing it can happen to you at any time.

Knowing your worth from birth, to be able to walk in confidence and have it validated by society is a luxury. When in fact what it should be is a basic human right, but in reality, it is reserved for the lucky few.

So, what can we do to repair the damage? Sarabeth had some insight, “The great thing about having more conversations, especially in my case, conversations with young Indigenous people, is teaching them to be comfortable in their own skin and healing that intergenerational trauma. Encouraging them and telling them they can do whatever they want to do, to have that self confidence.

“I think that that’s something that was destroyed with residential schools, institutions telling our people that they’re dirty Eskimos or dirty Indians and that their ways are wrong. That everything they’ve learned up to that point is wrong and this is the only thing that’s right. In such a way that it changes the way that they thought about themselves. We need to heal that, and you can’t expect one person to do it all on their own.”

And again, Sarabeth is right. No one can do it on their own. No one’s intergenerational trauma was created on their own so why would we expect it to be resolved that way?

Most people now understand that though we might not have been the ones to directly inflict the harm, we have benefited from its results. It is with this acceptance of responsibility that we need to move forward together so that Indigenous people can stand tall and proud in their individualities. Being able to be your full self is a basic human right.

— Mimi Liliefeldt is a Beach resident and business owner. She can be reached at mimi@missfit.ca


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