As an Indigenous child in the predominately white rural town of Morris, Man., Kimberley Levasseur Puhach sometimes felt different. And when she visited relatives in Sandy Bay Anishinaabe Nation with her mother, her light complexion and accent made her a stranger there too.
Because she didn’t look like her family members, some Morris residents made racist comments in front of her. When the annual stampede came to town, people would say, “You better lock your doors at night. The drunken Indians will be around.”
The comments in Sandy Bay—where she felt most connected to her identity and really wanted to belong—could be hurtful as well. “They called me mooniiakwe—white, fair woman—and abitaa, which means ‘half’ in Salteaux – Anishinabe. And I’m not ‘half,’” says Puhach [ExtEd/11].
In fact, her given name is Bezhik Binese Ikwe: Lone Thunderbird Woman. Puhach will tell you she continues to “walk in two worlds,” seeing herself as a unique intermediary dedicated to bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“I have a face of white privilege…. People still say, ‘Oh my gosh, you don’t really look First Nation.’ They might say, ‘Wow, you’re really successful for a person that is First Nation. Did you grow up on the reserve? Have you been to the reserve?’ That just says to me we’ve got lots of work to do,” says Puhach.
Receiving this UM award for her years of community service to create positive change, Puhach brings her passion to expanding awareness of Indigenous perspectives, and to guiding organizations she volunteers with to create authentic connections. She’s helped Indigenous organizations extend their reach to partner with non-Indigenous organizations, and consults with non-Indigenous groups who want to understand and include First Nations people.
Often called upon to bring her voice to diverse forums, Puhach became volunteer chairperson of the mayor’s Indigenous advisory circle to address racism and reconciliation efforts in Winnipeg, informing a strategy to engage citizens in solutions. And, upon invitation from the United States Embassy, visited tribal communities across the U.S. to find new approaches to Indigenous education and training.
In her professional life, as a former director at the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology, Puhach developed an institutional planning framework for reconciliation and Indigenous inclusion.
She believes that real bridge-building between people has to begin at a personal level.
“I could have become stuck in that vortex of anger and be completely unable and capable of moving forward,” she says. “We’re all on a journey of our own reconciliation, of my own healing in order for me to make that decision to be that change that I want to see.”
The most critical issue in Indigenous communities today, Puhach says, is the drive towards sovereignty. This means reconnecting with the land, and in some cases returning to claim the land that’s rightfully theirs. Sovereignty is autonomy over issues such as employment, housing, health and education.
“There are opportunities for us to explore. How can Indigenous communities, First Nations, create their own economic development opportunities, create their own educational system?”
Her advocacy is rooted in inequities she witnessed early on in life.
One spring, Morris flooded and she ended up in school in Sandy Bay.
“It was an eye-opening event. The kids were three or four grade levels below me. It really demonstrated the disparities,” she says, noting she recognized how privilege impacted education.
Her first volunteer board appointment was as a director then later a chairperson of Ka Ni Kanichihk Inc., or Those Who Lead, an organization focused on human services for Indigenous peoples through wholeness and wellness, addressing various levels of government as a fierce and vocal advocate for cultural reclamation, safety and social justice. She’s since given generously of her time to the United Way, the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council and most recently Homelessness Winnipeg. She says solutions to homelessness lie in access to affordable housing or safe villages to accommodate families while creating community.
“There are so many different ways of looking at how we shelter people outside of conventional norms,” says Puhach, who had to make peace with her own family history before she could help others.
It was only in recent years, as chair of the National Day of Healing and Reconciliation, that she learned about her mother’s experiences as a Residential School Survivor. She was taken from her family at age six and still has triggers, like hair clippers or the smell of the carbolic soap they used to wash the children with.
“Everything began to make sense,” Puhach says. “All the alcoholism and difficulties people were having. I had things taken from me, too.”
While her mother retained her Saulteaux language, Puhach doesn’t speak it and lost the chance to grow up in her extended family.
Now she embraces her thunderbird identity. Thunderbirds are other-worldy, high-flyers, she says, removed from other “natural” animals but a protector and guide. As a peace builder, she practices love, humility, respect, courage, truth, wisdom and honesty, as prescribed by the Seven Teachings, but can be a “warrior woman,” when she has to be.
With her involvement in so many different forums, this advocate has a front-row seat to critical issues. We sat down with Kimberley Levasseur Puhach to hear more.
What is the main obstacle to reconciliation?
There’s much education required in Canadian society about the history of sovereignty—why that’s important. The largest obstacle right now is non-Indigenous people not understanding. Young Indigenous people absolutely have always understood what it is like to be an Indigenous person in a Western civilization, but I don’t think the converse is true…. There needs to be truth, or there can’t be reconciliation.
You went on an exchange to see tribal lands in the United States. What did you witness south of the border that can help here?
The U.S. Indigenous First Nations—they would refer to themselves as Indian tribes—have done a very good job of moving the needle more on sovereignty…. We don’t have a judicial system within communities like they do. Most of the communities have their own school and educational systems, outside of the U.S system. They’re very politically engaged. I think that there’s a really great opportunity for us to learn from one another.
What does white privilege have to do with achieving reconciliation?
When I think of white privilege—or white fragility, a byproduct—I think of how the ownership of that and understanding of what that means, and not being offended by it, is one way that we could move forward.
You joined the mayor’s advisory circle after Winnipeg was named the most racist city in Canada by Maclean’s magazine. Do we have a lot of work to do?
For sure. I think Canada has an opportunity to do that work as a country, and that each province has its own unique challenges. Based on our population—the largest per capita population of Indigenous people in any one province—does that increase the potential for racism? Of course. We are also a province that has many new Canadians. Does that increase our risk of being the most racist city? Of course. The more we continue to focus on anti-racist ideas and concepts, through learning and educating ourselves, the better we can move forward not to eliminate racism—although that would be a wonderful goal—but to move that needle.
How will the race wars in the U.S. impact our relations?
I’m hopeful that the momentum that continues to build has a halo effect on all groups that are marginalized, that we begin to really examine the racism, that we understand it, we name it, change it. But systemic racism is another conversation much like white privilege. We have to admit that it actually exists first. We’re not quite there yet.
What are people NOT talking about but should be?
There’s a bit of an underlying assumption—we’ll use missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as an example—that those things are happening because of their lives or their circumstances. The blame is being placed for the statistics on those individuals, women, girls, two-spirited people, as opposed to us looking at it, and asking, ‘How is it that these numbers are so staggering?’ And how is it that we could see them as so disposable that we don’t even blink an eye about it?