In a few weeks Chief Andrea Paul of the Pictou Landing First Nations will welcome her two daughters Lindsay and Selena home from University. She will have her tree trimmed and her house decorated for the Christmas season. It will be a happy time getting caught up on the latest news from Acadia and Queens University.
There will be parties, gifts and celebrations with family and friends.
Andrea will have all of the trappings of a merry Christmas for her daughters. The most important gift she will share with her family is a spirit resounding in the joy that can only come from finding ones own truth, reconciling with the past and discovering that the brightest light shines in the darkest night sky.
The year was 1971. It was less than a decade after the pulp mill at Abercrombie began its production of kraft pulp and effluent from the mill started to taint the waters of the much loved A’se’k on the shores of the Pictou Landing First Nation. It was a time where attitudes about Canada’s Aboringal people were just starting to change. The last Residential Schools that had disassociated young native children from their families and communities for decades had finally closed their doors and a nation who had been stripped of their pride and deprived of their cultural identity were starting to re-invent themselves as people they had always known they should be. It was time for Andrea Paul to be born.
Andrea was not brought into an easy world. She acknowledges today that her family life was at times as toxic as the putrid waters that are attempting to be remediated at Boat Harbour. But just as she holds out the hope that the recreational waters of her community will be restored to a healthy tidal pool, she believes that she is beginning to understand and live her own truths regardless of how painful it is to go back to where it all began.
With the Christmas season fast approaching Andrea reflects on her young life and at times marvels at how she could have followed a completely different path and continued the cycle of poverty and abuse that had trapped her parents Theresa and Gabriel Paul for so many years.
“Christmas wasn’t a happy time for me,” says Andrea from her familiar space at the Pictou Landing Band office. “There was never a lot of money or food and even though my mother loved Christmas as soon as the alcohol came out it was over.”
Tragedy had gripped the young family when a car accident claimed the life of her little brother. Andrea says she was really too young to remember but no doubt the death of that little boy had a dramatic affect on her parents outlook on the world. Without dredging up too many details of her youth the Pictou Landing Chief confirmed years of emotional and physical abuse at the hand of her father and the eventual absence of her mother by the time she was 12 years old.
“I still don’t know all of the circumstances of her leaving but as much as I loved my mother it was almost a relief that she was gone. Her parent’s relationship was over and her mother moved to Truro. “I would eventually go to visit her and there were good times with her. I went to live with her sister Mary Ellen and I really did love it there. For one thing there was always food. I remember that she would buy peaches. That was such a treat and she never took a drink.”
As a young student Andrea threw herself into her schoolwork. “ I loved going to school and I always valued my education. I was a good student all through high school but once I hit university I really struggled. I just don’t think I was ready and for the first time in my life I encountered racism.” She believes that the bullying and fear she encountered at this time in her life was a barrier to her success.
She started out in the business programme at StFX and left for a little while returning as an Arts student. At the end of three years she decided to call it quits. That last spring before she left the school a friend found a piece of her personal writing in her bedroom that she had titled “Racism Sucks.” Her friend submitted her writing piece to the school newspaper, The Xaverian. “I was so upset when I found out she had submitted it. I was afraid what would happen. I hadn’t had the best experience when I had called others out for the racism and I was worried that I would be in trouble but I couldn’t believe the support I received from that little piece of writing.”
Andrea left StFX in 1992 and started working as an educational counselor with the Band. Her focus returned to her community and to the opening of a new school in 1995 that would celebrate the history, language and culture of the Mi’kmaq people. Instrumental in the opening of the school Andrea would also go back there to teach in 2010.
“I was the Mi’kmaq Language teacher and I was nervous because I wasn’t fluent. My Kiju spoke Mi’kmaq to us growing up so she kept the language alive but in my elementary school years I was sent to the principal’s office if I spoke Mi’kmaq because we were told it was rude if people didn’t understand us. We all spoke our language growing up and slowly we were losing it because English was the accepted language.”
During this time Andrea started to demonstrate her ability as a communicator and a champion of her community. She travelled to Ontario to take a counseling course for indigenous people. While participating in a ceremonial Talking Circle she found herself in one of the most enlightened experiences of her life. “It was so powerful,” remembers Andrea with tears telling of this transformational moment. “Men and women were talking about their lives in residential schools. How terrible life had been and I realized for the first time the things that likely happened to my own father. I knew that he had lived at the residential school in Shubenacadie and even that he had his name changed while he was there but he never talked about it. There were so many things about my dad and the demons he battled that started to make sense.” Andrea had already started to work on her relationship with her parents in recent years. Although her Mum continued to live in another community she had restored a loving relationship and her father had actually moved in with her for a time. “Our relationship really started to grow from this moment on.”
Andrea would eventually return to StFX and finish her undergraduate degree in 2005. By this time she was the mother of two young girls and her parents were now loving grandparents and involved in the lives of her daughters in ways they were never able to contribute to her when she was young. Andrea set her intentions on living by example, letting go of her past and positioning herself as a leader in her community.
By 2008 Andrea had served several years as a member of her Band Council, she returned to StFX for a third time to begin study for her Bachelor of Education, the Canadian government was begging forgiveness through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and her father would die of pneumonia.
“It was so hard to lose my Dad just when I was starting to get him back.” I was finally able to accept his disease and accept that because he had been abandoned by his mother, never knew his father and had lost a son in addition to those years in residential school, I had found empathy, patience and understanding. You can forgive without forgetting.”
As she dealt with her grief Andrea continued to work passionately for her community and pursue her education degree as a way not only to nourish that part of herself but also as a way to honour her father. “My father had so many dreams which he didn’t get to fulfill so I realized how short life is and that was my push to apply to teaching. Andrea realized that dream in 2010 but she felt that there was still more to do. The following year she was elected as the Chief of the Pictou Landing First Nation. It was a time of great self-discovery and learning. She garnered several appointments to national boards and she was expanding her knowledge through the experiences of the associated travel and influencers in her sphere. She has endured many challenges from department funding to environmental and human rights issues, employment obstacles and re-thinking the model for health care for indigenous communities.
But just as Andrea started to spread her wings as Chief her family suffered another great loss when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. “We lost her so fast. She had melanoma. Before she died she said, ‘when I die, I know I am going to go to heaven because I have already spent my days in hell.’ It was so hard to know that she was hurting this much in the physical world.”
Andrea says that although she has made peace with her past she is just starting to open up with her story. For the longest time she felt that this was her only truth but now realizes the importance of sharing. She believes that the Truth and Reconciliation process has helped her feel safe in talking but she knows that just as the residential schools took generations of children away from their families it just might take generations
for healing and to restore the balance to the relationships that the Commission is seeking.
“What happened in those schools also had an impact on the children of the people who went there and it will continue down to the next generation. I know what it is like to grow up with nothing. I had a crazy childhood but I am so grateful that my daughters got to experience loving grandparents.”
The summer after Andrea’s mother died, the mother of her partner Darcy had rescued a pre-lit, artificial tree adorned with gold decorations that someone had set out to give away. The tree went to her shed on a Sunday night and the next evening Andrea began the task of removing all of the decorations. Hidden in the midst of all of the gold she spied a flash of purple hiding in the boughs.
“I am a spiritual person. I believe in signs and I believe that my mother was trying to tell me something in that little ornament. My girls were in awe! The next Christmas I decorated my entire tree in purple with help from family and friends, I did it in honour of my Mother. She loved Christmas and loved her family and friends. Through this she brought us all together.”
Ulnuelewigw: Merry Christmas to you
A’se’k: Other room