Growing Pride and Produce: Charmaine Leonard Harvests Cultural Connection at Motoki Farms
At Motoki Farms where Charmaine Leonard works, they aren’t just growing produce, they’re also growing cultural pride. She is Ojibwe and Cree and lives in Ottawa, though she was born in Brandon, Manitoba. Her family moved away when she was a young child. After so long in the national capital region, it feels like home. Her workplace is a tourist destination and working farm with a marketplace and private tours. She connects visitors with tour information and she’s connecting with culture along the way.
She heard about the job because her parents were friends with the CEO for a long time and Leonard has known her since she was little. When the farm first opened, they were looking for staff for their marketplace and asked if she would be interested. She tried it out for one festival and has been there ever since.
It’s been nearly two years of working in the store, doing inventory and customer service and lately she’s started working more on group bookings. Leonard is organizing field trips, summer camps, and corporate trips, learning the ropes from the bookings manager. She’s learning on the job and loving every minute, and there’s a lot to learn.
Her educational path before she got this job was a bit outside the norm. Elementary and middle school were fine but in high school, Leonard struggled with severe anxiety. It had a significant impact on her schooling and ultimately delayed her graduation. She’s since graduated, but it took a long time and a lot of work to do so.
Something she’s really gotten into lately is beading, something her mom showed her how to do when she was little but she wasn’t all that interested until recently. Now, she beads any chance she gets outside of her fulltime job, making earrings and pins, enjoying the chance to reconnect with her culture and really having fun with it.
Growing up in the city, Leonard has felt very disconnected from her culture for most of her life. With her people and extended family back home on their reserve, she’s felt distant from her community and isolated as one of the very few indigenous students at her school. She felt the same way at her first job, working at IKEA as one of the only Indigenous people there.
Working at Motoki was life changing because she’s surrounded by Indigenous people. “That was amazing, being able to be surrounded by other people like me, and by my culture, but it was also very different because I had a lot to learn,” she reflects. Even though Leonard grew up in the powwow scene with parents who tried to immerse her in her culture, she still felt like she was missing out on things living so far from her home community.
If she could give advice to her younger self, it would be to reconnect with her culture sooner. When she was younger, she was embarrassed to be Indigenous because she never saw people like her at school, work or even just walking down the street. It was an isolating feeling and Leonard felt like an outcast. In reconnecting with her culture, she’s learned a lot in the last couple years. Getting started sooner is something she feels would have been beneficial.
Reconnecting with her culture and beading help her keep her mental health in check, giving her an opportunity to relax and get out of her own head. She can focus on what she’s doing and not spend too much time thinking.
What inspires her lately is seeing more Indigenous people represented in the media. Leonard wishes she had seen more of that when she was growing up, saying “Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt so different.” Now, she’s loving all the chances to see Indigenous talent shine on screen. “I love that people like me are finally getting recognition,” she beams.
If she could share words of inspiration with viewers it would be, “Try just reconnecting with your culture. Whether you're Indigenous or not, I think that that is beneficial to anyone. I think at least for me, it definitely has improved my mental health, my well being and just life overall. I think that it is very important to just stay connected to your family, your culture and your roots. I think that can definitely turn your life around for the better.” Looking to the future, she is hopeful at the thought of children she might have connecting with their culture even younger.
Spending time working at Motoki Farms, Charmaine Leonard knows she’s in a place that isn’t just growing produce, they’re also growing cultural pride. As a proud Ojibwe and Cree woman who once felt ashamed and disconnected, she’s found her way to a more comfortable place. Connecting visitors with tourism experiences and herself with her traditional practices, the fruits of the labour of reconnection are always ripe for harvest.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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