Indigenous Women on the Rise: Diana Day Leads Cultural Connection and Community
“I really believe that culture is prevention. Culture saves lives. It's so important for us to get back to roots,” declares Diana Day. Sheis Haudenosaunee, Oneida, from Six Nations and has lived in the lower mainland of British Columbia for decades. Her family is from Ontario and has ancestral ties to the New York state area.
“My mother always taught us that we were here long before the borders. She raised us to be proud of who we are and where we come from,” she beams. Her people are matriarchal and her mom comes from a long line of clan mothers, a member of the wolf clan. The system they had to choose leaders was disrupted by colonization, which left many other lasting impacts.
“When people say that we lost our language, we lost our culture, my sister always reminds us that it was stolen. It was legislated out...Those are things that are really important to remember, who we are where we've come from, to walk tall and proud knowing who you are… original owners and caretakers of this land and to treat it in such a way, respectfully,” continues Day. She passes down these teachings she received from her mother to her own children.
Day is the Lead Matriarch at the Pacific Association of First Nations Women, a professional native women's association that has existed for forty years. When Day started working there, the Association had healthcare funding for a cultural program called Indigenous Women Rise, which included 500 women from over 190 First Nations as part of an in-person offering. The program moved online and has grown even more, reaching more communities and including a drum circle and a language program.
Reaching the homeless is something else the Association has taken on, with funding from Indigenous Services Canada, also providing food, cleaning supplies and activity boxes. With beading nights, speaking and healing circles, cleansing ceremonies and more, there are so many ways people can get involved and lots for the Association to do.
Before taking on her current role, Day was a pre employment training program facilitator for urban Indigenous women, a prison liaison worker and a researcher with the local, national and provincial friendship center organizations. She catalogued places people could get support and performed a needs assessment around substance use.
Community Development is another area she worked in, as well as the funding of friendship centres across Canada, after she moved to Ottawa to take on new projects. Working as an immigration officer, then with the local health authority in Vancouver as leader in community development and community engagement, she’s had a wide variety of impactful roles.
Raised by a mother who was a residential school survivor who reinforced the importance of education, she and her siblings were told early on they needed to graduate from high school. At one point, they went to school in Detroit, Michigan, during a time of civil unrest, riot and race wars. Day ended up graduating in Windsor, Ontario, from a school where she was the only First Nations person. She did summer school to try and get out as early as she could because she was miserable from all the racism and discrimination she encountered.
Discouraged and delayed by the toxic educational environment, she finally graduated at 20 and entered the workforce, working with the Friendship Centre after volunteering on the board of the Ontario Native Women's Association. “That's why I really think it's important now to train our women about being a board member,” she explains. She does just that in her current role and over a hundred women have registered to take board member training. She sees the training as essential for encouraging and lifting up women and providing opportunities for advancement.
Similarly, she plans to train more women to be executive directors in both mainstream and Indigenous organizations. “It's alarming to me that many mainstream organizations they're applying for Aboriginal targeted dollars and they're delivering culturally unsafe services. I really want our women to be in executive directors positions to be able to see what's happening and how we can make a difference. We can put them in other people's paths so that they can excel,” she dreams aloud.
Another area of impact Day would like to see is in training allies in anti-racism work to have better representation of Indigenous people and to break down negative attitudes based on false beliefs. “We have to change the narrative, and we have to let these people know that we are sober. We're not still in an alcoholic haze that they would like us to all be in. Can you imagine? Wherever we are on our healing journey, we need to support each other. We need to lift each other up, we need to provide support and to provide opportunities to do the healing,” she shares.
Her advice for youth considering leaving their home communities in search of opportunities is to expand their horizons by learning and to look for the many people who are willing to help along the way. She says that it’s hard to go to school, but it’s also hard not to. Ultimately, with the advancement of technology, it’s possible to expand one's horizons through education without leaving home, but whichever path is chosen, she hopes youth believe in themselves.
If she could give her younger self advice it would be to stay focused and believe in herself, to keep praying for people to come into her life to help her and that she can help, too. “We're part of a circle. We're always helping someone and someone's always helping us from just being connected. Get connected, if you're not connected, it is so important to be connected to others,” she reflects.
When she needs inspiration, she looks to the little things like sunshine, children, babies and the future. The Association she works with is looking to fund the development of youth through scholarships and she’s looking forward to seeing who she can help next in her circle.
Believing that culture is prevention and saves lives and how important it is to get back to one’s roots, Diana Day is leading the Pacific Women’s Association to empower more people with culture. Raised to be proud of who she is and where she comes from, she’s doing what she can to increase cultural pride in a territory where she is a guest, so others can feel at home in themselves.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.