Setting Her Own Pace: Indigenous Educator Jenna Firth Stands Up for Cultural Pride and Herself
“I spent a lot of my life trying to catch up and figure out the things that everyone else just seemed to know and already understand,” recalls Jenna Firth. Her spirit name is Grandmother North, she is an Anishinaabe woman, part of the wolf clan and lives in Winnipeg. She likes to drum and sing, just finished her first sundance and she’s learning to speak Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe).
“My biggest dream is for Indigenous people to just feel really proud of themselves.”
Firth grew up in Winnipeg, disconnected from her culture and with light skin, so people often asked about her culture and she would usually go with whatever they suggested her heritage might be. Since then, she’s been getting in touch with her roots after having been left by her parents to figure out the world for herself through trial and error.
“There's been so many opportunities in my life to connect. I think that's the best advice I could give to anyone is just look for those opportunities that are there,” Firth shares, reflecting on her journey of reconnection. From programs in schools, community and health centres, she points to the many options available and encourages people to try things out and find what works for them.
Without much support at home, Firth had a hard time at school, but in high school she found community. “Things started getting better because I found a small group of people that were weird like me, and I got involved in the student council, which opened up tons of opportunities,” Firth recounts. With a nurturing teacher leading the student council, Firth had opportunities to travel and some much-needed breathing room.
“Getting to travel so much in high school opened up my wonder and my adventure and my excitement, and gave me a break from my family. I still travel to this day, because that's something that's really great,” she smiles. “I was just trying to get through elementary school and middle school, it was just about survival and, like I said, just kind of trying to catch up. Those years were really rough on me, and probably the hardest times in my life. That perseverance is really what got me through it and, and finding the helpers, the programs, the people,” Firth continues.
In university, Firth had opportunities to learn about her culture and to access counselling, tutoring and community in her Access Program cohort. The mutual support and friendship she found added to her life. “That really was a highlight and helped me to succeed in university,” she remembers. She trained to be a teacher but she doesn’t teach anymore.
“Teaching…kind of chose me,” she explains, sharing how she ended up becoming a teacher. As a child, she remembered watching her teacher and thinking that she could do it better one day. She used to tell her students that story to let them know it was okay if they felt the same way she did and where it could lead them. “All through school, I always imagined myself as the teacher anytime I was in any kind of classroom setting, so it really was a dream come true to become a teacher,” she beams.
For about five years, Firth taught elementary school but burnt herself out after enduring racist abuse in the workplace. In that time, she learned a lot, explaining, “As far as teaching goes, I think we definitely need Indigenous people in leadership in our education system, in any system. We need people to create change, but it can't be at the cost of our own health and our own well-being. Something that no one ever told me was that working in these systems to create change is actually really exhausting.” After suffering damage to her health in trying to create change, her advice to other changemakers is to be cautious and gentle with themselves, taking good care and time for themselves every day.
“I hope that you can find your path and it's okay if your path changes a few times.”
After living through those experiences, she has a lot of wisdom to share. “Have a community of safe people that will support you. Get an Indigenous mentor who can help you through those toughest battles, because there's going to be lots of them and learn how to set boundaries. That's a big one. I tell this to everyone: go to therapy, even if you don't have to, even if you can't afford it. Therapy is an amazing thing when you give it a go… I don't want to be discouraging, but I take a lot of pride in being honest,” Firth advises. She knows how hard it is even when people in the system are open to change.
“Right now, I'm dreaming of new things,” she beams. Now, she’s the co-chair of Full Circle for Indigenous Education, a small organization that supports Manitoba with Indigenous education. “We're small, but we have big dreams, so I'm excited to see where that goes. That's definitely a highlight in my life,” Firth shares. Outside of that work, she’s working on another dream - bringing people back to their cultural and spiritual roots through a reciprocal and supportive community.
These days, her favourite part of her day is connecting with people and getting to know them deeply. “Now that I'm living a slower lifestyle, I can spend time actually listening to what people are saying, and not just trying to move on to the next thing. I really love that I have time for ceremony every day,” she says, thinking about how she gets to smudge, pray, and drum every day.
She spent a lot of her life trying to catch up and figure out the things that everyone else just seemed to know and already understand, and now Jenna Firth is living a slower lifestyle steeped in what really matters to her. She’s setting her own pace as an Anishinaabe woman and member of the Wolf clan and lives in Winnipeg, she drums and sings as she builds a community for cultural connection and creates opportunities in Indigenous education. Her biggest dream is for Indigenous people to feel really proud of themselves and she’s doing what she can to contribute to that while making her dreams for herself come true.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
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.