Flipping the Narrative from Tragedy to Triumph: Justin Holness Celebrates Indigenous Excellence
“We've been talking about residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women, the 60s Scoop, suicide rates. But that's not who we are as people. That's what was done to us. I really wanted to flip that narrative. I wanted people to witness our strength, our resilience, our beauty, all of the above,” explains Justin Holness. He lives in Regina, part of his traditional territory, but once upon a time he actually put together Ottawa’s first Indigenous art, music and fashion show.
At the time, he was working as a youth diversion coordinator, working with youth in conflict with the law, and he met many artistic young people. Without a major platform in the area to showcase their work, he decided to build one, launching an Indigenous fashion show with a talent contest, all with a prize that came from community money. Holness led the event through five years of annual shows.
“It wasn't about me. It was about the designers, the youth, the performers, what the audience experienced in regards to how they see or witness Indigenous people.”
Because of his entrepreneurial spirit, he felt led to work with Futurpreneur Canada as a business development manager for young Indigenous entrepreneurs. He was invigorated by the work but when the pandemic hit, he wanted to go home and support his community. He also wanted to take a class that one of his relatives taught at the First Nations University of Canada, so he took a chance and applied. He’s now working towards completing the Indigenous business program majoring in entrepreneurship.
School didn’t always come easy to him; he never really fit in in high school as an Indigenous student. He played soccer and basketball, but felt excluded, faced racism and negativity. Meanwhile, at home, his parents divorced. He was upset and rebelled, moving into a neighbourhood with a strong gang presence.
Holness ended up graduating two years late and enrolling in the University of Winnipeg where he worked on the inaugural event for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in Winnipeg. Academically, he tried a number of programs but didn’t stick with any of them, ultimately deciding to move to Ottawa. He attended Carleton University and University of Ottawa, but never graduated. He found the education style and content didn’t resonate with him so he tried making money rapping and performing and in other ways, until he found his way back home.
“I think knowledge isn't knowledge until it's applied learning.”
His advice for youth who find themselves on a similar path is one of empathy. “Find yourself. We're all on our different healing journeys,” he urges. “Know who you are and what you're passionate about and then figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life, and then use education and school as a means to support your career path,” Holness continues. Growing up, his parents instilled in him at a young age to know who he is and where he comes from.
When he found out he was going to be an uncle, everything changed because he started thinking about who he wanted to be for his niece and nephew to look up to. Stepping into being the person he was meant to be gave him confidence and helped him care less about whether people liked him.
“I try to walk my best life, with Creator in mind, with my family in mind, with the next generation in mind, with our elderly in mind. How would they want me to walk in this path? How can I support and help my community the best way that I can? What's my role in the community?” he reflects.
“I think one of my biggest inspirations is really the rise of the sacred feminine, the matriarch movement, being able to witness women stepping into their power,” he explains. He dedicated a song, Welcome to the Matriarch, to that movement. He’s proud of the matriarchs in his family who have done things like negotiate land claims on behalf of his people and leading the community as chief. As inspired as he is by the women in his family who are established in their excellence, he’s also inspired by youth.
“I know what it was like to be a young person and not have access to resources. I really try to give back to the community in a way that I didn't have growing up,” he remembers. He wishes he had access to a studio program growing up so he could process his emotions. “There's a lot of things that definitely inspire me on a day to day, but I think women and our young people are the most prominent,” Holness concludes.
As he works towards his degree, he’s also really excited about financial literacy and trading stocks to build his wealth, not just for himself but also for his community. “It's been researched.. that when we support our women economically, socially, and politically, it improves the quality of life for all people…We need to support our women and I think to support our women in the best way, we need to be the best version of ourselves. Supporting the rise of the matriarchy, of the Sacred Feminine, I really think this is our present and our future and it's really exciting. We need to just really pave a path for that to manifest,” he asserts.
After listening to people talk about residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women, the 60s Scoop, suicide rates, he knows that's not about who Indigenous people are as people. He wanted to flip the narrative from what was done to his people to getting people to witness their strength, resilience, and beauty. Educating himself in economic development, he’s finding a new way to do just that, giving back to his community and supporting the matriarchy.
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.