Fearless & Fierce: Mary Burton Guides Families Through Systems So They Can Thrive Together
“There were many things that stopped me from pursuing education, but I never stopped trying. I'm proof that it can happen. You can do it,” shares Mary Burton. She is the Executive Director and co-founder of Fearless R2W Incorporated. Burton is from Norway House, Manitoba and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She works as an advocate and educator around Community Systems literacy and system navigation.
It’s a job she created in 2014 after sitting at the table with Michael Redhead Champagne, discussing their hopes and dreams of what the organization could be and achieve. That year one in six kids were being apprehended daily from the R2W postal code, the largest in the North End of the city, and 365 babies were apprehended at birth through birth alerts. The elders in the community were crying out for something to be done and Burton and Champagne answered the call.
They started out by finding a space, food, bus tickets, honorariums, and got to work. For six months, it was just the two of them, holding weekly community meetings until people started coming regularly. They held education circles to teach people about the resources available to them, how to navigate systems and their own emotions in a good way. Advocacy for their clients and community members included childcare services, employment and income assistance, residential tenancies, and in time, Burton had a full time job in the organization.
What inspired Burton to pursue this path was her own lived experience aging out of care at 18, with a five month old daughter, as a product of the Sixties Scoop. People often came to her looking for help with navigating systems and she had been helping people from her living room long before Fearless R2W came into being. She describes the transition as a natural progression, helping friends and family and later her community. She and Champagne funded the program from their own pockets for many years, reunifying some three hundred families who are still together after receiving support through an aftercare program.
She did it all with a grade 12 education, after struggling in school as a person with ADHD. She’s found ways to cope since, but she dropped out when she got pregnant with her oldest child. After her second child, she went back to school to graduate. At the time, she was on welfare and she wanted off, finding it didn’t meet her family’s financial needs. It took her four years, juggling kids, addiction, and another pregnancy before she finally got her diploma. Now she’s considering higher education, but is mindful of the demands of her busy career and knows it would be hard. She would like to be able to provide therapy or counseling or even get her Bachelor of Social Work.
“I'm constantly growing. I'm constantly learning about how to help people in a good way.”
After growing up in care, she found it hard to know who she was or where she came from, not learning about her culture, teachings or ceremonies until she was in her twenties. She hasn’t stopped learning since. She learned about blood memory, something she strongly believes in, the idea that wisdom is contained in her DNA and she just has to find it.
Her advice for a student thinking about post secondary is to follow their passions for whatever they want to do and follow their dreams. “I've got a passion for helping people. That's why I do what I do…It's part of who I am. It's part of what I do. It's ingrained in me. I can't not help people,” she explains. She tells her children and grandchildren that education is important and so is the sense of accomplishment that comes when you can say, "I did that. Nobody told me to do it. I did it on my own."
Becoming a parent unexpectedly created some challenges along her path and she was a stay at home mom for a long time, helping people find their own ways through systems. “I've got a gift for gab, and I've got a gift for the English language,” she grins. Being able to write and talk well has helped her get what she needs and teach others to do the same. “Every system has their own language, their own jargon,” she continues, and that language is what she teaches others so they can become systems literate and able to navigate bureaucracies.
Working with a kinship policy, her organization does parent and youth advocacy and trains people to be advocates, and in restorative justice. They are working on research projects with two universities and also developing employment training programs to help people get work as security guards. There’s a lot to do in her community and the time management skills she gained as a single mom have helped her excel in her role and her career.
If she could give a message to her younger self it would be, “Keep going, there's light at the end of the tunnel.” Burton remembers how she wanted to quit so often, not wanting to be responsible for everyone and everything all the time. Now, she looks back with no regrets knowing that really tough life lessons have made her who she is today. “Everything that I've done up to now has made me who I am and I would not change it for the world,” she affirms.
That’s a lesson she would like to share with others, offering, “Everything you do is a learning experience and it's a teaching experience. It's going to make you who you are and it's going to make you your best. Do not put your fire out. Do not make yourself small. Make yourself big. Be out there and know that you are worthy.”
To maintain her mental health, she journals and colours, spending time in reflection and with her grandchildren. Her family is her top priority and she learns from her grandchildren how to have fun, relax and be herself, doing what makes her happy.
With many barriers to completing her education, Mary Burton never stopped trying. She’s proof that it can happen and that anyone can do it. Guiding people through systems and teaching the language of self-advocacy buried deep in bureaucracies, she’s widening the path so families can thrive together.
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.