The Honourable Patti LaBoucane-Benson is a Canadian senator, an award-winning author, a Doctor of human ecology specializing in Indigenous family resilience, and a powerful advocate for the Indigenous community in Alberta and across Canada. Senator LaBoucane-Benson is Métis-Ukrainian, from the Treaty Six Territory in Alberta, where she still lives today.
Thinking about herself when she was a child, the Senator wishes she could offer herself some sound advice. “I was shy. I stuttered all through high school. I lacked self-confidence in a major way. I experienced bullying when I was growing up. And if I could have told myself at some of those darker moments when I was a kid, I would say, ‘Hey, just don’t worry about it. None of this matters. This is not going to be for the rest of your life.’ I think that that would have helped me a lot.”
From her own early experiences and those she witnessed through her work at NCSA, Senator LaBoucane-Benson quickly became interested in resilience — the ability for people, especially Indigenous people, to recover from trauma. “I did a Master’s Degree and a PhD, while working at the Native Counselling Services of Alberta, and I very much focused my work on Indigenous family resilience. My PhD was about building a model to understand how we build resilience in Indigenous individuals, families, and communities.”
The Senator describes her educational journey as “uniquely Indigenous”. “My post-secondary work is not normal in the Western world, but it’s very typical in the Indigenous world because I did my Master’s thesis while I was pregnant, and defended two weeks before I gave birth. Which, by the way, is the best way to do it because I sat down in front of my committee and I was like, ‘I’m going to have a baby in two weeks, so there’s nothing you can do to hurt me!’”
After successfully passing, and then spending a year of maternity leave with her baby, Senator LaBoucane-Benson went on to earn a PhD, while also working full-time and raising her son who was diagnosed with what she describes as “pretty significant learning disabilities.” Through that journey, she experienced first-hand the need for family resilience, which continued to inform her work.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson used her personal experiences, as well as her PhD dissertation, to build a model for all NCSA programs and services, as well as to create curriculum on “historic trauma informed service delivery” that has been offered to police officers, judges and crown prosecutors. That important work was also used to “train foster care parents and other caregivers on historic trauma [such as that of the residential schools system] and provide the most informed care for indigenous children in Alberta.” Her interest in historic trauma healing also informed the Senator’s later work with corrections (i.e. the prison system), helping incarcerated Indigenous men and women.
With so much heavy responsibility on her shoulders, one of the ways Senator LaBoucane-Benson handles her stress is through ceremony; for example, fasting. “There were times during my PhD when I felt like I was barely hanging on by my fingertips. Other times where I felt like I was climbing the mountain and doing really well and feeling good about it. But many times where it was just so, so stressful, and I was very grateful to be a faster, to be able to fast. The fasting ceremony was worked into my PhD learning because I had a Western learning path and I had a traditional Indigenous way-of-knowing learning path, and some of the work I was doing was in ceremony. It was those ceremonies that just kept me going. Even when I wanted to quit, I knew I had made the ceremonial commitment to finish this PhD through and it was such a tremendous support to me.”
Other supports the Senator leans on during trying times are her mentors. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with absolutely amazing, inspired, deeply philosophical Elders who have always taken this learning journey and elevated it in many ways to a spiritual journey. It was an idea that my four parts of myself had to be engaged in that learning process: my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self. Really, every single part of me was tasked and sometimes stressed in that process, but I would say my PhD journey was transformational in many ways because of that support.”
After completing her studies, Senator LaBoucane-Benson wanted to take her ideas beyond academia and reach a broader Canadian audience. “I don’t believe we make changes in the community and changes in people’s lives by academics talking to each other.”
Together with her colleague, comic book illustrator Kelly Millings, Senator LaBoucane-Benson wrote The Outside Circle, which was published by the House of Anansi Press in 2015 and won the 2016 Burt Award for First Nation, Inuit, and Métis Literature. “I’m so grateful to them for publishing, because it’s kind of changed my life.”
In 2018, Patti LaBoucane-Benson was called by the Prime Minister to sit as a Senator in the Red Chamber. As someone who devoted her life’s work to Indigenous issues, it’s not surprising that Senator LaBoucane-Benson spends a lot of time “thinking about the decolonization of legislative spaces.” She explains, “That sounds very academic, but as an Indigenous Senator, having all of these Elders that have been kind enough to spend time with me and teach me and invest their energy in me. How do I take those teachings and not only apply them to the work that I do, but how do I influence the way that legislation is passed in a very decolonized way?”
“How do I build relationships with people, for example, across the entire Senate?” Senator LaBoucane-Benson asks herself. “Really good relationships that are informed by these Cree ways of knowing, caring, sharing, kindness, honesty, and within this very political context. It takes up a lot of my time and energy, but it’s very exciting work.”
Senator LaBoucane-Benson wants young people to understand the good work being done in the Senate. “The Senate gets a bad rap and I know there has been some problems with the Senate at times, but I have met people who are so dedicated to their country, to making this a better place… If anybody is wondering about the Senate or thinking it’s a waste of money, just look into the work of individual Senators, the causes that they’ve taken on, the people that they’ve supported, the work that they’ve done. I’m constantly inspired by people like Lillian Dyck. She’s an amazing Indigenous Chinese woman who is just fantastic. And Murray Sinclair, he’s an amazing guy. He’s a wonderful mentor and he’s got a wicked sense of humour. He’s still working for the people.”
Senator LaBoucane-Benson is an avid gardener, and her husband is a traditional Nehiyaw (Cree) hunter. To them, growing and hunting food is an important part of their identity, both as ceremony and in regards to the critical issue of food security. “My husband and our sons are traditional hunters and we eat primarily wild meat all year long, and I garden. Our need to be food secure in this day and age — especially with COVID -19— made me even more committed to this idea of food security and really tending to the earth. We have Saskatoon berry bushes, raspberry bushes and strawberries, and we put up Saskatoons for ceremony every year. I really take tending to those berry bushes as a part of ceremony. I just give them as much love as I can, because the Saskatoons that come out of that are medicine that are going to feed people at ceremony.”
Senator LaBoucane-Benson believes it is essential to promote a positive Indigenous identity, within her family, her work, her community, and in the Senate. She especially wants to this message to get to youth. “Identity is everything. I believe every Indigenous child, every child across Canada, but Indigenous children in particular, need to have a strong sense of who they are, where they come from, and what it is they’re meant to do in this world, what community do they serve and how can they serve that community.”
Special thanks to Jessica Dee Humphreys for authoring this blog post.
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