Senator Yvonne Boyer has had many careers — first as a nurse, then as a lawyer, and finally as a Senator — which have all melded together to inform her life’s work to improve the wellbeing of Indigenous people. Referring to herself as Michif, Senator Boyer is Métis, with Chippewa, Cree, and Irish ancestors. She was born and raised in Saskatchewan, and currently resides near beautiful Merrickville, near Ottawa.
“I have the most beautiful grandfather teepee in my yard… I lay tobacco down every day and I go talk to the trees. And through these last months [during Covid], we haven’t been able to go anywhere, but I certainly found my solace with Mother Earth here. I have three really favourite trees and three favourite grandfather rocks that are out in our meadows, our sacred meadows. So it’s nature, it’s nature that has really grounded me here. I’ve been isolating with my grandchildren who are seven and five. And we do teepee teachings in the teepee every Sunday and we talk about stories that I was told as a child.”
Senator Boyer has always been very connected to her family. “My dad was the youngest of 14 children, so I had many, many aunts and uncles. He was very, very loved, so I came from that aspect, that the aunties and uncles loved him and they loved me. That’s how I was raised.”
Especially influential for Senator Boyer were the stories told to her by her Aunt Lucy, who contracted tuberculosis when she was 14 and spent a full decade alone in the Fort San Sanatorium in Fort Qu’Appelle . “She only saw her family once in those ten years. And back in those days, they didn’t have antibiotics, so they treated it with sunshine and rest. They said, ‘Rest is the cure.’ And ‘rest’ meant no movement whatsoever. That meant lying on your back, not moving. … Five of those years, she was in a complete body cast where she didn’t move off of her back for five years, if you can imagine. I can’t imagine even one day.”
This vivid image was just one that deeply moved Senator Boyer. Even more galling were Lucy’s stories of cruelty and injustice that the Indigenous residents of the Sanatorium faced. “She told me about how it wasn’t always fair and how sometimes monsters walk the halls. And sometimes things happen to children that really was not nice. She talked to me about the difference between the kids that had family close by and the kids that didn’t have any family close by, and the kids that were Indigenous and the kids that were not Indigenous and how they were treated. She talked about the experiments that were done, and she talked about death and dying and coughing and coughing and coughing and people dying and friends dying and what it was like to be flat on your back and at the hands of the people who were supposed to be taking care of you.”
Senator Boyer comes from a family of healers, and she was expected to follow that path. So after graduating high school she went into nursing. Working at small hospitals in central Alberta, Aunt Lucy’s stories came to life for Senator Boyer. “I saw what she had been talking about. It was 30 years later and it was the same thing and there were the same monsters walking the halls at that time as well. [I got] angrier and angrier and angrier about what I would see, and how Indigenous people were being treated, and some of the comments that people made to me (because they thought I was like them) such as, ‘Those Indian women need to be sterilized so they don’t reproduce.’ That was something that I heard on more than one occasion. And the more I heard it, the more I got angry. And I came to a point in my life where I was driven, like there was no alternative. I was absolutely driven to do something about it.”
While working full time and raising her young children as a single mom, Senator Boyer started “picking away” at various night classes. “I wasn’t sure what kind of tools I needed to get. I didn’t know if I should go into social work. Would I be effective? Would people listen to me then if I was a social worker? Would I have any control over what I was seeing in the healthcare system? And then it just sort of came into my lap.” Senator Boyer found herself enrolled in a class in Human Justice. Her professor, who was also a practicing lawyer, was so impressed with a paper she wrote for the class, he told her, “’I would offer you a scholarship if you went to law school.’ And I said, ‘What? Really? The law?’ And he started talking to me about the tools that you can get in the law. And so it was at that point I was convinced that somebody actually believed in me. He planted a seed in my head.”
She never did take him up on the scholarship, but she acknowledges: “He gave me a much bigger gift of being able to envision what I could do.”
In 1991, Senator Boyer and her children moved from Nova Scotia, where they had been living, all the way to Saskatoon so she could take the Legal Studies for Native People summer programme. “I had three children under eight, two suitcases, a borrowed car, and no job.” And as soon as she arrived to launch her law career, she realized she had something else as well. She was pregnant.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was full of complete self doubt. Can I do this? And at this point, it probably became one of the most powerful lessons I ever had in my life. I’m in tears, I’m at the beautiful campus at U of S, and the summer program is starting. I see a woman and she’s one of the profs teaching in the summer program. She’s got long hair and she’s got a long skirt and she’s got a bunch of kids with her and she’s pushing a baby carriage and people are following her, talking to her. And I thought, ‘Hmm, I think I should talk to her.’”
That woman was Trish Montour. “She is a force beyond belief. She has now gone to the spirit world, but she made an impact in everybody’s life that she came across.” Senator Boyer sat down with Professor Montour and poured out all her worries. “I’m crying, crying, saying, ‘I don’t think I can do this. Oh, no, no. I got all these kids. I got no job. I got no money. I got nowhere to live.’ And Trish, in her matter of fact way, she put her arms on her hips and she said, ‘Of course you can do it! Are you crazy? You’ve got the gift of being able to go home and chill out with a brand new baby on your breast. And you can study the law on one hand and you’ve got these gifts that nobody else will have. And you are above that. You can do this there’s no doubt about it.’
“And that was a turning point in my life where once I believed I could do it and I had — once again — somebody saying, ‘You can do this.’ And I did.” I made it through the program, and I made it through law school, doing the best she could. I didn’t get the top grades, but I didn’t fail anything, “and nobody’s ever asked me about my marks, ever.”
Through those rough years, without scholarships or other financial support, Senator Boyer succeeded in working, raising her kids, and getting her degree, and yet still didn’t have a lot of confidence. In her cap and gown, on the stage, waiting for her convocation, she caught sight of the Dean of Law and was afraid he would tell her she hadn’t actually qualified. “So I beat it across the stage and took my degree and ran like hell. And I said, ‘I will never go back into another university,’ which was really funny because as Indigenous people, somehow you don’t think that you are actually deserving of this. You didn’t quite do it well enough or something, and that’s not at all true. I want to dispel that myth right off the top!”
Now sitting in the Canadian Senate, Senator Boyer has both the confidence and the authority to advocate for Indigenous people in powerful, meaningful ways. Her main area of interest is equitable healthcare for Indigenous people. “As a legislator, I have an incredible opportunity to make change. And I would like to see all of Canada’s legislation [reviewed] to ensure that it is equitable for Indigenous people.” Of special note in her work is Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution which states: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal people of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”
Senator Boyer wants all Indigenous people in this country to understand Section 35. “There are no laws that are more powerful than that. …We have Aboriginal and treaty rights that are protected by the constitution. So I look at it from the perspective that I have an obligation. I’ve done quite a bit of work on ancestral medicine, or ways of being, and I put that into an Aboriginal Rights perspective under the protection of the constitution.”
Similarly, the Senator is careful to remind us of inherent Indigenous laws: “Our ancestral laws are as powerful, if not more powerful, than the Western law of the Constitution. So those two are the bodies of law that I work with. And I take them both very, very seriously.”
In regards to these laws, Senator Boyer is passionately involved in the areas of justice and consent around the abhorrent sterilization of Indigenous women and girls. “I’ve stayed up nights thinking about how do we fix this one. Because the problems are so inherently ingrained.” The Senator is looking carefully and thoroughly at the issue from many angles, to find a solution that works within the existing structures of both federal and provincial jurisdiction to end this heinous practice.
This is how the Senator works tirelessly, every day. “I get legislation, I look at it and the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘How is this going to affect Indigenous people in Canada? Does it touch on their rights?’ And because of my legal background, I have the ability to look at legislation and be able to do that. And that’s the gift I have of getting those law degrees that allow me to do that. And it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.”
Senator Boyer is one of 10 Indigenous Senators (“strong, powerful people in the Senate that are held up by their ancestors”), and she wants to encourage young Indigenous people to learn about the Senate. “We need you to get your education so that you can join us, because you’re the next generation that’s going to take our places. You’re the next generation of leaders and role models.
“And I’ll tell you, thinking about where I came from, the last thing on my mind when I was growing up is that I’m going to be sitting in the Senate. That never crossed my mind. Nor did it ever cross my mind that I was ever going to be a lawyer. But take advantage of what you’re seeing and listen to your heart. I know now that none of what I do is a ‘job’. This is a calling. I was called here. I was called to do this. So you’ll know that. You follow your heart and that’s the way you’re going to be able to make change, because you now have to think about who’s going to take my place. I’m only there for another few years, and then we need you to come up and take our places. So I’m looking forward to seeing that. It’s a good succession plan.”
And her advice, to young people with questions about what they should be doing: “It’s a big, great adventure out there. Trust your instincts. If you have a question about what you’re doing, or if you’ve got something that you’re worried about, or there’s a big decision to make, write it out on a piece of paper, put it under your pillow, and ask the ancestors and say a prayer. When you wake up in the morning, you’re going to have those answers. It might take a couple of nights, but help is available. Just put it out in the world, put it out in the universe, and the answer will come. Just ask, that’s all. People and our ancestors are there to help you.”
Special thanks to Jessica Dee Humphreys for authoring this blog post.
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