Nourishing Bellies and Minds: Shawn Charlebois’ Traditional Pemmican Teachings
“How do you take your experiences good, bad, ugly, beautiful, and how do you use them for your own individual growth so that you can provide service to others who are incapable or unable at this time to do it for themselves?”
It’s a question Shawn Lamont Charlebois has wrestled with and it’s led him on a path of nourishing minds and bellies through cultural revitalization.
He spent his formative years in central Northern Ontario and while biologically an only child, he was raised in a family of 13, including his grandmother and parents. They struggled financially and moved where the work was. His family has Quebecois, Acadian and Red Bank First Nation roots. Charlebois was the only person in his family that ever graduated from high school and struggled with his studies. He now holds undergraduate and master's degrees in Indigenous Studies, applied anthropology, history, with a focus on participatory action research.
“Creator has placed me on this path for a reason. I'm the one who has to figure out what to do with that.”
“We get strength from our home communities, right? That's where our ancestors are. That's where our stories and our histories come from. But the reality is that many of these communities have limitations. The world is a big, wonderful place…I don't think I'd be the person that I am today if I stayed in my own community. But then there's a longing to go back,” he says as he reflects on youth contemplating leaving home in search of opportunity.
He went back to New Brunswick to connect with his roots but needed work to support his family so they moved again. He found work with TakingItGlobal and as the Supervisor of Indigenous Human Resources for Prairie Mountain Health. He’s a sessional instructor teaching an Indigenous healing and counseling program, a real estate investor renting apartments as part of an affordable housing program. He also owns and operates Red Road Compass Traditional Pemmican, a company that produces and distributes pemmican to schools.
“Historically, pemmican was used pre-contact as a survival food and then post contact as a substantial food source for the fur trade.”
Traditional Pemmican is an initiative based on his dad’s and his own research. He came up with a product for students to experience and make to enhance their studies and learn from culturally appropriate education materials on his website. Sometimes, this product is distributed to people who are dealing with food insecurity and homelessness. This product is produced in a soup kitchen that Charlebois opened.
“I think what's so great about Indigenous culture is it's a breathing, growing, changing entity with a whole bunch of sparkles of tradition.”
Thinking about how he has grown and changed, he would say to his younger self, “Don’t stress out too much. You have value. You're contributing. You should love yourself.” He doesn’t regret the challenges. “I wouldn't be able to provide the education and the training and the support and the compassion and the empathy, and the kindness and the love in the ways that I do if I were to have changed, I needed to experience that hardship for me to grow into the person that I currently am,” he remarks. His connection to the land, sports and education with an Indigenous approach got him through hard times.
“When I think about working towards reconciliation, we really do come at it from not perpetuating a romantic image of what it means to be an Indigenous person, but trying to get into the mud in the dirt, about the challenges that our people are facing in our community so we can really get at the root of it.”
Charlebois is inspired by helping others and working towards Reconciliation. “The challenge is when you come from poverty, you really don't have very much liquid cash to invest in things like soup kitchens, or buying a chunk of land to do land based education and so you have to be very, very patient,” he explains. He talks about his work, sharing “It always was focused on getting kids to the land, always getting people fed and trying to help as much as I could, and always advocating for Indigenous rights within Canada ... the motivation to do this came from that would be my mom and my grandma.”
“It's hard and it's simple. We just have to do our best and live by those seven sacred teachings. And at the very end of it, as long as we focus our energies on the areas of need then change will happen.”
Charlebois believes in adding laughter to difficult situations, recognizing when we overcomplicate things unnecessarily and to go with the flow. “The reality is…we have a lot of hard things that we have to face up to and to address. Let's talk about all the children that are now being found on the former grounds of residential schools. If you go into that, which is so serious and so important, if you don't come out of there, and either grieve, cry, laugh, scream, stomp, throw a rock, smash a plate, whatever ... you're going to break. We have to take care of ourselves. Self-care is very important. If we don't take care of ourselves, who's going to take care of us? We cannot advocate for change if we are broken. We always have to take care of ourselves first. Laughter is medicine,” he explains. He learned this the hard way after burning out while working in community.
“Wisdom is not free, you're gonna pay for it. It's either gonna be blood, sweat, tears or money, but you're gonna pay for that wisdom, you don't get it for free. When I think of hardship, it forms you into what you are. However, it also has the same capacity to crush you under its weight. The question is, how do you process it? That's why it's so important to have strong community foundations for those times that you feel like you're faltering and you're falling and you're crushed under the weight. You need to rely on good friends, good family, good community. Because those are the ones that pull you up, as opposed to push you down or pull you down. That's how you survive,” he counsels.
“The trick is not to fall victim to self loathing and hate, but to recognize it as a gift from the creator. Now I have a responsibility to decipher that gift, and to use it in a positive way.”
Revitalizing culture, feeding, housing and educating people, Shawn Charlebois is doing just that. Nourishing minds and bellies with traditional practices, he’s working towards reconciliation as someone who has known poverty but now works in the richness of Indigenous ways of knowing and being.
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.