From the Page to the Screen to the Stage: Sonya Ballantyne Shares Her Journey as a “Creative Native”
“For the longest time, I thought my being Cree was a disadvantage to me, because I didn't know anybody who was doing the stuff I wanted to do. I finally decided if no one's gonna be the first I guess I have to do it. It was largely stubbornness And the fact that I wanted to inspire other people to write, just so I wouldn't be the only person doing it, because I never wanted to be the only person doing it. Hopefully, it inspires other people to make better things than I have,” Sonya Ballantyne explains, reflecting on her journey.
“If you have hope when things are terrible, it's the most punk rock thing to do to not give into apathy.”
Born in The Pas, Manitoba, originally from the Misipawistik Cree Nation, Ballantyne lives in Winnipeg making art and waves as an advocate. A writer with a day job, she published a children’s book called Kerri Berry Lynn, essays for a book called Pros and Comic Cons and an anthology called Women Love Wrestling, with two graphic novels on the way. She makes films about Indigenous women and girls, Indigenous issues and explores horror, sci fi and fantasy. Despite being shy, Ballantyne works as a public speaker inspiring sold out crowds.
“Do what you love first, and the work will follow. Draw what you want, write what you want. if drawing anime or drawing your friends as anime characters makes you happy. Keep doing it.”
She was inspired to write by a teacher and became a filmmaker to create representation for people like her and the Indigenous kids who were overwhelmed with emotion by seeing people like them in her first film. “I was really impassioned because I didn't realize I have something to say that would matter to somebody and it seemed like me being visible helps these younger kids see that they could succeed too, because you can't be what you don't see,” she remembers.
Bullied as a kid, and reflecting on the poverty of her community, she was depressed and pressured to stay on the reserve instead of pursuing higher education. She struggled academically, barely graduated, and got into university where she experienced racism and being in a mostly non-Indigenous environment for the first time.
Her grandmother died and while her family was supportive of her moving away pursuing her dreams, people in her community treated her differently because she went away. Finally, she connected with other Indigenous students, found community, and graduated with two university degrees, one in social psychology and one in film. A lifelong learner, Ballantyne now reads regularly and audits classes.
“Moving from the Res to Winnipeg was the hardest and the biggest culture shock of my life, just because it was so different from how I grew up.”
“The big advice I give is, even if you hate the res, even if your biggest dream is to leave, you're going to miss it a lot. When I moved away, all I wanted to do was come back. Even though I knew it was a bad idea, because I never felt truly at home back home,” she explains, reflecting on her advice for youth considering moving home. She encourages youth not to be afraid of the unknown, but remembers how she cried, lonely and homesick, when she first moved to Winnipeg.
“If you are the first person to go to university in your family, it's going to be difficult because no one can tell you how to do that. No one has burned the path for you to go ahead.”
Ballantyne didn't start filmmaking until she was 27, because she lacked direction. Picking up the pieces after an abusive relationship, she learned many life lessons. She shares, “Everything worth having is very hard to get and it's a lot of work. Being talented is not enough, because there's a lot of talented people in the world. If you don't put the work into it, it's not going to matter. I'm not the best writer in the world, Stephen King is not the best writer in the world but the reason he is well known is because he puts the work in, he's writing all the time. He can't be afraid of what people are going to say, because people are always gonna say horrible things.”
“I deal with mental illness now by remembering that I've been through the worst things. And I've gotten through that.”
To stay grounded during uncertain times, Ballantyne doesn’t engage with negative online content, she looks to the future while trying to stay present and watches hopeful things. While she tries to stay positive, she is mindful of messaging around ‘negative emotions’. “I think anger is demonized in Indigenous teenagers. But anger has always inspired me and has always been a fuel for better things. Every negative thing I've faced I've used as a way to power myself to get better at things like to be a better writer, to be a better filmmaker, to be a better speaker,” she remarks.
Those teenagers inspire her. “What inspires me is the people who are coming behind me who I've burned paths for and they're going to be the ones who surpass me. Kids inspire me because they have so much potential, they have such great ideas and they see the world in different ways. I'm hoping that they don't get scared by the racism they face or they don't get despaired by that. I just hope they keep coming up,” she marvels. By speaking, making films, writing books and staying visible, Ballantyne is leading the way.
As she leads she shares these important words:
Never make yourself smaller to make somebody else comfortable. Never stopped laughing as loud as you want. Follow your dreams, because what's gonna make you happy is also going to make your parents happy. The message I'd give to Native kids would be you have every right to be happy too. Happiness is not just for white people in the suburbs. Being happy is something we're owed. When there's so many things happening to our own people, sometimes the best, the most punk rock thing you could do is be happy and be hopeful for tomorrow. Superman taught me when I was a kid that everybody has gifts that they can use to help other people. So find out what your gift is, and help other people with that.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for writing 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.