Growing up in Labrador City, Valerie Brown, 34, always knew she was Cree. Her mother is Cree and her father is a Newfoundlander. Her unique look always drew stares from her non-native friends because she was the only person of a different colour within her circle.
“I only spoke Cree until I was three years old; I had problems learning English,” she said.
“Then my mother stopped speaking Cree to us, I think because of what happened in residential school and how she was taught not to.”
Brown lived in Eastmain for the past six months until early September, slowly relearning the Cree she forgot long ago. “I have a CD that teaches you how to speak Cree and I have been listening to it when I get a chance.”
Brown’s other siblings, John and Denise, have come back to the community and have kids who are being raised immersed in everything Cree; The language, the culture and the traditions. The reason Brown came back, however, was much different.
After working for 10 years as a bartender and then moving on to a job at the Rona hardware store, Brown knew she needed something more tangible in her life. When the opportunity to take a two-year course to become a mining technician reared its head, Brown was excited at the chance to do something interesting and make good money.
She soon realized, however, that the course would cost $1,400 a semester, plus books and other supplies, over and above her living expenses. That was money she did not have. So she explored her options.
“The reason I moved up here is that I have been working this past year upgrading my high school marks to get into this mining technician course,” said Brown. “After I qualified for the course I had to find funding. I applied to the Cree School Board for funding, but was rejected because of the 10-year clause.”
She got word a little more than six months from the start of school. A few days later she packed up her stuff, left her boyfriend and friends behind and headed to Eastmain, a place she had previously only visited.
She soon found a job at Human Resources as an office assistant in Eastmain, but the adjustment to life in one of the smallest Cree communities – population, 600 – was difficult at first.
“The community of Eastmain is beautiful, the people are friendly and the community pulls together if anyone needs help,” said Brown, who volunteered one day to help with a big community clean up.
“But I really missed my friends and boyfriend back home. I was kind of sad at first,” said Brown, who also lamented the loss of her busy sports schedule with softball and a provincial women’s ball hockey team.
As a child she would stay in Eastmain with her grandparents David and Daisy Cheezo. She returned at 12 and in her 20s and always knew that she would continue to come back to visit her family. She just didn’t know it would be for six months.
Once she got over the separation anxiety, Brown began to learn more of the traditional Cree way of life. “I cooked goose in a teepee with my grandmother when I was 12. We did that again. I also learned how to make bannock during the cultural days at school. Every year there is a traditional walk between elders and youngsters and I participated in that,” said Brown.
She had a lot to cram into a short six-month stint, but she was learning about her identity more than ever before.
“My mom told me stories on how she grew up and what she had to do in order to survive. She was born in a teepee, she had to chop wood and boil her water in order to wash her clothes. She also went to residential school.”
After her schooling at College of the North Atlantic, Brown will be a fully certified mining technician. Among many other new skills she will learn how to weld and operate a crane.
Then she will begin her job in earnest at a mine owned by the Iron Ore Company of Canada, a job she sees as a way to better her life.
“I wanted to be more positive in life and to learn Cree. This was one of the ways to do that. I am very excited and I know I’ll be back in Eastmain really soon!”