Wemindji wellness worker Mickey De Carlo discusses her journey of restoration

Many First Nations men signed up for World War II because they knew what it was like to have their land taken away. When my dad was a young boy, his father went to war. Fellow soldiers admired him because he had not been forced to help. He’d volunteered. When he returned, he decided to move to Cobourg, Ontario.

My grandfather sold his Aboriginal rights and, with his wife, left their reserve and moved to a beautiful spot on Lake Ontario. He had no idea that though he had been treated with such respect overseas, his son would be bullied with racist slurs in his own country, in peacetime. During this traumatic period for my dad, his mom died, leaving him with a grieving father, both isolated from extended family on the reserve. It was heartbreaking. People need support at fragile times in their lives.

I was born in December 1954, the middle child and only girl amongst five brothers. My hard-working father supported our family all of his life despite his drinking problem. My English mother, also with a strong work ethic, bore a lot of responsibility. Family life was stressful, though less so during the summer months when we played outdoors from morning to night on the sandy beach. We had so much fun swimming in the lake.

There’s a memory of a cold winter’s day when Mom was begging my father to stop drinking. I went outside and made a house of snow. I played in my quiet place all day, imagining wonderful plays and stories. I felt so comforted. Mom couldn’t afford to separate from my Dad, nor did she dream of talking to others in her community about smart coping strategies. There were no wellness centres in those days. Dad was only 54 when he died in his sleep – an alcohol-related death. My mother encouraged us. She said that despite our financial situation, we could become anything we wanted.

One day when I was in Grade 7, I selected a book by First Nations poet E. Pauline Johnson from the school library. I memorized The Cattle Thief and recited the poem in class to a standing ovation. My teacher and classmates celebrated my speaking talent. That was a first step in reclaiming my identity as a First Nations woman.

The second occurred one afternoon at home as I listened to a CBC radio interview of Billy Diamond, a negotiator of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Deeply impressed with the history he shared, I ran all the way to the bookstore for Chief: The Fearless Vision of Billy Diamond, Roy MacGregor’s book, which had a profound effect on me.

One day, again at the library, I read I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by writer Margaret Craven. That novel cinched it for me. No wonder I became a literacy teacher after I completed an Honours B.A. in Indigenous Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. On days off, I volunteered to teach in a prison program.

One day in 1999, as a facilitator at a men’s conference, I asked the men to decorate masks to express how they see themselves. In attendance was Edward Georgekish, who asked me to come to Wemindji. It was not an idle request. He meant it.

Though I had a full-time job in Peterborough, four children and two grandchildren on the way, I accepted. I felt this was supposed to happen.

My husband of 40 years, Pastor Randy de Carlo, has always given me his full support and together we moved to Wemindji and set up a wellness centre. We fell in love with the children. They came to our trailer, the first wellness centre, and the fun began.

On one occasion the youth hosted a play narrated entirely in the Cree language. It began with a wedding and was followed by a walking-out ceremony. A young girl dressed in a moose-hide dress walked out of her tent accompanied by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She carried a teapot and an axe. Next was a fishing expedition and the narrator explained the proper way to net fish as a canoe was rowed on stage. Our opening night was sold out!

We added a Young Mom’s Group, a Boy’s Club and an Elders’ Group. One time I drew an idea for a quilt. Each square featured a traditional design specific to Cree culture – such as a winter mitten, a snowshoe, a fir tree and a carving knife. When it was finished, we stood back in amazement. Cree history is beautiful!

I found sisters here. I cherish the memory of Shirley Otter. She was tremendously community-minded and we had so much fun working together. I’m grateful for my good-humoured colleagues, Linda Stewart and Angela Georgekish. Stella Lameboy’s support has been crucial to all of us at the Wellness Centre as was Dorothy Stewart’s encouragement in the past.

In 1986, Bill C-31 was passed. It states that Aboriginal status cannot be lost. I realized that my place as a First Nations woman would be restored to me. On the day I received my card in the mail, I held the small plastic square with my picture on it, and two generations of alienation were swept away the instant I read the word “Indian” next to my name, Michaela Ann.

My restoration was complete. I returned to school. I did a two-year distance-learning course followed by a Bachelor of Social Work degree.

Just as much as art and education have been central to my story, so has the theme of restoration.

Sometimes, I imagine my dad and grandfather smiling proudly about where my brothers and I are today.