When I first met Wanda Gabriel I was struck by her fierce yet calm determination. She had been invited to conduct a workshop at the Annual General Meeting of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montréal at the Maritime Plaza Hotel January 18. We sat down to chat just after Gabriel had completed her workshop presentation, “Street Talk and Rez Talk: The Challenges of Living On- and Off-Reserve.”

A Mohawk from Kanesatake, one of her first experiences with helping others deal with personal issues came during the 1990 Oka Crisis.

As a young person behind the barricades of the 78-day standoff, she felt compelled to reach out and offer support to those who needed someone to listen and understand.

Along with her experience at Kanesatake in 1990, Gabriel’s time working at the Onentoken Treatment Centre in the early 90s, and the harrowing incident of an arson attack on her brother Kanesatake Grand Chief James Gabriel’s home as a result of a political dispute in January 2004, steered her toward the path of professional counselling and helped shape the person she is today.

After completing her high school equivalency she earned her certificate in addictions counselling, and then went on to start her BSW at Carleton University before attending McGill in 2001, where she earned her Masters degree in social work.

Throughout her years of study she never forgot who she was or where she came from. As she learned the way of Western medicine and therapy she also maintained a connection to the Aboriginal approach to healing the mind and spirit.

“While I’m doing my formal Western training, it’s been my conscious choice to learn all I can about being Onkwehonwe. So I’ve really tried to bring these two ways of being into my world: the healing from an Aboriginal perspective [combined with the Western perspective]. These healing tools have really helped me in my way of doing things.”

This balanced way of looking at the world has definitely had an impact. She had to learn to recognize and reconcile her own issues before she could help others with theirs.

“When I was doing my studies I was challenged by one of the professors who told me that I was too angry, and that I needed to do something with my anger as people couldn’t hear what I was saying because I was too angry,” said Gabriel. “As a result, I’ve really been working at speaking and softening my voice. One of the Elders I often visit once said that our role as helpers is to be able to speak the truth without blame or judgment.”

Many in attendance at Gabriel’s workshop were keen to acknowledge how and why the difficult choice to move off-reserve can be painful for many First Nations people.

When considering reasons for staying, the discussion touched on cultural loyalty, the sense of belonging on home reserves, a sense of safety they feel would not or could not exist beyond the reserve borders, and the cultural ties they fear would be lost if they left.

Yet, as much as they love their families and cherish their Aboriginal heritage, there are issues that leave some First Nations people with no choice: abuse, violence and trauma; homophobia; poverty and lack of educational or employment opportunities; housing issues, and an overall sense of not belonging. Some may even be forced to leave by Native laws after “marrying out.”

People may go to the cities in order to discover themselves and express their individuality that they feel might otherwise be oppressed; for post-secondary schooling and careers, or for a fresh start in general.

Despite the many heavy topics that were touched upon during the workshop discussions, including the residential school legacy, cultural and legal Aboriginal identities and issues regarding the Indian Act, Gabriel managed to leave things on a positive note.

“From our ancestors, we are taught that everything in life is circular,” she said. “We are one within the circle of life. The Medicine Wheel teaches us that the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects must be in balance in order to maintain a healthy heart, mind, spirit and body.”