I was recently told that I am a unicorn. It is an amusing thought but, as an Indigenous biologist, I think that being compared to a mythical creature speaks volumes about my own story and of our current times. Most people are actually surprised when they find out that I am Indigenous despite my characteristic features. Necessity taught me how to fit in with everyone but it seems that I have done it so well that many seem unable to reconcile me with preconceived notions of what it means to be Indigenous. I have come to realize that, while I may not have done anything remarkably different from everyone else, my story is different.
My desire to become a biologist stemmed from a natural curiosity about the world and was not an extension of any traditional knowledge that I grew up with. My family left the reserve when I was quite young and, while it allowed me to follow my career path, it meant losing touch with most of my family and my Indigenous heritage. I now wonder if that was necessary and if my parents would have made the same decision if they had understood the true cost. It has taken a long time but I am just starting to realize that I should be proud of where I come from and who I am. It would seem like an obvious statement except for the fact that my heritage also includes a history of systemic discrimination that has resulted in fundamental inequalities that are still a reality for me and many others. I read something recently that stated ‘Every single one of your First Nations’ friends is either a Residential School Survivor, a Survivor’s child, a Survivor’s grandchild or all three. Every. Single. One.’ I have personally found this to be true and encourage you to take a minute to consider its magnitude. My maternal grandmother was raised in a Residential School and my mother was also placed into the child welfare system during the Sixties Scoop. Both of these women were born without the right to an equal vote. And this story, as recent headlines have proven, has repeated itself over and over in communities across the country. It should not be a surprise to find out that I was the first in my family to graduate high school and, by the time I did, I had watched many of my friends drop out until I was the last and only Indigenous person in my graduating class. I also don’t know of anyone else in my generation that attended University. Once in University, there was only one instance where I attended a biology class with another Indigenous person. I want to say that moving into the workforce has been different but it has not. I have always been the only Indigenous person at my workplace and usually the only person of color. I know that my success is largely due to hard work and having made the right decisions, but I have never been able to shake the feeling that I just got lucky because I share the same story as so many other Indigenous people, yet experience has proven to me over and over that I am a rarity. I am, in fact, a unicorn.
I am thankful, however, that I have been as fortunate as many of you to be able to experience the diversity that can be found within our relationships with friends, colleagues and in our communities. I know I will also enjoy learning more about my own heritage just as I should have from the beginning and I hope that some of you might be willing to learn with me. I hope that conversations are sparked and stories are shared so that truth can be our guide to building and strengthening our relationships. We may not be there quite yet, but I know that diversity can be our strength.