WASTE NO POTENTIAL - EPISODE 8
Speaking up is hard when you don’t have a voice. For Nakuset, illuminating the darkness of past and present is achieved by raising her voice when others cannot.
Trauma is a formidable silencer. It breaks spirits. Crushes hope. Shuts out light. Nakuset, Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, has dedicated her life to providing a voice for those who don’t have one. By speaking up for herself and others, she has illuminated deep-rooted, historic trauma that institutions would rather keep in the dark. Her work — her voice — is creating positive momentum. But it is just the beginning.
Nakuset was taken from her Indigenous family as a toddler during the horrifying Sixties Scoop. Adopted by a wealthy Jewish family in Montreal, she was taught to forget her past, forget her heritage. But her spirit would not be silenced. The whispers of her siblings called to her. With the help of an unlikely supporter, the search for her family of origin led to the discovery of the power in her own voice — and her mission to confront the horrors of the past and present in order to support the success of Indigenous Peoples today.
Like Nakuset, Emily Eakin, VP of Client Engagement at Traction on Demand, understands the importance of surrounding one’s self with supporting voices to face challenges. The world is awfully loud to try and drown out on your own. In this episode, we hear how Eakin believes her biggest wins weren’t achieved on her own — success is always a team effort.
For Nakuset, each day reveals more hushed voices that deserve the amplification of community. Speaking up for them is her way of putting a spotlight on the dark silence of history.
- 7:29 "Nakuset on being an outlier and starting the path to reunite with her family.”
- 15:02 “Emily Eakin explains the power of speaking up."
- 24:44 “Nakuset, a ten-year fight to bring second stage housing."
[00:00:00] Alexandra Samuel: We're in freezing cold Montreal and it's minus 15 degrees, but that isn't stopping one woman.
[00:00:20] Nakuset: The project is called Forced Indigenous Displacement. And what we were able to do is I found three different photographers and we have about 50 pictures and we are going to be putting them up all over.
[00:00:39] Alexandra Samuel: And it isn't stopping the group of Indigenous photographers who are with her today to poster up these massive murals across town. They're part of a worldwide initiative. One that was launched when photographer JR announced a project he called Inside Out.
[00:00:57] Nakuset: I had been watching 60 Minutes and they were interviewing JR.
And what he explained is now he gives it to the community and you can apply to be part of the Inside Out project. And the idea is to have a statement that provokes and could create change.
[00:01:16] Alexandra Samuel: Making a statement, creating change. That's the purpose of these photos. To shed light on the day-to-day experiences of Indigenous people living in Montreal. And it's also the purpose of Nakuset, who joins us today to offer a masterclass in the value and art of speaking up.
[00:01:37] Nakuset: And that's what we have to do. We have to keep sounding the alarm.
[00:01:47] Alexandra Samuel: You're listening to Waste No Potential. I'm your host, Alexandra Samuel. In this episode, we look at what it means to speak up. Not to dash off some aggrieved tweet, or a letter to the editor. But to commit your life, to providing a voice for people who don't always get heard. Or shining a light on the uncomfortable issues others are too ready to neglect. Sustaining that kind of commitment, that kind of courage, well, it often comes from a very deep, very personal well of purpose.
[00:02:24] Nakuset: My name is Nakuset and I am the Executive Director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal.
[00:02:28] Alexandra Samuel: That's certainly the case with Nakuset and the issues she cares about.
[00:02:32] Nakuset: Currently in Montreal, there are not enough shelter spaces. It's like nightmare on top of nightmare. The fact that there's not enough housing for Indigenous people, not enough supportive housing not enough housing just for women and children. We have an enormous amount of systemic racism here in Quebec. We have a government that doesn't believe that there is any systemic racism. And it's really hard to explain to someone who doesn't want to see it.
The thing is that what we do is we just have to fight every single time something comes up. And that is what has been so hard in the last two years, because you know, the government decided that they would put in this curfew and just assumed all the homeless people would find a space when everyone knew there were enough spaces and then Raphael Andre passed away.
[00:03:24] Newscaster: Andre's death ignited calls for more overnight resources for the homeless...
[00:03:28] Nakuset: Which is why we created the Raphael Andre Memorial Tent.
[00:03:32] Alexandra Samuel: Advocating for Indigenous people is how Nakuset uses her voice. It's where she speaks up. Her work with the shelter dates back to her days at university.
[00:03:42] Nakuset: I had a colleague that told me that she was working at the Native Women's Shelter or like a student friend.
And I was like, 'wow,' that's sounds like a really great place. So I volunteered. And when I volunteered, there was an Ainu woman who was there and she spoke only Ainu and French. So we had a coworker who was Mohawk and only spoke English and Mohawk. So she's having a hard time translating the like 14 page intake report in French.
So she asked me as a volunteer if I could do it, which I did happily. And I got hired the next day. But I mean, what really started out at the beginning was listening to the women's stories and hearing how many had children and were put in the foster care system.
Like it was, honestly we would do our stats once a year. So it would, you'd have to go through all the the intakes and take information. And in the intake, there is a section where we ask a gazillion questions and one was 'so were you as a child and youth protection?' And the women would say 'yes.'
'And do you have children?'
'Are your children in youth protection?'
[00:05:02] Alexandra Samuel: Nakuset was seeing the human face of a terrible reality. The disproportionate number of Indigenous children who are seized by child protection agencies. Only 8% of Canadian kids are Indigenous, but in the foster care system, it's 50%. Those stories of losing Indigenous children to government agencies hit Nakuset hard because of her own life story.
It's a story that's rooted in a historic crime, the crime of Canada's residential schools system.
[00:05:33] Nakuset: Yeah, well, the whole reservations were set up because the government wanted to take our land. And this is where they had all the different kinds of treaties. And when all the newcomers from Europe were coming in, they didn't want them to see Indigenous people and see that all their land was being given up and sold.
So they forced them onto the reservations and they weren't allowed to leave. And that's why they had the Indian agents. And I hate it when I like I watch TV and they're like, you know, “They’re off the reservation!”
I'm like, why does everyone say that? That's so annoying because if you know the history, we weren't allowed to leave the reservation unless an Indian agent gave us a pass.
One of the first jobs the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) had was forcing the Indians onto or Indigenous people onto the reservations. Their second job was residential schools and taking those children and forcing them to residential schools and putting the parents in jail if they didn't give up their kids. So when we talk about tension with the police, it's historic.
[00:06:32] Alexandra Samuel: Canada's residential schools trace back to the 19th century when government and religious organizations forced Indigenous families to give up their children to place them in residential schools, designed to assimilate kids into European culture, to sever the connection to their own heritage. These schools were rife with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, punishing kids for speaking their own languages, creating a multi-generational legacy of trauma. For a long time the government and religious groups that ran these residential schools tried to keep the stories in the shadows.
The damage done by the residential schools system had a multi-generational impact.
[To Nakuset] I know you've told your story many times, but if you can just give us a sort of a version at whatever level of detail you feel comfortable, so our listeners have some context.
[00:07:32] Nakuset: Uh, okay. So my real mother had seven children. My real mom went to residential schools. She went to the Prince Albert residential school.
But it affected her. My mother used to go out and not come back for days. So she ended up losing all of her kids. So all her kids went into care. Me and my sister Sonya were put in a foster home together. Sonya, who was six at the time, and I was almost three, used to try to take care of me the best way that she could and try to scrounge for food. And we were just very, very, very, very, very close.
And at this time the government had implemented the AIM program. So that's Adopt an Indian or Metis program. And when you're young it's as if you have no baggage, whereas Sonya was six and didn't fit into the program.
So a social worker came by, took a picture of me. That picture went to Montreal, to Jewish family services. Jewish family services was part of the AIM program. So all of the pictures that they had of like white children were removed and only Indigenous pictures were being distributed.
[00:08:56] Alexandra Samuel: Nakuset's picture went into an album that found its way to a Jewish couple in Montreal who were struggling to start a family.
[00:09:04] Nakuset: So they stopped at my picture, thought I was cute. And, uh, I was put on a plane. But what happened was my sister wasn't told what was going on. So I guess they took me in the middle of the night because she woke up the next morning and I was gone and no one ever gave her an answer. No one ever said you know, "she's been adopted out."
It basically affected her entire outlook on her life — losing me.
[00:09:30] Alexandra Samuel: She was just three years old in a new city, a new family. A part of what's now called the 'Sixties Scoop', even though it went on long past the sixties. A time when Indigenous children all over Canada were being forcibly pulled from their homes, just as Nakuset's mother had been placed in a residential school.
Nakuset was struggling with her own experience of dislocation.
[00:09:56] Nakuset: My parents didn't really understand how to bring up an adopted Indigenous child. And the social workers were very clear that you shouldn't tell them where they're from. You shouldn't tell them they're Indigenous. You should just, you know, give them a new name, a new identity.
And they'll just adapt. It'll be fine.
It was very difficult being brought up in this family that always sort of looked at you as kind of like a problem. And I tried really hard to mould into what they wanted, but, uh, it just never, it never happened. I was always ... I was sort of like the scapegoat or the black sheep or whatever.
I don't remember if it was my mother or my father…it was repeated many times in my childhood that when I grow up I will be a drug addict and a prostitute because that's what your people do.
[00:10:49] Alexandra Samuel: By the time she reached 18, Nakuset couldn't take it anymore. She collected her things and left her adopted family.
[00:10:56] Nakuset: When I left home at 18, it was almost like a real insult to my parents. Like "How dare you leave us? We could give you everything. Now people are going to ask questions." like, "Don't leave. You can't leave."
You have to just sort of... but I did not. I could not stay. I was I don't know if you ever saw pictures of me at that time.
I was like unbelievably thin. I was in a dark place. And I really, some of the negativity that I would hear about Indigenous people, I believed. You know, I really believed I was going to go to jail. I really believed all these things that. I didn't see that white light, you know, that things were going to be okay.
Except when I was with my Bubbeh.
[00:11:39] Alexandra Samuel: Nakuset's Bubbeh, her father's mother, was her lifeline. Having somebody who understood her, made all the difference.
[00:11:48] Nakuset: Like every time she walked into a room and saw me, her face would light up. She just really embraced me and was so loving. And so positive and warm and really believed in me.
It just was, it was like a wonderful spirit to be a next to. Like I loved being around her. She's really the one that helped me throughout.
Something that's actually interesting about my Bubbeh is that she was a converted Jew. And I also had to convert into Judaism. And I think that the converts got it the worst because my Bubbeh was also not really accepted and had her own struggles living with the family.
[00:12:37] Alexandra Samuel: Nakuset was separated from her family of origin and now she'd extracted herself from the environment that had been her home for 15 years. And it's not like 18 is an easy age for any of us. But at least Nakuset had her beloved Bubbeh to lean on.
Until the day her Bubbeh gave her heartbreaking news.
She'd been diagnosed with cancer.
[00:13:00] Nakuset: And when she got cancer, she knew that I... when she knew that she was dying, she's like, I will help you find your family. I'll help you find your sister. I had kind of forgotten about Sonya and didn't realize that she was still actively looking for me. But my family did because she was actually writing letters and my parents were freaking out and just ripping the letters up.
Because they didn't want me to have anything to do with her.
But my Bubbeh knew about this. So she's like, we know that you have family that's looking for you. Let's try.
[00:13:38] Alexandra Samuel: You're listening to Waste No Potential, a new podcast about incredible stories of spotting untapped potential. The show is brought to you by the good folks at Traction on Demand. And I'm your host, Alexandra Samuel. If you're enjoying the podcast, don't forget to follow us wherever you're listening. You can also find us at tractionondemand.com/podcast.
Before we continue with Nakuset's story, I wanted to speak with someone else who has a perspective on speaking up. Emily Eakin is Vice President of Client Engagement at Traction on Demand. And a lot of her work is in the nonprofits sector. She's no stranger to the value of speaking up as well as its challenges.
[00:14:29] Emily Eakin: Oh, for sure. Yeah. I mean, I definitely, I'm consistently told that I'm too direct. Aand I will, own parts of that and my wife would definitely say that there are times where I need to be more empathetic or, um, like careful with how I deliver certain things. But I do think in many ways, it's also been one of my strengths.
[00:14:46] Alexandra Samuel: The thing about speaking up. The hardest part is being that first person to raise your voice. Or maybe the second person.
[00:14:55] Emily Eakin: The video I show all the time at meetings is a guy dancing called the 'first follower'. And it's all about who has the courage to kind of get up and dance with that random, weird guy that's dancing in the field.
And then the entire group starts to follow after that first follower validates the kind of initial dancer. And I'm a big believer in that, right? It's the snowball effect or it's the flywheel effect from Jim Collins, but small little changes lead to big progress. And that's how, in many ways, how I've been able to build a lot of success.
[00:15:30] Alexandra Samuel: It's not like that ever gets easy, even when you're someone is direct as Emily. But maybe if we speak up, it gets easier for the people who come after us.
[00:15:42] Emily Eakin: You know, when I came out, whatever it was, 20 some years ago, I was so scared. There were no role models. I remember when Ellen came out, it was a big deal on, you know, Time magazine and the few role models that I had with Melissa Etheridge or the Indigo Girls.
And now it's just, you know, it’s so mainstream. If anything, actually, I figured out that I'm sometimes not as comfortable about 'being out', especially in a professional setting, as many younger people. They asked me to speak on a panel with Tractionites and everyone was very comfortable and I've always kind of kept my personal life private and haven't really ever talked about being gay in a work setting. But everyone is much more open about it, for sure than we ever used to be.
[00:16:22] Alexandra Samuel: The thing about speaking up. It makes people uncomfortable. But maybe that's not such a bad thing. That's what Emily figured out when she was working at JDRF, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
[00:16:36] Emily Eakin: Creating uncomfortable situations is how we grow, right? I mean, it's like how I like to build teams. You want to surround yourself with a really diverse group of people with diverse points of view, but I'm really loud and really outspoken.
And for five years, my right-hand guy at JDRF was quiet and thoughtful and an amazing leader. And we complemented each other really well. And now he's over at Traction and we're trying to work closely together again. So I'm thrilled, but I think you need that balance. I think you need... I'm a lot and a lot of personality and if you have a lot of people like me in a room, we're going to dominate the conversation.
And so I kind of intentionally surround myself with people that are, are different and have different points of view and different perspectives and different styles and approaches.
[00:17:21] Alexandra Samuel: We left Nakuset at the moment when her beloved Bubbeh was dying. But not before she did something very important.
[00:17:29] Nakuset: You know, she helped me to write out all these letters to different family members through some court documents that I found after I moved out.
And she paid for that plane ticket to bring me home so that I could meet my... brothers and, you know, my sister, and my mother.
And then she passed away. So that's, what's hard is that, you know, when...
Let me just I'll finish my thought... when my Bubbeh passed away, she led me to Sonya. So that unconditional love was renewed through Sonya.
[00:18:24] Alexandra Samuel: Nakuset's experience of losing and then finding her family shaped her perspective on what she was seeing as a new university graduate, just starting to work at the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal. That was the moment she was beginning to recognize that her family story, a story of intergenerational trauma, of separation after separation, wasn't just her story. It was the story of family after family. Indigenous children pulled from their mothers, placed in the hands of agencies that perpetuated this cycle of family trauma.
[00:19:02] Nakuset: And I remember in the early years going to youth protection and explaining to them, there's a problem here. Like the numbers are growing, what are you guys doing about it?
And I remember getting pushed over to all different kinds of committees, cause at the time I was just like a frontline worker or an outreach worker, and never really getting a straight answer.
So in Montreal, there's two different youth protections. There's one for the French division, Centre la Jeunesse and then there's also Batshaw.
So Batshaw is the name of the youth protection for English. And it was only when I became the executive director that I became a person of power. So that's when I went to the executive director of Batshaw and said, "listen, there's clearly a problem. We need to know what you're doing about it, because we can help. We can help with whatever it is you need. But this is an issue."
And you know, I remember the director at the time said, "well, who are you? You're just one person."
[00:20:03] Alexandra Samuel: Speaking up for the families and children she met at the shelter, families like her own, took incredible determination in the face of agencies that did not want to listen. In the face of institutions that were built on a historical foundation of separating Indigenous families.
And sometimes in the face of people who treated this legacy of family separation like a punchline.
[00:20:28] Nakuset: And I'll give you an example. My middle son, Mahkisis. When he was a baby, he's 12 now, he had a diaper rash, a diaper rash that would not go away. And I tried everything. So I brought him to the pediatrician and I explained to her, and she took a look at his butt and she's like, "oh yeah, it's a diaper rash."
She goes, "well, you know, it's a diaper rash, so it's not too bad. So I'm not going to call youth protection on you."
And I heard those words and I just listened to what she had to say. She wrote me a prescription. You know, you kind of walk out backwards, still looking at her, taking the child, and then you're like, what's that a threat?
Or is that a joke? And if it's a joke, it's not funny because we lose our children at alarming rates. And you are, you know, I'm Indigenous and you're saying this to me? And then it's almost two-fold, cause we were like, okay, you know, I'm Indigenous. And you know, I run a native woman's shelter. So what are you trying to say? You're trying to say that you have the power to take my child away? So you better just sort of like…you think you're so that. Well you're really not because I can take your child away."
[00:21:33] Alexandra Samuel: But Nakuset kept on fighting. Forming alliances. Speaking up. While she was giving her all to the Indigenous families who came through the shelter, a tragedy took her sister.
[00:21:49] Nakuset: Then, you know, Sonya committed suicide.
About...well, it's going to be three years soon.
So that was really hard too. And that all had to do with the Sixties Scoop and Sonya had a really bad experience being placed in the multiple foster homes and institutions. And not being allowed to get that money. She just was very tired and she didn't wanna, she didn't want to live anymore.
And she had sent me a suicide video... explaining why she was killing herself, but also saying that her last wish was that I share about what the Sixties Scoop does and how it destroys families.
So even though it's hard for me to talk about Sonya, it was her last wish. So I try to honour it when I can, because she was the strongest person I ever met...And she wasn't able to continue.
So it makes me, it gives that extra pressure that I need to continue on this journey and to continue to do my best, to help others that are, that are not strong enough.
[00:23:08] Alexandra Samuel: Help others. Tell our story. Speak up. It's a powerful request, and one that Nakuset has lived up to. In her work at the women's shelter she's gone far beyond addressing the immediate needs of the women who show up at the shelter’s doors. She seen the impact, these moments of crisis have on families, fought for public attention on the issue.
[00:23:31] Nakuset: [In broadcast] Can we talk about the children that are not allowed to talk to their parents in front of a social worker in Inuktitut, because that's a problem.
[00:23:39] Alexandra Samuel: She's done the arduous, slow work of building alliances and corralling resources and turning those resources into homes. Second stage housing that gives the women in her shelter a place to go as they come out of crisis.
[00:23:54] Nakuset: So if you think of the Native Women's Shelter as the first stage — women come to us and they’re in a crisis, we help them with their crisis. We help them find the tools and then you would think of, 'okay, so you're feeling stable now, let's go to the second stage.' So the second stage housing would be for women that are over their crisis, but still need support.
It was a shared vision though. I remember we had a sort of weekend retreat with our board of directors and that was when they had mentioned we need a second stage housing. So I think it was a community idea. It just that it fell on my shoulders to do the work to create it.
You know, I don't have experience with creating a second stage housing. And for it to be successful I need to look at other second stage housings that happen throughout Canada. What works, what doesn't work, what are the underlying issues that the women are going to need when they step in the door and providing that service?
We've been working on this for the last 10 years. It'll be 23 units and it'll be units for single women and families. At the Native Women's Shelter I have a family care worker, I have an addictions worker, I have a psychologist, I have an art therapist, I have an elder. So that is something that we would offer every day.
But because we have such a problem with youth protection because youth protection hasn't made any changes. What we want to do is open a clinic. So a social pediatric clinic.
There's the Dr. Julian Foundation that a couple of Indigenous communities have already implemented within their community.
And we reached out to them and we're in the process of creating a social pediatric clinic. We had to actually change the look of the second stage housing in order to comply. I remember when we were creating, with the architects, the look of the building, I had said to them, "well, we also need a collective kitchen. We need a large room where we can have meetings so that I can bring in public speakers and motivational speakers and meetings. And if there's ceremonies where everyone can leave their apartments, come down and meet."
And they're like, "...well, we don't do that."
I'm like, "well, now you do so do it. And if I have to find more money, I'll do it. So do it."
So they did it.
[00:26:30] Alexandra Samuel: That drive has helped her play a unique role in Montreal’s Indigenous community, a role where she can stop the cycle that has broken up too many families.
[00:26:39] Nakuset: It's so easy to lose your identity. And I was really lucky not to lose my sort of vision of my people being more than what I was told. You know, through TV, through the media, through news, through my parents’ input. But not everyone may have that sort of extra strength to sort of lead them that way. So we need others.
I mean, it takes like, you know, a big team. But at the end of the day, it's still going to say that I did it, even though I didn’t, right? So, and I'm pretty open about that. I don't find that I'm a really intelligent or like genius person. You surround yourself with genius and you're like, 'oh yeah, I like that. I like that. Thank you.' And then present it.
[00:27:25] Emily Eakin: You know, it's all about surrounding myself with smarter people. You know, one of the best advice I ever got was as a young manager from a woman that was working for me. It's not about 'I' it's about 'we' and she was so right. And I just think I was so insecure at the time that it had to be about 'I', and I really have learned that the more I am able to put others forward, the more I'm able to surround myself with others, the more successful ultimately I'll be. But my job - I see my role as creating a vision of where we can go, that north star, and setting up the guardrails for how to get there. But a lot of it is all about the 'we'. And it took me a long time in my career to be confident enough to be able to recognize that I had to put my ego aside.
[00:28:09] Alexandra Samuel: Speaking up isn't about being a genius or even being the smartest person in the room. It's about having the courage, the calling to bring all those smart people together. To realize that all of our voices are stronger as one. And to know when somebody else's idea, someone else's voice, brings you closer to your own.
[00:28:33] Nakuset: I know that I keep calling it the second stage housing. And it's, it needs a name.
So I remember I have a colleague Diane Roussin from Winnipeg. She has an organization called 'Winnipeg Boldness' and she does incredible work. But she had introduced me to this Cree word: it's miyoskamin (ᒥᐅᐢᑲᒥᐣ) . And what it means is innovation, groundbreaking, or breaking the mold. So that's what I'm calling it now, the second stage housing.
So it's the last time I call it that. From now on it's Miyoskamin (ᒥᐅᐢᑲᒥᐣ) Cree like me.
[00:29:13] Alexandra Samuel: I'm Alexandra Samuel and this is Waste No Potential, brought to you by Traction on Demand with production support from JAR audio.
If you've been wondering throughout our show, 'how do all these amazing people find the time in their lives to launch social movements? Start businesses, travel the world?' well, you're not alone. Do they even sleep?
Join me on our next episode, when we're going to dive into how sometimes our need to do-do-do, well, it might be the very thing harming us. Especially when we spin out and burnout.
Follow us on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your shows until then,
Thanks for listening.