Working as a consultation co-ordinator for her community, Mikisew First Nation, Melanie Dene saw first-hand the magnitude of what Indigenous communities deal with when engaging with industry and government.
“My work involved taking Mikisew’s concerns and seeing how companies and government were going to mitigate those concerns. That’s what really pushed me to want to go to school. Doing that work and seeing the importance of ensuring industry and government are really dealing in a respectful and meaningful way, with community,” said Dene.
But just getting to that realization had taken years of work.
When Dene, who graduates with a BA in Native studies on June 12, was 15, she was living in Yellowknife with her mom and stepdad, but struggling under their rules and expectations. One day, she and her stepdad got in an argument and her parents kicked her out of the house. Social services got involved, but the relationship was beyond repair, Dene said.
She started skipping school more often, and eventually stopped going altogether.
“I was living with friends and bouncing around all over the place. I worked at the grocery store, just trying to survive. And I’ve just been trying to survive ever since.”
Almost 10 years later, Dene made the first steps toward changing her life. Wanting to improve her employability, she achieved her GED and finished a business diploma from Keyano College. She got a job at Albian Sands, then moved on to Mikisew, and became a mom to her two daughters. Their births were two of her happiest moments, Dene said, but she was still struggling in her personal life, and by 2014, she had reached a breaking point.
“I was at this point in my life where I felt so empty, so dark and so lonely. I’ve experienced a lot of trauma in my life and I think I used alcohol to hide from that, but the alcohol would only amplify it all,” Dene said.
When she realized she was drinking every day, and that her drinking was affecting not only herself, but also her children and her job, Dene knew she couldn’t continue like that.
“I didn’t like feeling the way I was feeling, and I just decided, ‘I want to live. I don’t want to be a victim anymore in my life.’ So I made the decision one day: ‘I’m done.'”
She attended a two-week day treatment program that allowed her to focus on her health, and found her way back to practising her traditional Cree ceremonies. Though it was a difficult and lonely process, Dene said, she succeeded in getting sober.
The next year, as things improved and she was given increasing responsibility at work, she decided to go back to school again, planning to major in Native studies and minor in political science, then pursue Aboriginal, Indigenous and environmental law, so she could give back to the community.
“The only change is within these systems. That’s part of both political science and law for me—not only being able to understand policy and law, but to have the opportunity somewhere down the road to write them,” she said.
So in 2015, at the age of 34, she applied to both First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) and the University of Alberta.
“It was scary. I was like, ‘Am I smart enough? What if I don’t get accepted, is that going to hurt me?’ Just going through all those emotions, because there’s a lot of barriers. Society’s not really set up for you.”
She had been accepted into both institutions.
“I was like, ‘Holy shit! I’m going to university!'”
Dene decided to do her first year at FNUC and then transferred to the Faculty of Native Studies at the U of A for her second year.
Moving from the small, Indigenous-centred university to the U of A was a huge step for her, Dene said.
“It was scary. At FNUC it was small classes, all in one building, and it was all Indigenous students. At the U of A, I didn’t know anybody, and it was intimidating just trying to find my way around campus. I kept questioning, ‘Did I make the right choice?'”
What got her through, she said, was beginning to form friendships in her Native studies classes, building a foundation of support.
“I found a really good group of Indigenous women and we were able to support and encourage each other, because you don’t really get that on this campus. We have First Peoples’ House and the Faculty of Native Studies, and each other,” Dene said.
The relationships she built with her classmates became even more important in her second year at the U of A, when she found out she was pregnant.
Already a mother of two daughters, and with her partner living in Saskatchewan, Dene considered her options and thought about quitting, but ultimately chose to stay in school.
“I don’t know how many times I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ University is so hard and it’s so demanding. But I got through it with ceremony and with the help of my friends at university, because they’re moms too.”
She gave birth to her son, Kîhew-Awasis, on Dec. 1, 2017, and was back in classes at the beginning of January with everyone else. Only now, she had her son with her.
“I’m really thankful for the Faculty of Native Studies, that they gave me that space to allow me to be able to bring him.”
Kîhew came to school with her for pretty much the first two years of his life, Dene said.
“I always say he’s a little Native studies grad too.”
A heavy but healing burden
Throughout her degree, Dene was also focused on another issue: spreading awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG+). Her motivation was her cousin Shelly, who went missing in 2013. In the years that followed her disappearance, Dene has spoken at MMIWG+ events, sharing Shelly’s story.
“It’s a heavy burden to carry,” Dene said. “It’s a lot for family members to bring yourself to those places. But I share her story for her. For me it’s always about making sure Shelly’s voice has never gone quiet.”
As part of the requirements for her certificate in Indigenous governance and partnership, Dene was tasked with creating material on MMIWG+ for the National Gathering of Elders.
“It’s weird how things can come full circle for you,” she said.
She almost chose a different project, in case the work was triggering, but ultimately decided it might be good for her.
“That project for me was like a ceremony in itself. I remember before I’d begin that work, I would smudge and pray and listen to those stories carefully, with an open heart and open mind. It was hard to hear Elders talk about their stories—their granddaughters, daughters, sisters—but at the same time it was healing.”
It also contributed to her understanding of the long history of the issue and how it continues into the present day, Dene said, and fuelled her fire for education.
“In a way you have to use that as strength, to keep pushing you to want to see better. I have kids, I want a better future for them. I want my kids to be able to live in a world where they’re seen.”
Dene’s next push will take her into a graduate program: she’s been accepted to both the U of A and the University of Saskatchewan for a master’s in political science. After that, she still plans to pursue her law degree.
“I’m so blown away by it. I had all the odds against me, and here I am, soon to be 40 and I just feel content and very happy and really thankful.”