Miranda Jimmy on reclaiming her Cree identity after losing it to systemic racism

For most of her early life, many who knew her didn't consider Miranda Jimmy, a slightly light-skinned girl with brown hair, as Cree. 

Attending a racially divided school system, she never really knew whether to call herself that either. For the longest time she didn't get exposed to her own culture and traditions.

Jimmy's erasure of her identity and culture was a product of systemic racism. A fate shared by many Indigenous children due to systems in place that treated them differently because of their race.

Systemic racism is embedded in the fabric of Canadian society whether it's in the education system, justice system or even in the media. It is not as overt as calling someone a derogatory word but rather it is rules, laws and systems in place that benefit the white majority. 

Jimmy's lack of connection with her identity began with her father who was a residential-school survivor. The goal of residential schools was assimilation, to strip Indigenous people of their language, culture and family to conform to European values and religion. 

As a result, Jimmy grew up with a father who never acknowledged his culture, tradition or language. 

The education system never provided any answers either, as Indigenous history taught in schools is often white-washed and does not specify different nations. 

"There was an intentional loss and break and connection through systems like residential school and the child welfare system and others in other systems where that intentional break from the community was there," she said.

It wasn't until she went to high school that she started looking into who she was. 

Jimmy went to Grand Centre High School, where kids from Cold Lake First Nation and Elizabeth Métis Settlement, south of Cold Lake, came to study. To help students with the transition, the school had an Aboriginal Liaison.

The liaison was meant for kids from the reserves, but because she knew Jimmy's father — a Cree man — she invited her to the cultural activities as well.

"It was the first invitation I had received and then the first opportunity to engage in a culture that had really been denied from me," she recalled.

"That was the first time I'd ever heard an elder speak and it was the first time I'd ever heard an Indigenous person speak about culture and language and ceremony from a place of pride and grounding."

"I would say every system that exists in present day Canadian society is a system of systemic racism," -Miranda Jimmy

From then on Jimmy volunteered at the Friendship Centre and spent the next three years on a path that led her to identifying herself as who she was — Cree. 

She met her extended Cree family, met elders from different nations, participated in ceremonies, 

"I had to educate myself and make an educated choice about that and to this day I'm really the only one in my family that chose that path," she said. 

The 39-year-old is now working to make sure that those who have lost the connection can find their way back to their culture, language and traditions. 

Leroy Schulz

She did so by volunteering her time at the Friendship Centre, having served on a committee called the Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Affairs Committee that reports to Edmonton city council that led to work with Edmonton Public Library on their Aboriginal advisory group and then serving on the board of directors for the library.

From there she worked for organizations like Native Counselling Services and on projects funded through Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. In 2015, she co-founded RISE (Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton), a group committed to reconciliation.

"All of those opportunities to connect with community members on a personal basis be of service and learn from those who have firsthand knowledge and experience."

Although racism in very specific systems have affected Jimmy's life, she says they are not the only institutions that have a problem. 

"I would say every system that exists in present day Canadian society is a system of systemic racism," she said. "And it goes back to our colonial roots."

She said the colonization of Canada was based on the premise that Europeans knew better than the Indigenous people. "That their systems of knowing of justice, or decision-making, of child rearing, of health care were all superior to those of the Indigenous people that were here first," she said.

She said that bias of superiority formed the basis of all systems that are in place in Canada today. And because they remain unchanged they continue to benefit the colonizers. 

From her own parent's experience the best example of a system that is rooted in racism is the child welfare system which Jimmy refers to as "an evolution of residential schools in many ways."

In Alberta, a 2016 census found Indigenous children make up 11 per cent of the province's population under 19 years old. But as of September 2019, they accounted for 69 per cent of the children in care.

Despite Indigenous children making up a substantial portion of the foster care system, the system itself lacks any understanding of Indigenous ways and intergenerational trauma, Jimmy said.

"So over generations of historical trauma enforced through these systems of racism against Indigenous people, there is unhealed trauma that manifests itself in many ways in Indigenous communities and in many ways we're setting up Indigenous people to fail," she said. 

She referred to why many Indigenous people have "unmanaged mental health issues or addictions issues that continue to be perpetuated and then passed on to the next generation because they're not being dealt with."

Then those who have issues when they do become parents themselves, because they are deemed not fit, instead of helping them be better, the government takes their kids away. 

And the cycle continues.

Join CBC Alberta for a personal and in-depth discussion about systemic racism, We Need to Talk, on Thursday, June 25, at 6:30 p.m. MT. Join CBC hosts Sandra Batson and Tanara McLean for a free, public forum discussion that shines a light on systemic racism in the province through the stories of people who have experienced it firsthand, with an aim to put forward potential solutions, concrete actions and examples of success. 

Panellists will include: 

  • Adora Nwofor, Calgary comedian and activist.
  • David Este, professor of social work, University of Calgary.
  • Ryan Holtz, Edmonton podcaster and marketing expert.
  • Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse, executive director of Natamoowin, Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation.
  • Spirit River Striped Wolf, president of Mount Royal University students association.

With special performances from:

  • Alanna Bluebird-Onespot, poet, Tsuut'ina Nation.
  • Andrew Parker, Edmonton teacher.

You can watch it live on: cbc.ca/weneedtotalk, cbc.ca/calgary or cbc.ca/edmonton, CBC Calgary's Facebook feed, CBC Edmonton's Facebook feed, CBC Gem or CBC Television. 

Have a personal story to share about your experience with systemic racism? Email weneedtotalk@cbc.ca.