Reclaiming roots, and healing through reconnection.
Sometimes to heal, we have to tell our stories. We have to give them words. For Harmony Johnston of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, much of her story runs through a connection to the land of her childhood home—an ancestral connection that has stayed with her throughout a lifetime. On a journey to heal herself and the next generation, Harmony has rekindled this connection to her roots, and reclaimed it. The following article is made up of parts of her story that Harmony was generous enough to share with us at Root & Seed.
Harmony spent her formative years on a Northern Ontario reserve in the Bruce Peninsula and dealt with the many effects of that life—family members struggled with addiction at home, and Harmony’s community and school experience was filled with racism, violence, and abuse. From a young age, Harmony was deeply conscious of a stark divide between her home and the people that surrounded it. “You're talking about a little, small Indigenous community in the middle of a very, very conservative white area.”
Generations Apart, Living In Parallel
Leaving the reserve at sixteen to move to Toronto, Harmony found herself alone. “I was by myself in the city. I didn't have any family or anybody. So I basically went from literally the ‘sticks” to Yonge and Gerrard.”
Although Harmony was experiencing Toronto for the first time, this city had become a familiar place for many Indigenous people who had come before her, including Harmony’s own great-grandmother, Verna Patronella. Much like Harmony, Verna’s story in Toronto unfolded in unexpected ways. Initially intending to only stay for a year, Verna remained to open a home for Indigenous youth in the 1970s, welcoming those from reserves as they made the big transition to city life. But by the time her great-granddaughter arrived in the 90s, homes like these were few and far between. For a long time, Harmony shuffled back and forth between homeless shelters and living on the street.
“It's so strange that I ended up being one of those ‘wayward’ sorts of youth that were coming from up North,” Harmony reflects. “It's a total difference to go into the city from the reserves … I think [my great-grandmother’s home] was the only place in the 70’s. And then when that was over, there was really nothing.”
Lacking family support and trying to finish high school, Harmony struggled to keep herself afloat in a world where the systems were stacked against her. After going to hair school and getting out of an abusive marriage in her mid-20s, Harmony saw her life begin to stabilize.
“And from then, getting out of the poverty cycle has been a huge struggle. Not a lot of people can accomplish that. But I feel I'm not in that cycle anymore.”
In the years since Harmony first left home, she has returned to school to get a Bachelor’s degree while also working as a hairstylist. Now 40, Harmony will graduate today from the University of Guelph—June 21st, National Indigenous Peoples Day.
Reflecting On Roots And Identity
On the long road to where she is today, Harmony has had to peel away layers of the past to come to terms with her roots. Looking back, she can see how the damaging remnants of colonization shaped so much of the community and home she knew as a child. Harmony grew up with a very polarizing relationship with heritage and tradition—the old traditional teachings were not commonplace in her household.
“So there was always that conflict in the household. You had one side that was very dominant Catholic, and then you had the other side that was sort of just trying to get in where they could … For a long time, I didn't want to identify as Indigenous because of that, because there was that struggle, not just within the household, but within myself and even now on a community level. We're just now starting to see more of the traditional way on the reserve.”
As part of reclaiming her identity, when Harmony was part of a lawsuit settlement for the Federal Day schools, the first thing she did was buy back a piece of the family land she had grown up on. But this process was far from easy.
“I attended these schools from 1983 or ‘84 until 1995. So there was a lot of trauma and violence that happened in the schools … A lot of us had to start to rehash a lot of that stuff … It was essentially retraumatizing us because we had to sort of regurgitate this onto paper and put it into an application … I actually used that settlement to buy my mother's house and land.”
Reclaiming Land To Heal
This act of reclaiming has deep personal and cultural significance, as Harmony explains.
“You'll hear a lot of Indigenous people talk about land-based healing. It's really important. It's a really important aspect of Indigenous cultures, that connection to the land. It's an emotional, really visceral connection to the land that affects every Indigenous person. And so when you don't have that, you don't have that connection.”
By coming full circle to own this ancestral connection, Harmony has set in motion healing not only for herself, but also for future generations.
“I'm telling you this story and I'm sitting here in my mother's house … This is a story that people need to hear. It’s the only way healing is going to take place.”