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How Joanne Dallaire became an Elder

An unexpected journey towards the traditional Indigenous role
By: Antoinette Mercurio and Daina Astwood-George
January 23, 2020
Joanne Dallaire

Joanne Dallaire traces her path in becoming an Indigenous Elder.

She may not have known it at the time, but Joanne Dallaire was born to be an Elder – a wise and respected Indigenous leader who shares their teachings and knowledge through oral tradition.

When she was a young girl living on the north shore of Hay Bay, Ont., Dallaire would walk past a graveyard to get to school, and she would lie on the gravestones and talk to the spirits.

“I'm a very spiritual person. In our community, I'm what we call a ‘seer’,” Dallaire said. “In colonial terms, it’s known as a psychic. I've always had that capacity. We believe that everything has a spirit, everything can be spoken to and everything has an energy, a vibration. There is life everywhere.”

In October 2019, Dallaire was appointed Elder (Ke Shay Hayo) and Senior Advisor – Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. Dallaire, Shadow Hawk Woman of the Wolf Clan, is Cree Omushkego with ancestry from Attawapiskat, Ontario. Her new leadership appointment was a significant step towards Ryerson’s commitment to increasing Indigenous representation at the senior level, and to embedding the community’s knowledge and perspectives into the university’s culture.

Though the Indigenous community chooses its Elders, Dallaire’s journey towards it was unexpected. When she was working at Anishnawbe Health Toronto in the late 1990s, she asked the resident Elder about the role.

“I asked her, ‘How did you know that you were an Elder?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know. How did you know that you were one?’” Dallaire explained. “I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not an Elder! No, no, no.’ I didn’t want the title or responsibility.”

Dallaire continued to work with the woman, who would eventually become her sweat lodge teacher, about what makes an Elder.

“She told me, ‘when the community comes to you for help, the community chooses you,’” Dallaire said. “That was the first time I realized I was already doing things for people in need all over the city.”

Helping communities heal

Dallaire is a social worker by trade and, throughout her career, has treated people with addictions, counselled the homeless, worked in the jail system, provided drumming and spiritual circles at grassroots agencies. She is also a pipe carrier. This pipe is used for community and healing ceremonies, and is given by another Elder. In addition, she provides names, colours and clans to Indigenous people who seek them, as this is a very important part of a person’s Indigenous identity.

Dallaire has helped leaders at the Toronto District School Board and Ryerson to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and experience in their organizations. However, her work has always been rooted in helping people find themselves – an exercise she had to go through first.

“I didn't know my identity. I didn't grow up in the community and I didn't know my birth family. I had a lot of the issues that our people carry, but I’ve done a mountain of emotional healing work and am on the other side of it now,” Dallaire said. “I feel very comfortable meeting people at any stage of their struggle. I'm Cree and we practice the art of non-interference – if someone comes to us, we accept them as they are.”

Given how intense the work can get and because there are no formal support systems in place for Elders, Dallaire is diligent about her self-care practices.

“I would know who to call if I needed to talk to someone, but there is an isolation to the work, so I have to have a strong sense of my own spirituality,” Dallaire said. “I smudge every day. ‘Prayer’ isn’t a word I like to use because it sounds very colonial. If I'm coming to work and there's something important happening, I ask that the spirits of my ancestors help me be the best that I can be for the task at hand.”

Dallaire came to Ryerson 14 years ago – guided, she says, by a knowing sense.

“I was living in Peterborough and I used to see this psychic there by the name of John Pothiah. A wonderful man; very, very gifted. The last time I saw him, I told him I was coming to Toronto and he said, ‘You're going to work at Ryerson Polytechnic, but it won't be called that when you get there.’ Sure enough, I was working in the community and one day someone asked me to come to Ryerson University to do a ceremony. I've been here ever since.

“We're of the belief that everybody is born with a lifetime companion – someone who walks with us today and who has walked with us in a previous life. We all have connection.”

To learn more about Dallaire and her interests, check out the Q&A below.

This is one in a series of stories marking the two-year anniversary of Truth and Reconciliation at Ryerson: Building a Foundation for Generations to Come, the university’s community consultation report drafted in response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015 report.

In conversation with Elder Joanne Dallaire

Ryerson’s willingness to Indigenize the university and to educate its staff. A lot of our people are downtown because most agencies, affordable housing and all the things that they can access are downtown, so Ryerson really has a big footprint in the Native community. The university is very willing to be in that position, though, and to listen to the role of the Elder. That means a big change because the foundation of all Indigenous work is relationship, and that relationship has to be mutual. It’s not easy because we’re asking people who are thinker-doers to be emotional-feelers. We’re asking them to find that balance and Ryerson’s willingness to do that is great. I can feel the commitment from President Mohamed Lachemi and Provost Michael Benarroch. Monica McKay, the director of Aboriginal Initiatives, is a strong support and someone who I deeply admire. That’s why I’m here. You can’t ask for more than that.

Denise O’Neil Green, Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion, is a forward-thinking leader who I also look up to. Plus it’s so nice to have that camaderadie with colleagues. Having people to say hi to; people who will stop in and share. For a year and a half I was working out of my home, but now the isolation is gone. It’s nice to have that friendship and support – we support one another really well here.

I relax by doing the thing that is far from my daily routine. I watch TV and I play computer games. Most days when I go home I have an hour to myself, then my grandson comes home and I hear about his day. After that, it’s getting ready for supper and playing video games. Plus I’m a big crime-show watcher where you have to solve the puzzle. I get three or four hours of sleep a night...sometimes five...and that’s about it for me. I’ve always been a night owl.  

I read a lot of self-help books. Simple Abundance, external link (Sarah Ban Breathnach) is absolutely wonderful for people to better understand themselves, and their connection to power and to life. Another really great book is Why Weight? A Workbook for Ending Compulsive Eating, external link (Geneen Roth), which really helped me to understand my former bulimia. Even though my metabolism is messed up, I’m much healthier now.

I was also given a book a few months ago – an Aboriginal story – and those are really hard to process. Sometimes I pick it up and put it down, but I really like non-fiction, autobiographies and history books. They're my favourite. I must have lived a past life in England because I’m really fascinated with Victorian England, which is noticeably weird given the connection to our historical issues.

I’m very eclectic. I like blues, but I really enjoy dance music. I love to dance and could stand in front of a speaker for hours.

My favourite artist would probably be the old blues guys like Johnny Lee Hooker and Albert King. I don’t know the names of modern musicians, but I just love a good beat.

I went to Jamaica for three weeks by myself – I won the airfare. I’d never been there and didn’t know anybody. I stayed in Ocho Rios before Ocho Rios was popular. It was in the early 90s and it was a very good trip. I’m just going to leave it at that.

I love the HOTHOUSE, external link at Church and Front. They have very good butterfly coconut shrimp. Or I’m a Keg, external link person. I’m Wolf Clan so... *growls*.

For fruit I would want to have strawberries and mangoes. For vegetables I would want broccoli and lots of carrots. For meat, T-bone steak, and for dessert, ice cream.

I’d love to have a conversation with Helen Keller about how difficult it must have been for her to be who she was and who she wanted to be. She went on to do such incredible work in the social service field and for women, and has been my heroine since I was a child.

I’d also like to have a serious conversation with Robin Williams because he was so manic in his comedy. Another comedian I’d love to talk to is George Carlin – he was very satirical; he challenged society.

I look up to Sitting Bull, external link for all that he went through, and as corny as it sounds, I look up to my grandson and my daughter because they’re part of me.

My grandson has a sense of humour like there’s no tomorrow. He was having a very difficult night recently and when he was in his room, I heard something hit the floor. I asked what it was and he yelled, “My DIGNITY!” He’s 12.

And my daughter has a huge, compassionate heart. She can get the walls to talk. She’s very much a people person like me.

Finally, my sister, Diane Lepage. I’m very close to her and she has gone through a lot, but she has created a very good life for herself. She’s quite something.

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