How would you describe the community (or communities) in which you grew up? What were relations like between various communities there? How did this contribute to your sense of identity as a child?
Well, we moved around a lot. I was born in North Battleford, Sask. but we left there when I was about five years old. Then we lived mostly in small towns in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and this would be the mid-1950s now.
That was a time in the Prairies when there was a lot of racism. Because we were disguised as Chinese, going only by dad’s last name of Quan, we were essentially the only Chinese people in town. We ran the local Chinese café, which is a hallmark of Prairie towns. Basically, we were outsiders. But we were also part of the community because we provided a service. My dad was very outgoing and friendly, but my brother and I were more marginalized because of our difference and because we were working. We didn’t really have any normal childhood friendships.
And there were no First Nations in these communities, so I had no connection to them at all at this time. At that point in time, most First Nations people were still living on reserve, so we were the only people around who were not white.
What has changed about where you grew up since then? What lies ahead?
Well to be honest, I don’t know what has happened to those communities because I haven’t really gone back. I do travel back to the one community where my mom was buried in Alberta and it looks to be about the same size. Other than that I don’t really know.
Looking ahead, well, society has now evolved to the point where blatant racism is no longer allowed because of human rights acts and so on. But there’s still oblique or subtle racism, of course.
Could you tell us what the road to reconnecting with your Cree heritage was like as an adult? What would you say to individuals who might be walking along that same road today? How does this inspire your work as a senator?
The biggest thing for me was that it was shameful to be an “Indian.” My mother was a residential school survivor and so she transmitted the shame she learned there to us. Of course when you grow up too, you hear a lot of people talking about Indigenous people in very derogatory terms, so you never told anybody.
That left within me a deficit. So as an adult I had to go back and figure why I felt that sense of shame. I started to connect with different elders who taught me to not be ashamed and to find the strength in it, because it was that very shame that made me weak and that made me more vulnerable to being harassed. I had to learn to stand up to that.
In fact, I have to laugh when I think of what one residential school survivor told me, who’s a real character, and said me “you have to learn how to man up, stand your ground and not let it defeat you.”
These experiences help me in most of my work at the Senate. I’m usually looking at issues of racism or sexism, often towards Indigenous women. A lot of my work is also focused on the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as well as racist legislation directed to Chinese such as the Head Tax. So in my work as senator it’s definitely taken over as the major aspect of what I do.