The woman whose job title is "Grandmother."
Before we even sit down to chat, Alita Sauvé’s pride in her job is obvious. She walks us around the Native Child and Family Services building, where she’s worked as KooKum—a Cree word that translates to “your grandmother”—since 2013. She points out awards the agency has won, shows off the green roof (complete with ceremonial healing lodge and fire pit), and talks about the different sites throughout Toronto where indigenous people can find her cultural knowledge.
Sauvé, 60, is a Tahltan-Cree woman, raised in Whitehorse, northern interior of British Columbia, and Vancouver Island. She attended public school, residential school, and an all-girls private school, and, as she explains, “I don’t have a degree, because we don’t have a notion quite like that in our culture when it comes to being KooKum. It comes from a different framework. It comes from a completely different worldview.” She works with groups and individuals who want access to cultural information and support in history, teachings, ceremonies, family life, and more. No two days seem exactly the same: some days, she’s present at the Dufferin Grove Pow Wow; other days, she’s working with the Grandparents’ Circle at the downtown office building. Scot Ritchie has dedicated his upcoming children’s book about community building to her. “People in our community will walk in off the street and say, ‘I want to talk to the grandmother,’” she says. “It happens all the time.”
Our interview with Sauvé is below.
Torontoist: What do you do as the in-house grandmother at Native Child and Family Services?
Alita Sauvé: I engage all day in providing teaching and guidance that comes from an indigenous way of looking at things. People are looking for reconnection. That’s what it’s all about for indigenous people across the land: reconnection, or maintaining connections that are already established. I’m not even talking about culture in the same way that mainstream talks about it. It’s more than what you eat, or what you do each day. It’s a way of thinking, it’s a way of being, and it’s a way of life. It’s fully interconnected and entwined with our spirituality. The ways that have been here since the beginning of time are major components of what will truly provide truth and reconciliation in this country.
Every department has group work that they do, and they’ll come and consult with me about their focus that month. I provide the cultural lens to what they’re doing. I also provide staff training here, because we have a mix of indigenous and non-indigenous workers. In order for us tor realize our mission statement of providing culture-based services, we need to provide training. It doesn’t matter what nation they come from; that’s just a part of how we do things. I also provide direct one-on-one supports, and that’s purely on a client-focused basis. There are meetings with their workers, on the child welfare side or the clinical side. Sometimes I never meet the clients, and the work is done through their workers. All of us work together, but they have me here to nourish the process across the board, like a grandmother would in her home. Because we’re child services, it makes sense to have that kind of support. It’s done through traditional teachings, through ceremony, through traditional counselling sessions—and I don’t mean mainstream traditional counselling sessions, I’m talking about the way in which traditional people would work with individuals, which is very different.
Was this a job that already existed, or are you the originator of this role? What does this role provide for Native Child and Family Services?
I’m the first KooKum, but I’m not the first grandmother that has been associated with this agency. We have had, and continue to have, Elders advisory councils consisting of grandmas and grandpas. I sat on the Elders advisory council here at Native Child for four years when I was a supervisor in the addictions and mental health program. I don’t think of the KooKum role as filling a gap so much as enhancing an already excellent delivery of services here. I don’t believe that it was brought about because of a lack. This is what the community deemed to be necessary. This is what they wanted. I was approached for this role because of my long-standing relationship to the agency. I understand how it functions, what its vision and mission are. That’s useful when you need a sense of continuity and history through the process. It’s a grounding position. It allows us to stay connected to the earth and all its beautiful qualities.
Your clients are Métis, Inuit, blended families, and many other different nations and ethnic backgrounds. How do you position your personal indigenous background to serve all these diverse groups?
I’ve lived here for 42 years, so it’s not like I don’t have an understanding of Ojibwe culture, or an overview of Haudenosaunee culture. All the way through my life, I was always going towards my people. I’ve made it my life business to know. It’s not just coming from my cultural background. It comes from all of the marvelous old ones who took the time to teach me and share with me. I have a very eclectic support system and set of teachers, that come from many indigenous backgrounds. From Ojibwe, from Six Nations, specifically Oneida, from Akwesasne. I have teachers in Navajo country, Cree country, Plains Cree. Lakota, Dakota, Saulteaux. Because I grew up in the Yukon, I have an understanding of Gwich’in and I grew up among those relatives. I went to school on the West coast, so I have an understanding of those regional cultures from being there. I also have an eclectic collection of international teachers. I have teachers from Australia, New Zealand, Tibet, Russia, particularly from the Yagudin tribe of Siberia. I had relatives who lived in Northern Canada, so I had a chance to learn a little about Inuit ways of doing things, and how they are with each other. I was really lucky that way. I’ve also been fortunate to have spent a long time with the Tibetan people when they were refugees in Ontario.
What are some of the special challenges of working with an urban native population?
It’s the diversity of culture. Even though I’ve had this eclectic and educational cultural background, I’m still limited. The diversity of cultures is challenging when you want to get specific about things. When people want specific life-stage ceremonies, or specific healing ceremonies, it can become challenging. But it’s not a negative! It’s more like, “Wow, I get to learn something new too.” I’m not the only person here who does the sourcing and resourcing for these types of things. We have a Cultural Coordinator, and we have a woman who manages the cultural portfolio for the agency. We have all the workers here, and many of them come from different indigenous background, and they all bring their knowledge to the table. It’s a matter of learning.
Is there a moment that you feel really exemplifies the work that you do as a KooKum? Has there been a moment where you thought, “Wow, I really nailed being a grandma today”?
There’s no way I’m ever going to be able to nail this job. You can’t get a degree in life. Everyone is on a constant learning curve, from the time they breathe life for the first time, to the time they rebirth themselves into the spirit world. There is no nailing it. It’s an ever-evolving experience. There’s always the learning. That’s what I love about it. This isn’t just a job. This is my life.