Growing up in a troubled home and unaccepted by her peers, Chantal Chagnon’s dark past became brighter when she chose to channel the pain and stand up for others. Now Chagnon, who is Cree/Métis from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, is one of Calgary’s busiest activist’s, bringing hope to those suffering injustices.
Chagnon’s kukom (grandma) grew up in a residential school, and says the effects of intergenerational trauma rippled into her own childhood home in Edmonton.
While sitting at a table for two and sipping from a bowl of tomato soup, she says the situation didn’t get better after her father’s death.
“He had been laid off, so he was severely depressed, and he had committed suicide.” Chagnon takes a deep breath, holding back tears to finish her sentence. “I was the one who found him.”
Only seven at the time, Chagnon says she became the strong one, often taking care of her younger brother with Asperger’s. She says the memories are still very difficult to recall.
Unfortunately there was no relief for Chagnon outside of her family home. She describes herself as “the odd kid out,” at school, in choir and in dance class. Although she has always been passionate about performing , it was these public spaces where she first realized she was treated differently.
“I was the indigenous girl in dance class, so I would never get the parts I wanted,” she says. Chagnon wondered if she wasn’t accepted because her family had less money, saying, “I couldn’t figure out why I was being targeted.”
What Chagnon was certain of was her need to stand up against such targeting.
In elementary school, that meant standing up to bullies. In high school, that meant holding protests, rallies and sit-ins – even being expelled for her efforts. But, after high school, it also meant standing up for herself.
At the end of a destructive seven-year relationship, Chagnon knew she needed to make a bold move for herself and her two sons, Cloud and Lyndon, to leave.
She made a last minute plan, packing her and her children’s belongings in the car and drove to Calgary. “I couldn’t live like this. My kids deserve better. I deserve better.”
This became a mantra of sorts to Chagnon, who turned the deep depression from her traumatic break-up into a life of dedicated activism and teaching.
She built Cree8, a local organization that aims to build bridges between people, cultures and within oneself to gain a better understanding of life through different creative avenues.
Chagnon says through Cree8, she has been welcomed into schools, corporate settings and conferences to perform or teach about First Nations culture. Whether drumming, singing or teaching, Chagnon says these creative means of communication create powerful connections and bring her joy.
“The only thing that gave me hope was singing – singing, dancing or performing. If I was performing, I was happy,” says Chagnon who is well known for her bright pink hair and welcoming hugs.
Using her passion for the arts, she is now bringing that happiness to others through her work.
Chagnon is often swamped with work. And if she isn’t performing, teaching or hosting workshops she is busy leading protests or taking care of her two boys as a single mom. When asked if she knows how many protests she’s been involved in over the past decade, she laughs. “I don’t even know how many I’ve done in the last year!”
She acknowledges that being a dedicated activist can be exhausting. And although it can be frustrating when events don’t bring change right away, she says by going to events with the only hope to share, she’s never left an event feeling disappointed.
With all of her hard work, Chagnon’s biggest goal is to share hope and bring understanding. A storyteller herself, she says simply taking the time to get to know someone will bring real change to the city.
“Communication is so important. Even just having a conversation with somebody. Don’t make assumptions,” she says. “Find out why they’re there, find out how you can help – hear their story.”
For the happy activist, it isn’t about yelling to be heard, it’s about growing a united front. “It’s not that I’m just fighting for these issues, I’m creating community … I’m trying to anyway.”