#GameChanger: Marilyn Peigan: The First Blackfoot Representative for Calgary’s City Council
Trigger Warning: Trauma
Indigenous #GameChangers are true catalysts for change.
This Indigenous History Month, we interviewed Marilyn North Peigan. Peigan grew up on the Piikani Nation as a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Treaty 7 territory.
Peigan, with experiences of intergenerational trauma stemming from residential schools and her experiences of discrimination during and after serving the military medical corps of the Canadian Armed Force, is now a strong advocate for Indigenous representation and inclusion.
She played an essential role in developing the White Goose Flying Report in 2015 to determine which of the 94 Calls to Action are applicable by Calgary’s municipal government. In 2017 she became the first Indigenous person in Canada to be appointed as a police Commissioner, a title she still holds presently. She is now currently running as the first Blackfoot representative for Calgary’s city council.
Interview with Marilyn North Peigan:
Q1: Where did you grow up and what it was like to grow up in your community?
Marilyn: I grew up on the Piikani Nation, a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Treaty 7 territory. Life was hard, as I understand it today, the parental/child bond had already been severed through the residential schools and 60’s scoop era. My mom did not know how to relate to me on any level and I lost my father when I was 5 to his trauma from the 60s scoop era. It felt like we had to fend for ourselves. My grandparents, who are residential school survivors, played a huge part in where I am today. They did not know much about love, but they were always there to take me in when life became to difficult to handle. The stepfather I had in my life only knew how to love through abuse. By the time I was 14 years old, it became a matter of escape rather than dealing with the grooming and sexual abuse he brought into my life. Having 2 generations before you that are so riddled with intergenerational trauma does take its toll. I spent those early years always in survival mode, making sure myself and my close friends were safe from predators. I was not safe from Canada’s assimilation policy either. My first 3 years of schooling were actually spent in a Federal Indian Day School. What was that like? By the time I was in grade 3 I knew what suicide was, that was life growing up there.
Q2: Can you speak on what led you to join the army and any discrimination you experienced before, during, and after?
Marilyn: I went to the military not because I wanted to achieve high honour, it was to escape. My grandfather sat me down one day and said he could not give me anything, but he could help me leave. We do have a lineage of military service people in our family, however, being female did weigh heavy on him. At that point in life, I was so full of anger that I needed to leave or I would have ended up like most of my peers, in the graveyard. I was incredibly naive when I left to St. Jean Quebec and actually endured 3 days of homesickness. I could not go back home and I did not want to be there, I could not even speak French. Some of the other recruits reached out and helped me through the most difficult early days for sure. Did I experience discrimination? I was one of the first soldiers at CFB Edmonton to begin growing my hair out into braids when we were allowed. I had infantry soldiers threaten to drag me out of the mess hall and cut my hair off and I had my hair pulled on parade square. On the other hand, I was a soldier and that is how I normalized those years. Without the military, I would not have simple life skills today. I was taught to budget money, hygiene and I was given a family. I do know about the years that Native people were not allowed to place wreaths at the cenotaph, but for many reasons, I did not understand why. I was never considered for leadership roles but was revered because “Indians” made good soldiers.
Discrimination did not encompass me until I had returned to Calgary after my discharge. It was everywhere! I even recall the day the Veteran’s affairs pushed me to make the appointments with a clinic to update my tests on my back. I was diagnosed with Cauda equina syndrome upon my release after a back injury during training almost left me paralyzed from the waist down. I have never been treated as badly as I was through that medical system. I could not understand because I had served Canada for all Canadians and here I was being treated like I was a street Native coming in to beg for pills. It was then that I involved my Veteran’s Affairs worker to help me through some of the systems. I recall her having to call the clinic to let them know they were aware of how I was being treated and that it was to stop immediately. It was not just in the medical system, it was in my post-secondary system also. One day an Instructor asked us to write a story about a trying time. I wrote about the training accident and she stood up to tell the whole class what an overactive imagination I had. By looking at me, in her mind, I was not army material, just a native from the reserve. I often wonder how she felt the day I suited up in uniform at school and helped open the native center with Ralph Klein
Q3: What are some of your greatest accomplishments?
Marilyn: What kept me going as a youth was basketball, by the time I was 14 I had the opportunity to travel to Pullman Washington to train and play with the Washington State Cougars for the summer, they are an NCAA basketball team. My trophy collection from the years is extensive.
In college, the leadership programs are what attracted me to the mainstream area, as opposed to Native areas. I completed my upgrading Math 30 as the first Native student to complete with an “A” average. The following year I became the head supplemental student instructor for the Native Math 20 & 30 programs. I saw 15 students complete that program the first year, a record I still hold over any Math instructor at MRU.
I returned home to the Piikani Nation shortly after my undergrad graduation. 2010 will always be a year I remember very well. It was the year I acquired a special little girl in my life. July 18 2010 my babysitter, who was 19 at the time, was found in her Calgary apartment after a suicide. She left behind a 3-year-old baby girl. There was no choice in the matter, I adopted her and I moved back to Piikani. The plan was to complete my Masters and return back to Calgary when she was old enough. That turned into a journey in its own. I found myself in the middle of all this research work and an aim on writing on Native women. The picture that emerged was one that involved what we now know as the MMIWG issue. At that point, no one was prepared to hear my findings. I had a panel of academic men, who have never taken one Native studies course, judging me and my thesis. I was referred to as “Algonquin” and was even told that it was under their understanding that most people like me are accustomed to not reading or writing English properly and I should revamp my paper. I had to fight my University for the right to hold my head up high and walk that stage at graduation. I did spend the following year doing just that. I had some great support from Instructors and even the Dean of the school who stepped up for me, but the damage was already done. I had planned on pursuing a law degree, however, I could not and still have not found it in myself to get past that degrading and traumatizing experience and I do not want to go back into the post-secondary system. I felt like I was told loud and clear, the system was not for people like me. It was a battle to have Aboriginal Women: Opening the Future to Organized published.
In 2013 I graduated my Masters into the recession. There was not much out there for someone with a Work, Organization, and Leadership graduate degree. It was actually the arts community that took me in and gave me work. I began using my military skills to provide security details for artists like Pink and Justin Timberlake. I have gone on to work with many of the greats like the Eagles, Garth Brooks, Kiss, Fleetwood Mac and many more. The best memory would have to be the Flood Aide show we did up at McMahon Stadium, it was so unorganized as it was done last minute, but it was a blast!
The White Goose Flying came about after a couple of years with the Calgary Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee. I joined the committee knowing I would have the opportunity to finally bring my education to a table that understood me. Once the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released, our committee was directed by City Council to locate something Calgary could use locally from the TRC. Easier said than done. I found all my years of abuse and trauma within those pages of the TRC and I was angry. I spent my whole life blaming myself for the abuse, the trauma, seeing my little sister’s life end and it was not my fault. It was the defining moment when I learned what intergenerational trauma really was and I was that product. I had made a promise to my residential school generations. They could blame anyone for what happened to them, but I blame them for what happened to me. Not the non-Native world, I blamed them. I was not going to take the trauma they gave to me and pass it on to my daughter. It opened a Pandora’s Box in my life for sure. I actually do not read the beginning of the report anymore, because my healing journey has come a distance since I sat at that table and it has to keep moving forward. I only want to remember the goodness that comes from the report, not on how much it tore me apart. That is the way it has to be.
Q4: How has your upbringing influenced your work in any capacity?
Marilyn: My parents were not particularly involved in politics or civic engagement due to their limited English skills and their work schedules. We ran a family business for many years where working 12-14 hour days were normal. You just work to survive. Their only desire was for me to go to college as the first person in the family to do so. Through the application experience I decided to volunteer to add some extracurricular activities to my resume. It was through this experience that I got to see how important volunteering is for the communities we live in. My first gig was teaching English to children of immigrant families. I was doing something I wish someone had done for me when I was a kid. It made such a big difference for the families dropping of their children, and the kids had fun too. I was touched by the experience and was hooked on volunteering. I kept volunteering in a grassroots level with immigrant families until finally one day I joined a board. This is how I was able to learn about strategic planning and governance of nonprofit organizations to ensure their sustainability. Fast forward 7 years I now sit on 4 boards, volunteer regularly, and have created my own volunteer website with the help of generous Calgarians committed to the vision of making volunteering easy for everyone.
My parents were hesitant about how much time I spent volunteering instead of looking for jobs but they soon realized that it wasn’t something they could convince me to stop doing. It worked out because of my volunteer experience I have been able to find great employment opportunities. Volunteering has provided me with soft and hard skills that complemented my schooling to place me as a competitive candidate for job postings. I never would have learned the leadership or entrepreneurial skills I have if it wasn’t for volunteering. This is why I am so passionate about helping people get out into their communities because as much as it is about helping others, you personally gain so much.
I now work in the world of real estate, planning, and building buildings in communities to help them grow and thrive.
Thank you Marilyn North Peigan. #GameChanger.
Bio: Marilyn North Peigan is a specialist in the field of corporate, event, and private security, bringing a background in military training and customer service. She has extensive experience in VIP security with a focus on the Aboriginal entertainment community. She previously served with the military medical corps of the Canadian Armed Forces. After an honourable discharge, she earned a BA in psychology and an MA from Athabasca University. Her thesis is one of the first to academically draw out the historical issues leading up to Canada’s current situation with missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Marilyn’s contributions to the community include having served as vice-chair of the Calgary Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee, which strived to improve the opportunities and quality of life for Aboriginal people living in Calgary. Marilyn is proficient in the Blackfoot language and Treaty 7 territory culture. In 2017 she became the first Aboriginal person in Canada to be appointed as a police Commissioner, a title she still holds presently. In 2012, Marilyn was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal.