Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse is a wave-maker on many levels. Yet as much as
she questions and challenges, she knows how to listen intently too. As we step
from the sparkle and crunch of snow beneath our feet into the fresh, warm air of
the Muttart Conservatory, I’m not quite prepared for the story of discovering
and connecting to heritage that I am about to hear. It’s the kind of exchange
that reminds you to shake up your perspective, and Jodi does it with an
audience every Friday on the CJSR 88.5 AM program Acimowin. Sharing and celebrating Indigenous stories, art, music,
and more, she has built a broad audience over the past five years to engage in
tough and truthful conversations. Her ambitions are bold (to be “Assembly of
First Nations national chief someday”), though her path to making waves has
Can you tell us about your background, whatever from your beginnings you feel is relevant to your work—growing up, studying, family, and community?
Sure. My people are Mohawk and Cree from the Michel First Nation. I, myself, prefer to be identified as a member of the Michel First Nation or Cree and Mohawk by my peoplehood, where I belong, and that's with the clans of the Mohawk people and the clans of the Cree society. It’s a complicated question as Canada has identified First Nations as aboriginal so that's our legal definition. So in general, First Nations is good. Indigenous is good. Aboriginal tends to be the least liked and adopted by Indigenous people because it was dictated as opposed to coming from the people; you could say it was told to us by the government that this is how we would be identified.
The Michel First Nation was enfranchised in 1958, so if we look at the impacts of genocide and the legacy of colonization on Indigenous people, I feel our band has suffered some of the greatest consequences of that. I grew up watching elders in my family suffer, heard talk about all the injustices they faced, and watched the dispossession and the poverty in the community. Yet my growing up was really connected to family and ceremony, and I benefited from extraordinary parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. I've been blessed with such a strong family, and I benefited from post-secondary education.
"I work really hard to celebrate what is good, to celebrate what is working, to lift up extraordinary people doing simple things that make a difference in people’s lives."
So for me, a lot of work has been around reconciling some of that. Reconciliation has been a catch termed, thrown out as "This is what I do—I reconcile." But for me, this means I work really hard to celebrate what is good, to celebrate what is working, to lift up extraordinary people doing simple things that make a difference in people’s lives. That's my job. I have to give back, and my giving back is through lifting the spirits of our people by identifying who's doing great work and what needs to be celebrated. All the reconciliation work—for example, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work in Canada and their final report with the 94 calls to action—is very important and very critical, but at the same time, we have to bring balance and be sure to include in our work of reconciliation what throughout the time of the Indian residential schools sustained the people in beautiful and successful ways. How do we see our own resilience and strength and how can we continue the momentum and continue to build on those things?
You mention post-secondary education. Can you tell us about that? From elementary school, your undergraduate degree, and now your master’s at the University of Alberta?
My reserve was located west of Edmonton, near a small town called Onoway. As a young girl, my mom moved to the town of Onoway, and we were raised in that town. I went to school there for elementary, junior high, and high school. Napoleon Majeau, my grandfather, taught me all about the land out there. He had us fishing, smoking fish, and trapping since I was a kid. That's what got me interested in science because I know what the biology of a healthy animal looks like. My grandpa was my best friend as a kid. He taught us how to shoot a rifle, how to make traps, how to fish, how to gut a fish. My mom worked so hard, and there was never a moment when I thought I couldn't do anything that a man could do because I was doing everything that the boys were doing. Then my stepdad was the fire chief in Onoway, the volunteer fire chief, and I wanted to be on the fire department. He wouldn't allow me, but he allowed a boy in my grade, and that was the first time in my life—I was 17 years old—when I was not given an opportunity because of my gender, and I was devastated. After that, I thought, "I'm going to work twice as hard to have every opportunity." From there, we moved to Calgary, and I went to Bowness High School. When I moved to Calgary, I started boxing because I was mad. I became a kick boxer, fought for a while, got a few concussions, stopped fighting, and got into post-secondary—Mount Royal University—through which I did community rehabilitation studies. I started working out at Morley Reserve for my practicum when I was 19 years old.
It was the elders in Morley who started telling me stories about my Chapon (which means my great-grandfather), Johnny Callihoo. He was the first president of the Indian Association of Alberta. I started to ask all these questions about the band, and it took 15 years of university and also going back to Kahnawake and connecting with elders there, between listening to the old people and their stories and going through the archives, to figure out a picture of what happened, how we ended up in the place that we were in as Indigenous people in this territory. Then I moved back here to Edmonton and went to the University of Alberta.
It's interesting that you were in Calgary when you first got in touch with your past. How was it that the connection there could tell you your history here near Edmonton?
Back in those days, elders would travel from Morley to Calahoo for tobacco. Johnny, my Chapon, and his dad, Michel, who signed Treaty Six, they had come here from Kahnawake. There was tobacco in this territory—the Mohawks were known for their tobacco—and the elders from down south, the Stony elders, would travel up here to purchase tobacco from those Mohawk men, and that's how they started learning about them, and then they started to do politics.
Thanks for the clarity. Back to education, you were telling us how you ended up at the University of Alberta.
I started at the University of Alberta in 2001, pregnant with my daughter. My undergrad degree is in native studies with a minor in women's studies, and I’m completing my master’s in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. I went to school with my books on my back and my daughter in my belly and then again in my front pack. I brought her to school, and I nursed her there, too. I didn't see women bringing their babies, so I was like, "No way." In our community, if we want children to be like us, they have to experience what we experience. If we want children to know how to live excellent adult lives, they have to see what excellent adults do.
So I brought my babies to school with me, and, surprisingly, I didn't face any opposition. It was my own fear and anxiety that were crippling sometimes. I nursed in classrooms, and I was terrified to do it, but I did it anyway because I didn't want to miss my education, and I also wanted to be a mom, and I wanted my kids to be familiar with these spaces so that they just felt like natural places to go.
My undergrad took me a very long time. As a single mom, I also sat on the Michel First Nation Council for three terms, and I volunteered at iHuman and at Boyle Street for a while. I did a lot of community work. It took me a long time to graduate. It took 10 years to get my undergrad and to raise my children, raise them as best as I could. My parents have really helped. I am so grateful for their contribution to that.
While I was in university, Isabel O’Kanese came to see me with protocol. She offered me tobacco. She had asked me to sit on her radio station a few times, and I didn't feel that I had anything to share so I never went. When she came to me five years ago in April, she brought me tobacco. She said, "I need you to take over the show, Acimowin, because I am leaving. If the show dies, there will be no Indigenous content on CJSR. So I took the protocol. I accepted the tobacco. I accepted the responsibility to take on the program.
So I have been volunteering for Acimowin since. It runs every Friday morning from 9 to 11 a.m. Aside from hosting the show itself, we've been able to build a social media site. It did well during Idle No More; we were sharing information on why people were doing what they were doing and why it mattered. Acimowin has also been a platform and a space to celebrate, promote, and uplift our artists, our musicians, our politicians, and our storytellers and really embrace the great work that's happening, as well as creating and supporting events.
In the past five years, considering the successes and growth of Acimowin, what could others learn to apply to any type of social movement?
Yeah, it was rated the most influential First Nations organization in Alberta by an analytics corporation. It was rated fourth nationally, and it's a program that's run two hours a week. The beautiful thing about Acimowin that has made it so successful is that it has been embraced by the community, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. I have just as many non-Indigenous listeners who check in every Friday, who tune in, and it always surprises me. I'm always amazed that people check in every Friday.
It's been the social media engagement. It’s been a real conversation with people. It's like, come into my kitchen table, and we're going to sit down together, and we're going to talk through this, and we talk through this whether you're at home in bed and tweeting me or you want to give me a call or you want to send me an email. It's instant with whoever that guest is, and I've been so blessed that so many guests just call me up and say, "Hey, can I come on your show? I'd love to come on." I have just been so supported by the community. That's what makes this program successful—the community has lifted it. It's been nothing that I've done but everything that everyone else has done that makes this program successful.
How would you describe your role? What keeps you passionate about doing this work?
It’s almost like being a detective. My friend has this word—"transmographers"—like change agents, right? It's finding the good and telling that story and sharing it with people because, particularly in our city, we have a lot of work to do. We had the most residential schools in all of Canada in Alberta, which means we are hurting the most, we are the most fractured, broken peoples in Canada, and so my job, I think, is to find those beautiful pieces of sparkle in our community and just help share that joy, that greatness so that others can also lift that and share that because there are so many great things in our city.
I see all sorts of cultures in our city thriving and celebrating and dancing, and when I see Edmontonians embracing them all, I wonder, "How do we do that? How do we become a part of that? How do we share that feeling of joy and celebration of being here?" It's been really important work to shift the way Edmontonians see Indigenous peoples as not a deficit but a benefit. When politicians and public profiles stand for us in that, it is a gift they give us.
When you say there's a lot of work to be done, it seems you're speaking of two things—the work is about being both uplifting and telling the story. How much of it do you feel is about awareness-building and how much is about finding the story?
Yeah, that's huge. You have to bring the people in, love them up, and then tell them the truth, right? And so I think about Fort Chipewyan land, where I've done my research as a master of science student. I think about how important it is to discover and share the truth and reality of what is happening to those people living downstream from the Alberta oil sands.
As Albertans, we have benefited beyond what I think our grandfathers and grandmothers imagined for our economy. We live a very luxurious life in Alberta. A lot of people live in very big, comfortable homes, have more than one vehicle, have many televisions and computers, and everybody has a phone. We are very comfortable in Alberta.
And then you travel downstream to the small Indigenous communities that are living with the impacts of the oil sands. It's another world, and I wouldn't have known until I was pulling the net out on the water and looked down at the bucket. I saw fish that I hadn't ever seen before with disfigurements and lesions and tumours. Honestly, I looked down, and I thought, "Holy fuck, somebody has to do something.” I was mortified. I had no framework in my head to imagine why these fish looked like they did. That's how I got into science, not because I wanted to be a scientist, but because somebody had to say something about what was happening down there to those people. There've been families saying for a long time "Our people are sick. Our people are sick." Health Canada released a report talking about people in Fort Chipewyan dying of lymph node cancers and rare forms of cancers 30 to 40 percent faster than other Canadians.
This is really happening, and we've documented it and peer reviewed it, but we're not changing the way we do things. We're still releasing the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon at the same rate we have always been, which means methylmercury, arsenic, and cadmium are being released into the atmosphere. They're floating downstream and getting in the sediment and impacting the fish and the water. When I think about Alberta and the settler side of my family and the Indigenous side of my family that have been here, they used to drink the water in the North Saskatchewan River in our city. The river used to be a place where people would fish and eat and sustain their families.
Nobody drinks that water unless it's been through the City of Edmonton purifier. That's the only way to drink it, when it comes out of our taps. Nobody goes down there with their cup, and nobody eats those fish out of there. You don't see people fishing around the riverbanks anymore. It's not a food source. What happens when the water is sick? What happens when the fish are sick? What happens to us as human beings? It’s a really simple chain. Every time I'm in ceremony or I sit with elders, I am reminded of just how simple it is. Water is life, and when we poison our water, we're poisoning our lives and the lives of our children yet to come.
I try to bring those hard truths into the stories as lovingly as possible because the only way we're going to change the way we do our economics in Alberta, the only way we’re going to change our resource extraction models, the only way we're going to change how we consume here is collectively, all of us. We all have to agree that there needs to be a change, and I think the way we make change is by listening to each other’s truths. It's hard to hear that truth when you’re dying and sick and angry. How do we tell that story so people will be open to hearing it?
They have to like you. They have to care about you. If they don't like you and they don't care about you, they're not going to care if you die. That's part of my work—convincing people that Indigenous lives are just as valuable.
In bringing up the traditional context of your learnings from Indigenous teachings, what do you feel relates across our city? What should we be listening to in any multi-cultural story?
The gift that's been passed on through our oral tradition that regardless of the disparity, regardless of the hopelessness, you always make decisions for those yet to come—maybe that's the gift we get to share with the world. That future-oriented part of the conversation that "this is about my children and their children” comes from longhouse and Indigenous legal traditions. We are taught very young that every decision we make is about the next seven generations—those who are yet to be born, those faces we have yet to see—so every decision we make should be rooted in their reality. How do we make decisions to ensure that what we're doing is sustainable and that those who follow us also have a quality of life that's just as good if not better than the one we are living?
I think it's tough for immigrants, especially refugees coming into our territory. I think that for anyone in survival mode, it's very tough to imagine the next few future generations. We're living in a global community where there's so much disparity. How can you think about future generations when you are just trying to survive?
For me, it’s bringing back those beautiful things about who we are and sharing them with the world and also looking at, you know, what the Brazilians are like, what the Maori from New Zealand are like. Canada's Indigenous people face many of the same obstacles that Indigenous people around the world are facing. You name it—we are being touched by it. So this is a time when we can strategize and look around. What is working around the world? What are communities doing that's helping them to thrive? Because we know research shows hands down that people who know who they are and where they come from thrive when they are connected to their culture, to their languages. They are healthier, happier people, and they contribute to society in better ways. So now we have to act on what we know.
You know, when the Treaty commissioners came here and sat with our relatives and they lifted that treaty pipe and shared the bundle, they welcomed them here. They knew there was a lot of prosperity and there was enough land. The Treaty relationship is for "as long as the grass grows, the river flows, and the sun shines." We knew—our relatives knew—that there was a lot to be shared here.
"Because we have this traditional knowledge that has been passed down to our family members, we have an obligation to stand up and speak for that knowledge."
How do you extend or create connections as a First Nations person in the broader community—the European, African, Asian, or otherwise—like you said, to learn from each other?
I think about the common thread. What do we all have in common? Water is one. The other is consuming. We are a consumer-based society, and so I try to remind people how we're connected. We're drinking the same water. We're shopping in the same places. What are the consequences of how we're treating the water? What are the consequences of how we are consuming, and what's happening to our planet? Climate change is huge, but people don't want to talk about it. It scares them. They're terrified, or they don't believe in the science.
I've been blessed to be on the land with people who've been on the land for 80 years. They talk about the changes on the land. We see drastic changes, and new people living here wouldn't know the changes, because they haven't had those stories passed down in their families—what winter, spring, and fall are supposed to be like.
Because we have this traditional knowledge that has been passed down to our family members, we have an obligation to stand up and speak for that knowledge and say, "Hey guys, this is not okay. There's a big shift here. Whether you believe it or not, according to the science, it's actually connected to the carbons we're releasing in the atmosphere. So you have your science that legitimizes it, and we have our stories that explain what's happening. Let’s come together and work on a solution."
I'm not against consumption or development. We just have to do them better. We have not been smart enough to figure everything out—how to take mercury out of water, for example. This is one of the biggest contamination issues in Alberta. We all get our water here. Newcomers and visitors come here and see how beautiful Alberta is. It looks like we have so much water, but the reality is that when you look at the water, it's not necessarily safe anymore. That's the work we have to do—figure out how we're going to consume better, how we're going to stop releasing so many contaminants, because if we don't figure that out together—settler, immigrant, and Indigenous peoples—if we don't figure out how to do this together as a larger community, all of our children are going to suffer.
How does someone get started? How do you know what steps to take to make change, and how do you tell others to make that difference as well?
I think it's really important for people, whatever their gift is, to do that. That's their responsibility. If their gift is singing, then they have to sing those songs. If their gift is storytelling, then they have to be the ones to tell those stories. If your gift is politics, if your gift is to raise babies or be the cook, whatever your gift is, you have to do that. That's your responsibility in the community. We have to recognize people's gifts and lift each other's gifts. You ask, "How do I know the right thing to do?" I don't know, but I pray really hard, and I stay connected to lots of old people in many different Indigenous communities across Canada, and I listen to them. I listen to what they tell me.
What tips can you share? What specific things have you or the people you’ve interviewed done that can help us get there?
Focus on listening. At some point, I started to go and listen to scientists like Dr. David Schindler and Dr. Erin Kelly, to marine biologists, to visitors coming to the university whenever they had free talks. I listen to elders and to what people are saying and then try to share what they have said—that we have a big problem and it takes all of us to be the solution.
I don't want to fight anymore. I actually want to spend our time investing in what's working and what’s really great. I just recently learned that for every dollar that's spent on Indigenous relations, only 10 cents actually gets to the community, so we have been creating services and this bureaucracy. How do we get the economics to the people instead? I don't know how we do it, but I know we can do it. I know there are people who are innovative. I know there are people who are change-makers. I know there are people who aren't afraid to do things differently, and those are the people I want to work with.
One example is to bring the World Indigenous Nations Games here. In July, from the second to the ninth, to celebrate Canada's 150th, we are bringing Indigenous people from around the world here, to Enoch Cree Nation, Maskwacis, and the Alexis Nakoda Sioux Nation, to share our songs, our ceremonies, and our traditions with Edmontonians and all of Canada. This is how we move forward—by remembering the culture and embracing those ceremonies.