September 16th, 2012
Sylvia Olsen steps off the construction site looking like a million bucks. At 51, visit this site the mother of four is the construction manager for the Tsartlip First Nation on southern Vancouver Island, search but she’s has also constructive as a writer, working between four and seven in the mornings, for the past ten years, producing a series of impressive books drawn from her First Nations milieu. Her first book, No Time to Say Good-bye, recalls the experiences of First Nations children who were sent to Kuper Island residential school. Girl With A Baby was inspired by her daughter’s experience of becoming a mother at 14. Catching Spring and Yellow Line are juvenile novels about Aboriginal youths learning to cope with maturation and racial tensions. White Girl is based on Olsen’s own experience as a non-Aboriginal who moved to live on the Tsartlip reserve at age 17.
“When I got married and started living on reserve,” she says, “all my friends were traveling to the exotic places of the world to get cultural experiences. I walked across the road and over the ditch and then stayed for 33 years and got an immersion in cross-cultural life.” Upon learning that up to 70% of new families in some Coast Salish communities are being started by teen parents, Sylvia Olsen obtained support from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to learn more. With First Nations youth worker Lola James, she organized thirteen young Coast Salish mothers for sociable events, such as picnics and birthday parties, as well as conversations, giving rise to Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms (Sono Nis). Just Ask Us shares their thoughts and experiences of teenage mothers facing a wide range of issues that include sex, relationships, birth control, abortion, pornography, self-image, and parenting. Each chapter begins with a fictionalized vignette, based on real stories, braced by direct quotes from the young mothers. Currently building social housing for low income families, Sylvia Olsen was interviewed by Sara Cassidy.
BCBW: Are you Coast Salish by marriage?
OLSEN: I’m a status Indian by marriage. That’s what the official thing is, but I’m from down the street, across the road, whatever it is.
BSBW: Is it a tension that confronts you daily, your cross-cultural existence?
OLSEN: Yes and no. I’m intellectually attached to it, not just experientially. I went to university and got a Masters degree in the West Coast history of native-white relations. So now the burning questions in my mind are around that.
BCBW: In my experience, the separation between First Nations and non-First Nations is stark. It creates not just ignorance but allows for forgetfulness.
OLSEN: Yes, ignorance in the sense in that we just don’t know each other. That’s the core of the problem. In Canada, we have set up two separate worlds, Them and Us. It serves political purposes for everyone, but in the big picture, as far as I’m concerned, it has not served either side well.
There are many, many mixed-blood children in this country. There are many more people with a mixed experience than this Us and Them separation would have us believe. I’m just a voice that says, if you want to talk stark separation—which some people on both sides want to talk—well, that’s certainly part of the overall conversation. I, however, want to have the conversation that’s happening in the middle and it’s a valid conversation. It’s important in our country to have a look at where the coming-together happens.
BCBW: And you feel support for that viewpoint? Emphasizing exchange?
OLSEN: Oh, yeah. How do we learn about ourselves? By seeing ourselves in reference to others. That’s the enrichment in life. As opposed to isolating ourselves and looking only from our own perspective. Some may disagree and I think disagreement is great! Let’s just have a rich discussion instead of one that is afraid and making it up because we’re not really being honest about ourselves.
BCBW: What do you mean “making it up”?
OLSEN: Well, we don’t know how to talk to each other, so we make up how we think we should talk, rather than speaking from our centre. We’re constantly thinking, what should I say? Rather than, what do I feel? Let’s just be honest! That doesn’t mean a whole lot of useless, vile junk, either, Let’s also be mature and tolerant. If we are tolerant and mature, we can afford to be honest.
BCBW: In my generation, there’s some awareness of colonialism, but there’s also a reluctance to ask, to run the risk of re-violating. In a way, the title of your book, Just Ask Us, reflects that.
OLSEN: Yes. The young mothers said, just ask us: if we want to know about each other, just ask us.
BCBW: Why did you want Just Ask Us to be a community-based study and not scientific research?
OLSEN: Scientific method uses a lot of statistics and statistics are harsh. They haven’t served us very well in this community. That is not the kind of discussion you want to have with young moms. When you read statistics to young people around here, it’s a very, very hard thing to hear. But another reason is because I really believe conversations are the best way for us to get to know ourselves and others. It’s better than statistical analysis.
BCBW: But you do point out the context for their parenthood—poverty, experiences of abuse, high rates of drug and alcohol addiction, families deeply ruptured by residential schools.
OLSEN: For our community, we have all these plans and aspirations and yet re-building community is a very difficult chore when you have so many teenagers taken up with raising babies in a really difficult situation. The communities need the mothers so badly, because we’re re-building broken-up communities.
BCBW: You quote Kim Anderson who notes that “when a people are under siege it is imperative to re-produce.” But you also write of “a lag time” between the modern First Nations young mother and the cultural structure.
OLSEN: Yes. Like many of the Aboriginal women here, I didn’t graduate from high school. I had my children, then went back to university. I am now working, like many of my peers, building community. Most of the strong women my age are out, they’re doing health care, they’re building houses, they’re the community workers. And our children are having babies, and we aren’t there, we’re not there supporting. We’re just not there. There are some empty spaces in our homes now. It’s a difficult equation.
I would say, living in a First Nation community, there is more activity, more consciousness of making community, than there is anywhere else. There is huge thinking going into it, in every field. First Nations are working to capacity, they’re maxing out. So young girls with their babies it’s out of season somehow. But there is a really, really strong feeling that we want every kid and we have ambitions and plans for every child. That’s really strong
BCBW: How do you feel these days when you hear another teenager in your neighbourhood is pregnant?
OLSEN: Because I’ve been here a long time, I don’t throw my hands up. I just know that that child can be fine if there is the support. It really is about the support the child and her mother gets. But I do worry, because I know immediately that that girl is going to be in distress right away. And I want that child to have the same opportunities as other children.
When my daughter had her baby, I could see there were more things that could happen to set her back. In our family, the baby was able to be cared for very well, but a beautiful fourteen-year old girl who is now a mother, who has to negotiate her way through the stigma and the stereotypes well, the baby is going to depend so much on that mother, so it is important that the mother is supported and that she is on her feet. That baby’s success depends on it. So we have to make sure the mother matures, that she doesn’t get her maturation truncated.
BCBW: Are you generally a committed person by nature or does the community ask you to get involved?
OLSEN: It’s the nature of me to attach to the burning social issues of where I am. I figured that out after a while. So when a person like me lives in a community that is so needy and where there are so many questions, there’s no getting up and leaving. Because these are the burning questions of our country. These are Canada’s questions. They aren’t First Nations questions, they are questions that need to be addressed no matter who you are.
BCBW: Is there anything you’d like to add?
OLSEN: Yes. The answers to these problems are really, really simple,. They’re about communicating. Right from the start, if we communicate with our daughters and our sons and each other cross-culturally if we have decent, mature, honest, tolerant conversations about the real subjects, rather than the extraneous junk, than we will either not have as many [babies born] or when we do we will cope with them. So, my big thing is, let’s talk about things and talk about the stuff we don’t like talking about… [laughter] I think that’s my theory for everything!
Essay Date: 2006