The other day I was meeting with a some team members in health and one of my friends was about to deliver her first public presentation in her new role. Now, she has attended many of my own public presentations and even attended my TED Talk on 'Decolonizing Substance Use'. She asked me what are some good public speaking pointers. Caught a little off guard, I had listed a few of my key strategies off the top of my head like breathing, just being yourself, just think of it as a conversation, and don't take it seriously because your audience surely is not.
She followed up with a second question by asking me "How did you get so good at public speaking? Don't you ever get nervous?". The question suddenly put me into a sudden and nostalgic daydream of remembering my youth growing up in front of my community and being trained from an early age by my elders and leaders to hold space and speak confidently - to be a teacher. I looked to my friend and smiled, paused, and replied, "I have been so fortunate to be recognized by many relatives for a gift they saw in me and took me under their wing to train me in public speaking and leading. I owe them all my credit and gratitude in how I got to a place of speaking comfortably in front of people"...
The first time I ever remember speaking publicly was in front of my own Katzie First Nation community on Barnston Island when I was 12 years old. My cousins (who were and still are my best friends and are more like siblings to me) and I designed our own Christmas play to present at the annual community Christmas dinner. As the eldest cousin and bossiest one, I remember writing the play scripts, finding the costumes, casting my cousins, and directing their play two weeks before we performed. I remember not feeling comfortable being an "actor" in the play. Rather, I made myself my own role to be the event Master of Ceremonies and Christmas Host to entertain all the adults attending the dinner. So I did! I remember announcing our play and entertainment for the night, calling for rounds of applause to support my cousin actors, and pulling the entire cast out at the end for a final bow. The event that probably only lasted 20 minutes was so applauded by our entire community. It was youth led and driven and came totally by surprise. It was a brilliant way to end a good ole First Nations feast that was full of laughter, smiles, jokes, and inspiration.
Shortly following the event I remember community elders coming towards me and asking who had organized the event. Which is common because our xmas gathering were always hosted by youth workers, education workers, and volunteer teams. But this event, was organized by us as kids. Because we were bored and didn't have anything else to do growing up in such a small, rural, and remote island community. I distinctly remember my uncle Lenny (a community elder) coming up to me right after the event and telling me "You were great at hosting, you should do this more often!" with such enthusiasm and joy. Now, I was a child who grew up with a lot of feelings of not knowing any of my strengths. I had siblings and cousins I grew up with who were well known for their talents at a much earlier age than me. Gifts like athleticism, mathematics, science, artistic ability, hunting, fishing, etc. This was honestly the first time I remember sensing my own authentic power.
Not too long after this experience the leaders and elders in my community started pulling me in closer to what I would later discover was 'pulling me under their wing'. My grandmother on my fathers side, Agnes Pierre, I distinctly remember training me after seeing my demonstration for public speaking. My grandmother was a respected elder, knowledge keeper, spiritual and cultural leader who held many platforms for influencing Indigenous and non-Indigenous relation building. She sat on a national Indigenous advisory committee for RCMP & Indigenous relations. She was also asked to speak at many, many, many public engagements to teach, reflect and hold space. I was just a kid when she started to take me by her side to stand in front of an audience of our small community. Then in later dates, she would have me stand by her in front of hundreds of community visitors in our longhouse. Now, I never really understood why she made my stand by her at these events. As a kid, I just loved her so much I loved being beside her in important times. It wasn't until her passing later as an adult that I realized she had been grooming me, teaching me, for what would one day be my spot, my position, and my voice speaking to the masses. Every time I am invited to speak, to be a keynote, to teach a class, to be MC, to stand and witness in our longhouse, I remember my grandma.
When I was sixteen, I distinctly recall a moment when our Grand Chief Peter James called upon me to speak between nations of youth. You see, Indigenous youth suicide is a long standing crisis in our communities across Turtle Island (North America to non-magic folk). A group of youth had come together from neighbouring nations in the north of British Columbia. They were on a national march across Canada to Ottawa to demonstrate the crisis to the Prime Minister at the time who was Paul Martin. They had stopped in our small reservation of Katzie, to feast, visit, and be. As host nation our youth gathered to support our fellow comrades from up north. In gratitude and respect they in return had offered thanks and stories of their journey. They were young. The same age as me at the time. Spoke of heartbreaking stories of loss, grief, trauma, and sadness. Stories of their own siblings, cousins, and children they lost to suicide. All the while I am standing with my own cousins, siblings, and family. There was not a dry eye in the building. It was a moment I will never forget where I took our health, wellness, and connection for granted. When each of the visitors had done a round circle story share, my uncle the Grand Chief, left his seat and came to where I was standing at the back of the room. Holding his hands like he always did with each of his fingers touching their equal and opposite fingers on the other hand, asked me if I would like to share a few words on behalf of the Katzie People. I agreed.
My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. My knees shook. I couldn't breathe. Until my uncle opened the floor and said his Chiefly words of humbleness & gratitude before handing the floor over to me to speak on behalf of the Nation. I remember thanking the people for their stories, their hurt, and their pain. I told them that we as Indigenous people are warriors. Born warriors. Unlike our ancestors who had to fight starvation, the wild, and invaders, we are at a war with our own selves. Our fight to survive is internal, our mind, our addictions, our depression, incarceration, and now suicide. The last thing I remember saying was that I foresaw that the march would be successful and that the spirit of Katzie will be with them...
When I think about my career and success in public speaking so far, I think about my grandma, and my uncle. I also remember each of my leaders who gave me the opportunity to speak at such a young age: my aunty Roma and uncle Mike, aunty Paula, my father. Every time I have a new invitation to speak, I take them all with me onto that stage. For that I am ever grateful, that people, many people, saw in me a natural gift they chose to help grow and nurture into the man I am today.