Tina is 27 but looks much younger. Her aboriginal heritage is evident. She has taken advantage of many First Nations programs and has qualifications as a dental assistance but has not worked in the field; she describes the impact of a late-diagnosed learning disability on her confidence and education/employment history. As she describes it in and after the interview, while she may not appear to have used this assistance optimally, the band is glad to support her because she’s as good as it gets. The majority of her peers are more like her partner, who, as she describes him at 29, doesn’t have much chance of succeeding now that a medical condition has made him unsuitable for physical work. They and their four-year-old child live on the reserve and she commutes to work in Middletown. She gives an inside view of working in a casino, which her father, her partner and she have all experienced.
FM: To start, please tell me a little bit about where you were raised, the size and composition of your family, what they did for a living, etc.
First off, I moved to [the reserve] when I was about five from Baileyville. I only have an older sister, seven years older. My dad was in construction and my mom is a psychiatric nurse. I’m Ojibwe, my mom’s not, my dad is. They weren’t too involved with the culture and neither was my older sister because when we moved from Baileyville, she was 13 so she didn’t go to the [reserve] school whereas I did. At the school, there was a lot of culture. Like everything we did had a traditional aspect to it. Like we learned a lot of songs, names of the animals and we did powwows, socials, and when I was a bit older, my mom put me in classes for youth, so we did sunrise ceremony, socials, different teaching classes and such. So I grew up a lot with the culture because I was at a younger age.
FM: What motivated your family to move from Baileyville, which I think is not a reserve, to the reserve?
I’m not exactly sure but it had to do with a family thing.
FM: Okay. And the school in [the reserve] is elementary, not high school?
Kindergarten to grade 3. And then after grade 3 we go to [a school in the nearby town] and that took us from grade 4 to 6. Then the intermediate school in [that town] as well, and then the high school.
FM: Let me ask: are these all First Nations schools, or mixed population?
Mixed. But they do offer Ojibwe classes which I stuck with. We had the option to do French class or Ojibwe class so I opted to do both until grade 7 and then I just stuck with Ojibwe.
FM: Okay. And both your parents are working off the reserve, in Middletown?
Yeah, my mom worked in Middletown. My dad had various jobs, he’d go to one place and do a house, another place and do another house. Sometimes he worked on the reserve, sometimes not. When I was in grade 9, he got a job at [a casino].
FM: Okay. Start with the decision to leave where you were raised…
I was accepted to the dental assistance program in [a northern college]. I just left.
FM: Where did you live there?
It was about two blocks from the college and it was a basement apartment, there was people living above me.
FM: The landlord, or other people?
Yeah, the landlord lived above there. A tiny, tiny place.
FM: And by yourself?
I lived with my boyfriend for three months and then I had to kick him out because he couldn’t find a job and I couldn’t afford to keep him there. So he moved back to the reserve. I only got $675 and my rent was $425, and first time going to college I didn’t think I could handle working and working on my studies, at such a young age. I was only 17.
FM: What was the source of your $675?
I was funded through [the reserve]. They paid my tuition, they paid $500 of my books and supplies, and $675 for living allowance. They just changed it. When I went to school for the first time, it was 2003, and just this year they’ve moved it for a single person to near $1000. Or $1150 or something.
FM: Okay, so a skinchy budget.
Yes. Most definitely.
FM: But no debt piling up?
Well, my boyfriend, he had moved back to the reserve and started working at Bigtown casino, and was commuting back and forth which is about a two-hour drive. He paid for my phone bill. It was in his name. I got it switched into his name so he could pay for it. I couldn’t afford it; I couldn’t afford groceries.
FM: Okay, so this a two-year course or three?
No, it was three semesters, so nine and a half months plus my placement. And I did my placement at home, in [the town], which was close to [the reserve].
FM: How did you find being away from home?
It was hard. For the first while when my boyfriend was there it was okay because I knew somebody else – like I was six hours away from home. After he left, I cried and cried and cried that whole weekend. It was a rough weekend. But after the initial I’m-by-myself feeling, it got better but I still wanted to go home all the time. I just focused on getting the school done and going home. But it was also nice to have the freedom away from my parents.
FM: How did you choose [that college]?
I initially applied for dental hygiene at four colleges and [that college] accepted me for the dental assistant program, which is a step below the hygienist. And [that college] was the only place I was accepted. If I’d been accepted at [another college], which is closer, I’d have gone [there].
FM: And did you enjoy school life, either academically or socially?
Academically I did, I really enjoyed the program I was in. Socially wasn’t too bad. I did have friends and whatnot, but I didn’t go out with them much because they were older and they were going out to the bars and such. And I found there to be a real gap between how I was raised – like I used a lot of slang and stuff, like the way I talked was different than the way they did. A big gap.
FM: Did you feel pressure to go and party, even though you were well underage?
No. Not really.
FM: Had you been a party-er at home?
Not too often. But it’s not so much partying, hanging out every night with friends, just shooting the shit. Not so much going out and getting hammered and everything, just the company of other people.
FM: Okay, so finished the course, back home to do the practicum at [the nearby town], commuting every day. Did you have a vehicle?
My parents drove me. I remember my dad driving me once. I must have driven myself, borrowing my parents’ car.
FM: Okay, and where does the story go from there?
After my placement, I was living at home and my boyfriend and I decided to move to Bigtown to be closer to where he worked. And in the meantime I was working for my dad selling berries at the local market in Middletown as well as doing computer and science camp in [the reserve]. As well as filling in at my dad’s fruit stand at [a village 15-20 km away from the reserve]. So three jobs.
And then, after the summer was over, I began working at [the casino]. First I worked in the coat room for six months, then I worked in the box office selling tickets for the shows for two and a half years. That was cool, got to see the performers and stuff, that was nice. And after that I worked at the hotel attached as a room attendant for a year and a half. That was a good job too. It was really physical so I didn’t have to go home after and work out – the job was the work out. Casino pays pretty well too.
So then, while I was working as a room attendant, I found out I was pregnant and finished working when I was eight months along. Then we decided to move back to [the reserve]. I moved in with my mom and put our name on the housing list for the ‘quads’, there’s two of them, four places in each one. We were on that list for – surprisingly it wasn’t too long. I think we lived with my mom for six months. Because we had had our name on the housing list, I got a call at my boyfriend’s parent’s house asking if we wanted to build that year. So before we even moved from my mom’s house into a house of our own, they were asking if we wanted to build our own house. So naturally we said yes so we’ve been living there now for three years.
FM: Okay. Would you say – or why would you say – that you are ‘insecurely housed’?
Because of our job situation. I’m working right now full time. I get paid just a little over minimum wage and my hours are being cut by the end of the month, so I will only be bringing in $800/month. I am trying to change that. I had an interview for a dental assistant yesterday. I never did use my training. I had a bad experience in my placement and it kinda turned me off, not the job itself, I was really interested and I still have maintained my interest in the field. I do have to take courses and pay a fee and keep up with my certification.
So my hours are getting cut and we’re living pay-check to pay-check, definitely. And my boyfriend had surgery on his back – he’s always had back issues – last April so he was off work from [the casino] and now he’s on pain management because the back surgery didn’t work. So he’s out of a job, unable to work at the moment.
FM: Is the house rent geared to income or rent to buy?
No, we were given $100,000 loan from the band and we pay them back $670 every month. So it’s not so bad. We have a three-bedroom house, it’s fairly big, and we have a basement and everything, so it’s nearly $400 cheaper than it was to live in an apartment in Middletown. And I’m not paying rent, I’m paying mortgage so I’m paying into something. It’s nice: 17 more years to go.
FM: Since the band holds your mortgage, might they renegotiate terms if you approached them?
I’m not too sure. I don’t think so. Basically, even if you miss one payment they can come and change the locks on your house and you no longer own the property or the house. That is, we have been late a few times but we’ve never defaulted on a payment. Every time I know we’re going to be late, I call and tell them and they’re okay with it.
The property that the house is on belonged to my dad, and he sold it to us for $1 but in order for us to get the mortgage, we had to sign the land to the band.
FM: Okay, so your little one is four and he goes to school on the reserve. Child care?
Daycare, thank goodness for the daycare. We are really fortunate in that respect that we don’t have to pay for daycare. That’s paid for by the band if your child is status. My boyfriend’s sister was living in Bigtown when she had her child and she was paying close to $600/month for one child. It was nuts. And then they also provide food and snacks. My son still goes into daycare for breakfast if he doesn’t want to eat at home. Then he gets on the bus and goes to school. That’s a new thing last year – I think [our reserve] is one of the first day cares to collaborate with the school. Last year he went every other week for one day to the school from the day care so he could transition in. Worked out well.
FM: Beautiful: doesn’t get much better than that. Can you say a bit about why your hours are being cut back?
Because we are a NFP organization and all our programs rely on funding from the government and there just isn’t enough funding to go around. And since I am the receptionist/administrative assistant, they can kinda do without me. I’m on the top of the chopping block. With my education and stuff, I want to say it’s not too hard to find a job, but it kinda is.
I’ve gone to school four years in total.
FM: Dental assistant and then?
And then I took pre-health sciences at [a college] in Bigtown while I was working at the casino. [The casino] worked with my school hours – so I only worked on the weekends. And when my son was a year old, I took pre-qualifying year for nursing at [university in Middletown]. That was a lot of science. He was one year old. That was super difficult. There was so much work involved. I was like a single parent because my boyfriend was travelling back and forth to Bigtown. He was basically gone 14 hours a day; he’d come home, say hi and basically go to bed and then he’d be gone before we got up. So I had a one-year-old and a pile of homework. Crazy homework.
And then the year after that I did another year at [university], that was two years ago. It was easier that time around because I took only two science classes and then I took Indigenous Studies classes so it was lighter, it wasn’t so anatomy and physiology-ish.
FM: Any student debt from the rest of this education?
No. Which is nice.
FM: Definitely! Is there a limit to how much the band will invest in you?
How it went after I took dental assistant, because it was in the health field, I took a year off and then I took the pre-health sciences. I was only eligible for funding because it was in the same health field. Then I took two years off, decided to go to university in Middletown because it was close to [the reserve], they would only fund me because it was in the health field. But that year I was denied funding because I didn’t meet the criteria list, a list of 10 different criteria – but I know students straight out of high school are the first priority, and then returning students next, so I wasn’t on that list. So it worked – for some reason I got a $5000 grant because there was funding left. So I got $5000 to put toward my $6000 tuition for Trent. That same year they would only pay my tuition, not living expenses. I had to apply to Ktchida Mikam. That’s – they help with education, they fund you with living expenses and stuff, a huge application I had to fill in, lots of back-up materials, like five jobs that this training would qualify you for. It was a while ago but there was a lot to do for it. I had to do a resume.
And re limits, there is now. As of this year, they will only pay up to four years of schooling, no matter what. So if someone wants to be a doctor, they will only pay the first four years. So as of now, I’ve gone to school four years. I don’t know where that leaves me, but I’m guessing I won’t be able to go back to school if I need to or want to. I’d have to pay for it myself. Which I am willing to do; I was going to do it this year. I just wasn’t – I wanted to take the program but I wasn’t really really into it enough to use my own money, so to speak.
FM: Ktchida Mikam sounds kinda like federal OSAP.
Sorta, I guess. I did apply for OSAP actually; I was denied.
FM: Do you know why?
Because my boyfriend made too much money at the casino. I put down that he made money although if you live on the reserve you don’t make money, technically.
FM: Who does, the band?
No, when you work on reserve and you do your taxes, they say you make 0 because it’s not taxable money. So on my OSAP I should have said 0 but I sort of gapped on that. But it was good, because now I don’t have debt.
So my second year at [university] the band did fund me for my tuition and for my living allowance because I had gone to school the previous year. And I haven’t gone back to school since because that university kinda wore me out. Next time I’ll go back to college.
FM: But you’re now applying for work, for the first time in a position that you have accreditation for; do you think that you might stick with that profession?
For awhile, yeah, definitely, until I can get into dental hygiene. I still want to stay in the same field.
FM: Why do you think you weren’t accepted into dental hygiene way back when?
Because my grades aren’t the best. I’m not as book smart as I am practical. I learn hands-on mostly. When I went for dental assistant, I did best with practical. I wasn’t horrible with books, but I did C in books and A in practical.
FM: So that’s also why university was so hard?
Yes, I’m a very slow reader and I’m pretty sure I have dyslexia. My radiology teach in dental assistant said I had dyslexia. I went and got testing but I never got the results because I was too proud. I’m sorry for that now. I was really upset when he told me, but again I think I was too proud. It would have worked out to my benefit had I done it. Because the schools don’t set you up to fail. They set you up to help you. That’s why -- I don’t have any younger siblings but my boyfriend does, and I tell them go to all your classes, see your teachers, they’re there to help you.
FM: Okay. I have some finish-up questions: Are we there? Anything else? Okay then: For the people who will read this story, to give it some focus and shape, would say what you think is the most important event in the story. Could be something that happened, or something that didn’t happen, but what do you think was the thing that most influenced how this story is unfolding.
Maybe just to stick to one thing. Like to stick with my dental assistant, I could have maybe had some savings by now if I’d stuck to one job instead of taking odd jobs around.
FM: We never did explore what happened that put you off that train of work. Do you want expand a bit?
Yeah, a little bit. I was [upset] with the teacher telling me I was dyslexic and I was too proud to go and do something to help myself. The dentist that I was assisting [in my placement] and the dental assistant I was shadowing… what happened was that I was shadowing the dental assistant, and she would tell me to set up for something and what kind of tools you need. So I’d set it up and I had a sheet and she’d mark it off. Then I was doing it for the dentist, and she would mark me and she gave me As. And then the other dentist that I had never assisted, took it and he crossed out the As and made them Cs. So when I got it back, since I was young, I took offense to that, big time, and it made me feel like I wasn’t worth doing it. And I just stuck to odd jobs and things that I was good at. So now I’ve just gotten enough guts to apply for an assistant position, and I’m not sure how it will go. But I’m older now and I know I’m worth it, so… I shouldn’t have let it set me back, but I did.
FM: Okay, so a severe blow to your confidence, and you just took -
I actually never went back to a dentist until last year. Thank goodness my teeth weren’t so bad.
FM: Ever think about getting any assistance with that lack of confidence, or did it not occur to you then that that was what it was?
No it didn’t occur to me. I just said Screw it, I’ll find something else. I know now, I was young and hurt.
FM: What did your parents think about that?
They supported me. They just – my aunt actually, said only about 10% of people stick with the profession they train for. At least I have the education and I’ve kept my certification up.
FM: Okay, next finish-up question. The judgment question. People reading this story will form some opinion about how they think it will end up. How do you think it will turn out, how will this narrative unfold going forward? Good? Not so good? Are you optimistic? Not so much?
I think it will be a good outcome because I know what I need to do. I know what I’ve done. And now I try to look at criticism as a learning. It there are people that think I’m not doing something as they think I should, I’ll see that more as a critique that I can do something better for myself. So I learn from it now.
FM: That moves very nicely into the third question, first of two advice questions. What advice would you give a younger you, whether or not that younger you would take the advice, what advice would you give that you think would make this story more likely to have a better or easier outcome?
Don’t be so proud. Listen to other people. Listen to what people are saying and don’t take it as a negative way.
FM: What you’re calling proud, I would see as lack of confidence.
When my teacher told me I had dyslexia, I don’t know if proud was the right word.
FM: But you were wounded -
FM: And maybe it’s moot whether it’s your pride that was wounded or your confidence.
Both I guess.
So advice: take other people’s advice.
FM: Here’s the follow-up question. What advice would you give to people like me who want to be helpful to young people like yourself, to help make the transition from being raised rurally to whatever your choice is, what advice would you give to us to be more helpful?
More awareness because there is a lot of cultural differences. When you leave a little reserve and go out into a big city, there is a lot of differences. There wasn’t – it didn’t seem there was a lot of support and I think it would have been helpful if someone had sought me out, had come and found me, because I was shy. It would have been easier for the transition. And even when we moved to Bigtown which was a big city, we worked at [the casino] where there were other First Nations around.
FM: Yeah, it sounded like [the casino] was really a good employer, although -
They had a lot of rules. And a lot of First Nations people who worked there, they couldn’t hack it – they could do the job but they couldn’t do all the stuff around it, stipulations to everything you do. So I would say that out of 100 people who would work there, only about 40 would end up staying over two years. And even less over a longer period of time.
FM: Another thought, a bit late. Your boyfriend; what do you think are the probabilities that he’ll be able to find work that accommodates his health?
Not much. Because when he was in high school – he was in special ed and a lot of the other people did his work for him. He was a really angry person because of his family, the whole native stereotype, the drinking and the partying, that was his life. He’s a different person now.
FM: But he doesn’t have the education to do a non-physical job?
No, and a physical job is something that he would prefer anyways. He’s always wanted to do heavy equipment operator and he won’t be able to do it. It’s not good for his back; he has degenerative disk disease, he has shooting pains down his leg, his leg goes numb every night. He’s on pain management – doesn’t want to be, but… he’ll only take them if he feels the pain. Because his parents are addicts and he worries. He was off for six months when I was pregnant and the doc wanted to put him on Tylenol then, but he didn’t and four years later he couldn’t stand it any more.
FM: And he’s your age?
Two years older, 29 this year.
FM: That’s a sad outlook, at that age.
FM: And you, for all intents, are looking at being the primary bread-winner in your family.
I’ve only ever worked part-time. He worked full-time and he was the one paying the bills and that, so I guess now it’s my turn. And I’m okay with that. He cooks and he cleans; he called himself Mr Mom last night.
FM: Okay. Are we done?
I think so.