‘Now is the time’: Cree woman hopes to amplify voice of Indigenous youth as spokesperson

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WINNIPEG – Sherry Gott spent her childhood watching her grandmother care for the people of the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation in Manitoba.

Gott’s grandmother was there to help usher new lives into the world and she was there to care for those who passed into the spirit world.

It was watching his grandmother take on various roles in their community, about 600 kilometers northwest of Winnipeg, that would determine the trajectory of Gott’s career.

“His helping people also inspired me to take on this role,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Gott, 58, has held many titles, but in each of them the desire to help his people has always been present. She has held various positions as a social worker in the child welfare system and most recently with the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison Unit, an advocacy group First Nations in the northern part of the province.

She is now taking on this helping role as the new spokesperson for children and youth in the province.

Gott started his new position last month after a vigorous application process.

Since taking office, she has been catching up, preparing reports for publication and organizing meetings with the provincial government.

Gott served as Manitoba’s assistant attorney for two years until her departure in 2020. Calls from her seniors brought the mother and grandmother back.

“Community elders were tapping me on the shoulder to apply for the job,” Gott said. “They said that was the direction I should go.”

One of them was Louise Lavallée, who is on the office’s council of elders and has known Gott for nearly two decades.

“I told her she was going to be (the lawyer),” Lavallee said with a laugh.

“She is so strong. It’s not so much to please the staff or the government. She’s there for the kids and she’s worked with them long enough to know how to do that.

Many who know Gott say she is dedicated to improving the lives of those around her and is community-minded and rooted in her Cree culture and identity.

Gott was raised on the land by her grandparents in Sapotaweyak until the age of seven, when she was forced to attend McKay boarding school in Dauphin, Manitoba. During school vacations, she would return to the community and try to reconnect with her culture.

As an adult, she made the effort to return to her teachings and her community when she could.

“My heart is still there,” she said. “It’s important to me, this spiritual growth, as I walk every day.”

That community connection will be key as Gott settles into her new role, says Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, who has known Gott professionally for a decade.

“Sherry is very into trail building,” Anderson-Pyrz said. “You need to understand the community and be connected to the community to be able to amplify community voices.”

In a province where about 90% of children in care are Indigenous, some say it’s high time to have an Indigenous person in the position. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs employs its own First Nations Family Lawyer, but they operate separately from the Manitoba Lawyer’s Office.

The Manitoba Advocate’s Office says about 75 per cent of the children it served last year were Indigenous.

Gott hopes to raise the voice of all children in the province, with a focus on Indigenous children and communities, to ensure they get the services they are entitled to, but sorely needed.

Across the country, Indigenous children make up nearly 54 per cent of all foster children, according to Statistics Canada’s 2021 census data.

Gott is not the first Indigenous person to lead the office. There have been at least two other Indigenous advocates, including Wayne Govereau, who was named the province’s first children’s advocate in 1992.

But as Indigenous children remain overrepresented in the child welfare system and communities exercise jurisdiction over child welfare services through federal legislation, Gott understands the importance of fulfilling this role. .

“In the era of reconciliation, now is the time.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 6, 2022.

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