Student uses elite program to reclaim past

Special to Western News

Shyra Barberstock, a fourth-year First Nations Studies and Health/Environmental Geography student, recently returned from the Indigenous Women in Community Leadership program at the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Barberstock, an Algonquin/Mohawk from Eagle Village First Nation, QC, was one of only 20 women recruited to the program.

While discovering her own story, Shyra Barberstock has helped others reclaim theirs.

Last month, the fourth-year First Nations Studies and Health/Environmental Geography student returned from the Indigenous Women in Community Leadership program at the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. The elite program encourages First Nations, Métis and Inuit women to become strong leaders and agents of change capable of contributing in their communities.

Barberstock, an Algonquin/Mohawk from Eagle Village First Nation, QC, was one of only 20 women recruited to the program.

“I was lucky to be with 20 women – 20 women who are considered up-and-coming community leaders from communities across the country. They came from all areas, all levels of education and what I learned from them, and will continue to learn from them, I found really valuable,” she said. “They were all super beautiful and powerful women.”

Adopted and raised by a non-Native family, Barberstock has been on her own journey of discovery after meeting her birth mother 15 years ago. This program, and the women in it, opened further doors into herself and blossoming identity.

“It’s an ongoing thing, of course,” she said. “But just being selected as an Indigenous woman, and into a program like this, it was a special experience for me personally.”

In operation since 2011, the program culminates with the presentation of a three-month community project where the women work closely with a community of their choosing on developing solutions to pressing problems. Participants are guided and supported through the project by a program mentor.

As a trained nutritionist, Barberstock knew exactly where she wanted to focus her efforts.

Produced by Health Canada, Canada’s Food Guide: First Nations, Inuit and Metis fell short in its dietary recommendations by failing to acknowledge Aboriginal traditions and cultures. The guide, Barberstock said, assumed all people can eat the same things at the same time in the same quantities and remain healthy. Just not so.

In the absence of the ‘official’ guide, finding information on traditional diets was nearly impossible for members of the community. Enter Barberstock and her project, the Iroquois Ancestral Food Guide.

Looking to connect modern people with their traditional diets, the project addressed many of the gaps she identified including stressing the importance of regional, seasonal and even ceremonial foods, all items overlooked in the official guide. Through her partnership with the Oneida Health Centre and Oneida Culture & Language Centre, along with the New York State Museum and individual Oneida community members, Barberstock constructed a guide both useful and prescriptive.

She hopes this one project inspires others groups to reclaim their traditional diets.

Beyond the project, the program offered a host of other lessons as well.

“I picked up confidence – the confidence to know I could create a big project like this, oversee it and make it happen from start to finish. I don’t know if I had that before, when I started,” Barberstock said. “I also picked up some concrete skills – public speaking, ABCD (asset-based community development) training. All really valuable.”

Today, she remains passionate about Aboriginal entrepreneurship and economic development, and looks to find ways to improve socio-economic conditions in Aboriginal communities across Canada.

She is interested in launching her own business, and working on her masters in Geography.

“I think there are some exciting things for me to come,” she said.