Beating the odds

Danette Dooley
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Returning to his traditions saved Jason Morrisseau from the violence of the streets

Jason Morrisseau's childhood was entrenched in drugs, jail and native street gangs. "I remember one teacher saying to me, 'You'll never accomplish anything.' We had a lot of family problems ... and we probably reflected that in our daily lives as children," the recent Memorial University graduate recalls.

An Ojibwa native born on a First Nations reserve in northwestern Ontario, Morrisseau says life on the reserve meant living in a close-knit community, but it was not without its share of social problems.

Jason Morrisseau works at the St. John's Native Friendship Centre. - Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram

Jason Morrisseau's childhood was entrenched in drugs, jail and native street gangs. "I remember one teacher saying to me, 'You'll never accomplish anything.' We had a lot of family problems ... and we probably reflected that in our daily lives as children," the recent Memorial University graduate recalls.

An Ojibwa native born on a First Nations reserve in northwestern Ontario, Morrisseau says life on the reserve meant living in a close-knit community, but it was not without its share of social problems.

Many of the older people were victims of the abuse that had taken place at the residential school on the reserve, he says. "We were basically targets of that colonialism that happened with the residential school survivors."

At age 14, his parents had divorced and Morrisseau moved to Thunder Bay, Ont. with his mother.

By age 15 he was living on his own, often seeking refuge in homeless shelters.

During the next two years, Morrisseau moved from place to place, province to province, where shame and racism followed him like shadows.

"I got into a lot of trouble and I left Thunder Bay and moved to Sudbury. The same thing, lots of trouble. Then I moved to Vancouver. Same thing there. And then to Winnipeg."

It was there Morrisseau realized that, in order to survive, he had to turn his life around.

"I was pretty heavily involved with the street gangs out there. ... I got to the point that enough was enough. It was either there would be some sort of change or death or gangs."

In his search to find himself, the teenager headed back to the reserve.

"I used to drum and sing and do all these traditional ceremonies. And coming back to that meant big changes for me. I got away from all the negative living. ... I wanted to live a life that I was proud of, that wasn't full of shame."

Morrisseau's life began to change for the better once he reclaimed the traditions of his youth.

"I did that for about five years; it's what we call following the pow wow trail. ... It makes you feel proud again," he says.

Morrisseau visited Newfoundland about six years ago and began teaching drumming and dancing to young people at the St. John's Native Friendship Centre.

It was there he met his fiancÉe, Amy Hudson, a Metis from Black Tickle, Labrador.

After the couple's daughter Kaya was born - "Her name means wisdom in our language," he says - Morrisseau became determined to further his education.

The fact that he hadn't completed Grade 8 didn't deter him from applying to Memorial University.

After meeting the university's special admission criteria, he was admitted in September 2006.

According to Memorial University's associate director of communications, Ivan Muzychka, the university's admission criteria requires that students have a high school diploma with an overall average of 70 per cent in specified courses.

However, Muzychka says, the university is sensitive to the fact that not everybody's life circumstances allow them to meet those criteria.

Therefore, he says, individuals over 21 years of age can apply for admission as mature students, under a special case category.

Applicants must submit two letters of reference, as well as a letter outlining why they didn't finish high school or obtain the grades necessary for admission. The letter must also include why they feel they'll be successful in pursuing a degree.

Memorial's special admission committee then reviews the information and decides whether or not to allow the person to register.

Such special circumstances are often looked upon favourably by the committee, Muzychka says.

"Coming into the university with no education was like being thrown into an alien world. But I was able to pull through it. I read a lot of books on the side about reading and writing," Morrisseau recalls.

During his time at Memorial, Morrisseau helped establish the Aboriginal Students' Taskforce with a handful of other students.

The taskforce has grown over the years and now boasts over 100 members.

Morrisseau recently graduated with a BA (honours) in political science with a minor in aboriginal studies.

His fiancÉe has also graduated from Memorial, with a BA in sociology.

Both Morrisseau and Hudson will pursue master's degrees at the University of Victoria in the fall, but Morrisseau's education won't stop there. He's goal is to pursue a doctorate degree in indigenous rights, work with the United Nations and teach at a university.

St. John's Native Friendship Centre executive director David Penner says Morrisseau has contributed a great deal to the centre.

"Jason was instrumental in resurrecting the First Nations drum group. He brought to us a lot of Ojibwa ideas and beliefs and exposed us to that culture," Penner says.

In addition to his duties while working at the centre, Penner says, Morrisseau has contributed "countless hours" as a volunteer, particularly at the organization's youth centre.

"He's been an excellent youth elder to the young people down there and a very, very good resource."

The anger and fear that plagued Morrisseau's childhood and youth has been replaced with pride in his people, his culture and his family.

"The two things that kept me going were self-empowerment through my culture and my daughter, who has really changed my life. She's my hero."

danette@nl.rogers.com

Organizations: First Nations, BA, University of Victoria United Nations

Geographic location: Ojibwa, Thunder Bay, Northwestern Ontario St. John's Sudbury Vancouver Winnipeg Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Jennifer
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    Congrats Mr. Morrisseau,

    You are an asset to the Aboriginal community.

    Good Luck with you future

  • M
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    Thank you for sharing your story. I believe that you are making a big difference. The return to the old ways has been very healing for others. Nyahweh. M

  • John
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    I have met this man once, and he is an amazing guy. He had such a hard life and changd everything around. He loves and lives for his culture and is indeed a great bnefit to all Aboriginal people. Definately a fututre leader!

  • Jennifer
    July 01, 2010 - 19:55

    Congrats Mr. Morrisseau,

    You are an asset to the Aboriginal community.

    Good Luck with you future

  • M
    July 01, 2010 - 19:51

    Thank you for sharing your story. I believe that you are making a big difference. The return to the old ways has been very healing for others. Nyahweh. M

  • John
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    I have met this man once, and he is an amazing guy. He had such a hard life and changd everything around. He loves and lives for his culture and is indeed a great bnefit to all Aboriginal people. Definately a fututre leader!