Gender Equality Week Feature: Cherlyn Billy

Posted: September 24, 2020

Tag(s): First Nations Women

Gender Equality Week

Celebrating First Nations Women: Cherlyn Billy

Cherlyn Billy is a member of the Shuswap Nation who has spent over 25 years working in the areas of capacity building, human resources development, and governance. As a strategic facilitator and life-long learner, Cherlyn has been honoured to participate on Local, Provincial, and National committees.  She currently works for her Tribal Council, directing the Employment and Training Program.

Can you share about what you are currently up to, and what you see as your role in the broader community?
Having worked with Indigenous organizations for the past 25 years, I have evolved in my role from a student to advocate.  While I still maintain I am here to learn from those around me and work for my people in whatever capacity I am invited to, I must begin to share what I have learned and offer support and a path forward for those who are following.  

How do you see the role of women and gender-diverse individuals in your community evolving?
I have been honoured to spend time with ladies who are elders in our community. What they have taught me is that everyone has value and worth to our people. They have also shown me that humour and laughter are the key to getting through challenges.

In the past 10 years, I am happy to have witnessed a resurgence of women taking on more leadership positions within the community. The balance of power has ensured that the voices of women are now heard where before it was merely a quiet whisper.

I hasten to add though, the women in my family have always been the foundation to my community and more importantly, the Nation. And age and education have nothing to do with the impact a woman can make.  The experiences our people have endured have shaped who we are today in the same way it made our ancestors always keep their vision forward seven generations ahead. It is the experiences that our people encounter, especially, the loss of a matriarch that reminds us of why we are here today and why we cannot stop even though grief may be touching the surface. 

What has been a challenge you have experienced as an Indigenous woman, and how did you work through, or overcome this challenge?
The hardest challenge I had to overcome was when my cousin was murdered in 2013.  When it finally went to court in 2016, it was tough to sit in the court room to listen to how it happened and even harder to hear the sentencing.  When I hear of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, it hits home to me.  Having closure was important to my healing process.

After the sentencing, I stepped back from a lot of things including serving my community on Council. I found I needed to give my heart time to heal. I went back to our cultural ceremonies and began to sit with my aunties and work with the female youth. That time I took for myself, was important to not only grieve properly but also remind myself of the fact that as Indigenous women, our value is determined by how much care and love we take for ourselves and support one another.

What inspires and motivates you in the day to day?
In 2017, I undertook a challenge to myself to give back my time to some young female athletes who would be participating as the first U19 female box lacrosse team to play at the North American Indigenous Games. When I submitted my form to the Coaches to see if they would accept me to be the Team Manager, I felt excitement. It led to a chain of events that would bring me back to where I wake up and can only think of how honoured I am to have met these athletes, shared in their experience in Toronto, Ontario, and now, want to see how I can do more for them.

What I learned through volunteering my time with these young athletes is how sport, any type of sport, is a great training ground for leadership. Because of them, Storm Selects Lacrosse Society, was formed and continues to showcase and support our young female athletes and coaches in achieving their goals. It also compelled me to learn to play and obtain my Box Competitive Introduction – Level 2. 

The sport of Box Lacrosse is male dominated.  It is extremely physical, but it originates from Indigenous people. When I lived in Ontario for a few short years, I was able to witness the Haudenosaunee athletes play it with their finesse, skill, and pride. They refer to it as the Creator’s Game. It is a gift that they have shared internationally.

Lacrosse is considered medicine. I know it is part of my healing journey.  

How do you practice self-love, self-respect, and self-care?
Everyday I wake up and give thanks for being allowed one more day. Having an attitude of gratitude is so important to daily living especially during Covid-19. I have taken to going back to photography and getting back into walking and enjoying the scenery. It is easy to lose sight of one’s health and fitness especially when life gets busy. This year, I even went and helped my dad stack bails of hay. Never underestimate the power of quality time especially with your elders. My dad, Richard is 82 years old and reminds me that if I do not use it, I will lose it. He walks daily and never stops finding something to do.

Can you share some words of encouragement to other women and 2SLGBTQQIA+ individuals?
Growing up, my granny Maggie would tell me and my cousins that everyone adds value. She would say that no one is different. We are all one family. She used to also say that if someone hits one of you, that person hits all of you.  Her reason for saying that was to remind us that we are all connected.  Her words always stuck with me because her wisdom was reflected in how my family always treated one another. When you know your family whether it is the one you are born into or choose, you realize that there are no labels. We are just people.

I always go back to the quote given by one of my mentors, “We are spiritual beings having a human experience”.

How can people become allies and practically support gender equity?
What I have seen in the past half-century of my life is that gender equity pertains to respect more than policy. I know when I first accepted the nomination to run as Chief of my community in 1999, I did not expect to get elected.  Once I was in the role, I questioned myself many times and at one point, wanted to step down before my two years were up. But it was my Uncle Hubert William who sat me down and said, “When people have placed faith in you, you can not leave it until you are finished”.  What I understood at that moment is I am where I am supposed to be to get a job done.  I had to learn to delegate tasks and build relationships.  Even more importantly, I had to listen and learn. I was fortunate I had the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council Chiefs, such as Chief Manny Jules, Nathan Matthews, Ron Ignace, and Arthur Manuel to mentor me. My relationship with my colleagues at this pivotal point in my life is that not every person who puts their name forward will ever get the chance to have a title and responsibility, and taking a seat at the table equates to responsibility as well as opportunity. Like any relationship, if you want it to be sustainable, it must be built on respect. While these Chiefs could have treated me differently, they took the time to share and support me in my role. It is one of the reasons I take pride in working for my Nation and people.

Similarly, when I was nominated to sit at the table as a founding Board of Director with the First Nations Revenue and Gaming Limited Partnership in 2019, I did not see my role as the only female sitting at the table, I saw it as me sitting with my peers.

As my late mom, Lorraine, used to say, “Until people see you as a person, you will always be different. It is only when they truly see you as a person, then there will be no reason for people to question your reason for being there”. It’s so important to be present and involved because there’s always a purpose.