Rae-Anne LeBrun is a slam poet and youth-care worker with the Urban Native Youth Association in Vancouver. Here, she reflects on how her turbulent upbringing inspired her to serve Aboriginal youth.
In elementary school, I had to do a worksheet on my background, where I came from. I came home and said, “Mom, what am I?” She said, “What do you mean, what are you? You’re a girl.” I’m like, “No, mom—what’s your background?” She said, “Oh! You’re Maltese, Russian and Aboriginal.” I remember going up to my grandpa: “Grandpa, did you know I’m Aboriginal?” He looked at me and said, “Don’t talk about that.” I never talked about it with him again.
When I was younger, I was always entrenched in the street life. My family was very low-income. Drugs, gangs, all that kind of stuff was okay. Growing up in that environment, I went through a really rough patch. I started doing drugs at 12. My parents became very low-income and decided it’d be a great idea to start dealing drugs, so I got involved with that at 13. And then my house burned down. We lost everything.
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I was doing drugs and partying until Grade 9 or 10. Then one of my really good friends passed away. She was stabbed by her brother because of a drug problem. With that, enough was enough. So when I started cleaning up and going through my own journey, I started finding my culture. I started smudging and going to ceremonies. I got connected with a youth care worker, and it changed my whole life. She made me go to this photography program at the Urban Native Youth Association in Vancouver. At that point in my life, my culture and identity really saved me.
While that was going on my family was still not changing. My mom’s husband became a really aggressive alcoholic. Sexual abuse started happening. Physical abuse started happening. On Nov. 24, 2013, I left my house.
I got put into two different safehouses. I was living in Covenant House in Vancouver for a while, doing a program called Rights of Passage. Now I’m studying Aboriginal youth care at Douglas College.
I go to high schools and talk about homelessness and being proud of who you are. When you’re talking to these youth, they look at you like, “What? Being Aboriginal is cool?”
I love slam poetry. Zaccheus Jackson—a very famous Indigenous slam poet in Vancouver who passed away [in 2014]—started doing some poetry nights. At the time, I had so many emotions going through my mind. When I got up there on stage and let everything out, it really calmed me down and also gave me a sense of community. It felt like a family.
One poem I got asked to do over and over again was “Dear Mom.” It was about my mom and how I was really mad at her. This year, I performed a total switch-up, because of the transition I’ve gone through, about my mom being beautiful without makeup—that she’s a strong woman.
My mom and I didn’t talk for a few months after I left, but one day she called me, and she knew I was doing all these great things, and she was like, “Will you maybe help me make a medicine bag?” I said, “Yes! Of course!” She’s still finding her identity and her culture at an adult age, which is great. — As told to Luc Rinaldi
(Portrait by Jimmy Jeong)