‘This is the time’: Cree woman hopes to amplify Indigenous youth voices as advocate
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WINNIPEG – Sherry Gott spent her childhood watching her grandmother care for people in Sapotaweyak Cree Nation in Manitoba.
Gott’s grandmother was there to help usher new lives into the world and she was there to tend to those who moved onto the spirit world.
It was watching her grandmother take on various roles in their community, about 600 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, that would determine the trajectory of Gott’s career.
“Her helping people inspired me to be in that role, too,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Gott, 58, has held many titles, but in each of them the desire to help her people has always been present. She has worked in various capacities as a social worker in the child-welfare system and, most recently, within the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison Unit at Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an advocacy group for First Nations in the province’s north.
She’s now carrying on that helper role as the province’s newest advocate for children and youth.
Gott started her new position last month after a vigorous application process.
Since taking office, she’s been catching up, preparing for the release of reports and arranging meetings with the provincial government.
Gott was the deputy Manitoba advocate for two years until she left in 2020. Calls from her elders led the mother and grandmother back.
“The elders in the community were tapping my shoulder to apply for the position,” Gott said. “They said this is the direction I should go.”
One of them was Louise Lavallee, who is part of the office’s elder’s council and has known Gott for nearly two decades.
“I told her she was going to be (the advocate),” Lavallee said with a laugh.
“She is so strong. It’s not so much to the please the staff or the government. She’s there for the youth and she’s worked with youth long enough to know how to do that.”
Many who know Gott say she is dedicated to bettering the lives of those around her and that she is community-minded and rooted in her Cree culture and identity.
Gott was by raised on the land by her grandparents in Sapotaweyak until she was seven, when she was forced to attend the McKay residential school in Dauphin, Man. During school breaks, she would return to the community and try to re-establish the connection to her culture.
As an adult, she made the effort to go back to her teachings and her community when she could.
“My heart is still there,” she said. “That’s important for me, that spiritual growth, as I walk every day.”
That community connection will be pivotal as Gott gets established in her new role, says Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, who has known Gott professionally for the past decade.
“Sherry is very about building pathways,” Anderson-Pyrz said. “You have to understand community and be connected to community to be able to amplify the community’s voices.”
In a province where about 90 per cent of children in care are Indigenous, some say it’s long overdue to have an Indigenous person in the position. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs employs its own First Nations family advocate, but they operate separately from the Manitoba advocate’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 up the voices of all children in the province with a special focus on Indigenous children and communities to ensure they get the services they are entitled to but are severely lacking.
Across the country, Indigenous children account for almost 54 per cent of all children in foster care, data from Statistics Canada’s 2021 census indicates.
Gott is not the first Indigenous person to helm the office. There have been at least two other Indigenous advocates, including Wayne Govereau, who was appointed the province’s first children’s advocate in 1992.
But as Indigenous children remain overrepresented in the child-welfare system and as communities exercise jurisdiction over child welfare services through federal legislation, Gott understands the importance of stepping into this role.
“In the age of reconciliation, this is the time.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2022.