Heidi Gravelle (right) and her grandmother, Elizabeth. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Heidi Gravelle elected chief, Tobacco Plains Indian Band

The Tobacco Plains Indian Band’s newest elected chief is excited to give back.

On July 5, Heidi Gravelle was elected Chief Councillor of the band. Beside her on council sits Avery Gravelle and Kyle Shottanana. Heidi received 37 votes to Leanna Gravelle’s 26. For council, Avery received 40, Shottanana received 45 and Darlene Trach received 39.

Past Chief Councillor Mary Mahseelah was first elected in July 1999 and served five terms; 20 years.

(Mary Mahseelah, Supplied)

Heidi left home after high school to pursue an education, and became successful in the field of human services in Saskatoon. Far from home, she felt a deep yearning inside her to return home and serve her community.

“That’s my passion; helping people, especially children in youth and especially the vulnerable,” said Heidi.

Leaving a small, tight-knit community such as the Tobacco Plains and travelling to an intercity metropolis like Saskatoon was, for Heidi, the definition of culture shock. Looking back, Heidi realizes that the she found her strength through the people in the Tobacco Plains; her relatives, and those whom she called family growing up.

“I believe that system (of people) I was raised in was my strength to get me where I went,” said Heidi.

That being said, 19-year-old Heidi had to learn quickly.

She saw many others, however, leaving remote First Nations reserves and travelling to the city in search of education and not being as successful as she was.

“The whole concept is, they’re there for a better life… education, to get a good job, to provide for their family, to give their kids a better life, to give themselves a better life. That was their reason for leaving but they get there, and there’s so much racism, there’s so (many) barriers for somebody coming from a reserve that’s fluent in their language and they don’t know how to operate outside of their own community,” said Heidi.

Once she received her education Heidi stayed on to help those who had fallen through the cracks; those struggling from addict ions, mental health issues, domestic violence and more.

“Working with people that are struggling like that, it’s just something that I felt I had to do,” she said.

The more that Heidi became enveloped in the work she was doing, the more programs she started to develop for struggling First Nations people. Everything she did; she always looked to her culture and her role models in life, as her foundation.

For the last two years, every time Heidi came home to the Tobacco Plains, she found it harder and harder to leave.

“I love my job, I love the friends and people I called family there, but something was missing, something huge was missing,” she said.

When she got the opportunity, Heidi applied and was the successful candidate for a job with the Tobacco Plains, working in the same field she was in Saskatoon; managing wellness.

“What I always said, is I need to give back to my people, because my people are hurting. And my people are suffering,” she said.

In the last year, there have been two youth suicides in the Tobacco Plains. Gravelle, trained in suicide intervention, hopes to help remedy this.

Gravelle had a strong upbringing with her father, and eventually her grandmother after her father passed away. Her grandmother, Elizabeth Gravelle, is no stranger to leading a community. She was the first female First Nations chief elected in Canada in 1960. This was another reason for moving home; to spend more time with 96-year-old Elizabeth.

When she returned home, Heidi saw that many of the programs put in place for First Nations people were being neglected. She said her biggest motivation to accept the nomination of chief councillor was to ensure that never happens again.

“When I grew up here… we’re humble people but we have a very strong sense of pride; Tobacco Plains does. We’re very proud people for working hard and doing what we can for everybody, and I want that back,” said Heidi.

“I think it’s there, and it take some strong people to band together and work together for everybody. Don’t leave anybody behind. Nobody should be forgotten and nobody should be left out. Whether you’re from here, or not. Whether you’re First Nations, or whether you’re not,” she added.

“We need to be the catalyst behind ensuring everybody is treated fairly, because we (as First Nations people) weren’t. So we know what it feels like,” she said.

Now in a leadership position, Heidi hopes to combine her knowledge of western education and teachings of her grandparents and amalgamate it to ensure the old ways aren’t lost, but also that they have a voice at every table, even nationally.

Change, Heidi explained, won’t come easy.

“My hope is to re-establish that we will work hard for you, but we also want you to work hard for us, as leadership, to not rely on status quo, and not rely on Indigenous Services Canada,” said Heidi.

“We need to be self-sufficient, we need to be self-reliant, and we need to put in that hard work to get us there, to where we don’t need them. We don’t need anybody. We will be as prominent and successful as the amount of time, work and effort we put in.”

In addition, she hopes this will set a precedent for the younger generation.

Heidi grew up hearing ‘it’s about the kids, they’re our next generation’. However, she feels that her generation was missed.

“We all left, because we weren’t given a voice,” she said.

“At the end of the day, we need to ensure that our young people have that confidence, have that backbone, and have that support to be our next leaders.”

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