Volunteer of the Month: Ross McRae, Wii’O’om’Niin Hazelton CRN

Ross prepares and shares traditional tea as part of the World Elders BIG LOVE Awareness Day program in June 2022. (Photo: Wii’O’om’Niin CRN)

Content trigger warning: This article mentions residential schools, sexual and spiritual abuse, and alcohol and drug addiction. The 24-Hour Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 is available if you require emotional support.

At the top of our conversation, Ross was clear: “If I speak from the heart, the words will just flow, and I’m good.”

We started our interview with a single question: “Who is Ross McRae?”. From there, Ross’s words flowed from him like the Skeena, his anecdotes connecting life events in the same way the river has connected Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Wetʼsuwetʼen families since the beginning of time.

He shared stories about culture, spirituality, his upbringing, his life’s work, the medicines, and the insight gifted to him by elders, family, community, and the land. The different chapters of Ross’s narrative skipped across decades of time like stones bouncing on glassy water, sending wisdom rippling towards whoever might want to, or need to, hear it. “The only way to help someone is if they want to help themselves,” he adds.

In between the stories, we laughed a lot. “Laughter is the best medicine,” he says. “I’ve been laughing since the day I was born. I’ve always been like this.”

Allow us the pleasure of introducing you to Ross (Fire Squirrel Chaser) McRae, a medicine man, an elder, a husband and father, a community leader, and a knowledge keeper based in Gitxsan Territory, which is also known today as Hazelton, BC.

Thank you, Ross, for sharing some of your stories with us and for all you do to support elders, youth, and families.

“Honouring All Parts of My DNA.”

“Gitanmaax is home: I was born and raised in Gitxsan Territory. My father is Gitxsan and of the wolf clan. My mother, who is from the coast, is Tsimshian and of the killer whale clan. My wife is Cree, and my daughter is half Cree. I need to learn all these languages – Gitxsan, Tsimshain, Cree – to honour them,” Ross says.

“I was forced to learn English, and that comes from my Scottish heritage” he chuckles.

“Advocating for the Voices that Can’t be Heard.”

“I am someone who grew up in the residential school environment without setting foot in a school,” Ross states. “I lived through the tragedies of addiction and spiritual and sexual abuse. I watched my father drown when I was six and then I saw my mother drink herself to death for a year and a half. I couldn’t get help because I was never actually enrolled in a residential school.”

Ross’s youth was spent in foster care, and he lived with his aunt full-time. “My auntie married a white man, so I learned the European way of things for 12 years,” he says. “I was also one of only a handful of First Nations kids in a school of 120 white kids.”

Bullying was a common occurrence, goaded partly by racism and partly from an undiagnosed learning disability. “I was one of the smallest kids in the school and became a bully to the bullies,” Ross explains. “I’ve always been this way. I want to advocate for the voices we can’t hear, like mine when I was a kid.”

Ross has worked with youth through a healing lodge program and a national youth survival culture camp for 20 years. Today, he is a justice worker with Gitxsan Wetʼsuwetʼen Unlocking Aboriginal Justice, he conducts traditional medicine workshops, and, with his wife Lorraine (Baby Skin) Half, he oversees Wii’O’om’Niin CRN’s Magical Backyard Medicines program.

In January, he will graduate from the Indigenous Focusing-Oriented Therapy (IFOT) program, a land-based training intensive that brings healing to people affected by violence, intergenerational trauma, and collective cultural and economic genocide.

“You Need to Get to the Roots, Or the Leaves Keep Coming Back.”

As a young man, Ross went to a cooking college and tried different jobs to see what fit. He experimented with truck driving, bartending, logging, milling, and fishing. He had multiple brushes with drug and alcohol addiction. The bullying continued well into his adult life. “I was angry at the government, the RCMP, and religion.”

Time and culture changed his life. “It wasn’t AA[1] that straightened my life out,” he says. “It was culture that did it.”

According to Ross: “You need to get to the root of an issue. Relapses are like leaves; they just keep coming back if you don’t get to the roots. The root causes of addiction for many of our people, me included, were the residential schools and the assimilation process. The thought and behavioural patterns from assimilation, including the abuse, were passed on from one generation to the next, from one family to the next one, and from one neighbour to another. This was what we knew. Alcohol and drugs had nothing to do with it. Now, we need to embrace culture, land, and the teachings of our elders to guide us back to our wellness. I want to be an advocate for getting to the roots of issues.”

“The Creator Kept Pushing Me to Governance.”

Ross is also a councillor for the territory’s band governance.

“The creator kept pushing me to governance, which I knew would help my voice get heard,” he says. “The first time I ran for council, I wasn’t elected, which was fine because I wouldn’t have made a very good councillor at the time.”

He stepped away from politics temporarily to do coursework and training in business and residential schools before he was nominated again by the community to run in the next election cycle. This time, he was successful.

“I’m part of a council made up of 11 women and me,” he says. “Did you know that our culture is matriarchal? Historically, chiefs were never men until the Europeans, who didn’t want to talk to the women, wanted to set up a trade route. The men were placed up front during conversations, but the women still made all the decisions from the back.”

“Connecting to Land and Wellness.”

Ross and wife Lorraine Half. (Photo: Wii’O’om’Niin CRN)

Being outside is Ross’s wellness plan. “Medicine takes up a lot of my time,” he says.

Hockey continues to connect him to his father’s spirit. “I’ve played since I was very little,” he shares.

While hockey connects him to family, golf is Ross’s meditation. “I finally was able to understand the feeling of deep meditation through golf,” he explains. “It’s the feeling of the perfect swing, the contact with the ball, and the vibration of the club. It is the feeling of perfection. I can spend five hours all by myself hitting a ball.”

Gathering medicines always connects Ross to the land.

“When I’m helping others with their wellness, I go with what they like. I’ve had success getting people outside by casually suggesting a round of golf or berry picking…anything to get people off their couches and chairs to connect with land and wellness. Sometimes my guidance comes in the form of trickery,” he teases.

Going back to land and culture, teaching others about traditional medicines, sharing stories, and staying committed to his own wellness has served Ross well: “I got everything I asked for – a wife, children, and a life.”

Why Ross is Our Volunteer of the Month

“Ross has made himself, his stories, his wisdom, and his time readily available,” says Belinda Lacombe, Regional Mentor – North Western BC. “Every day, he works to bring wellness forward across the Nations. He is a gift to the BCCRN movement, and I am forever grateful for his generous spirit.”

For more information about the Wii’O’om’Niin CRN and how you can get involved, contact coordinator Marilyn Brown at mq.brown@domesticpeace.ca. Be sure to also follow the CRN on their Facebook Page.

To learn more about Ross and Lorraine and the Magical Backyard Medicines program, read our article from the September 2020 edition of E-Connector and follow them on Facebook.

Written by: Debbie Chow, Links Communication Solutions. Follow Debbie on LinkedIn @debbiechowabc.

[1] AA = Alcoholics Anonymous

Header Photo courtesy of the Magical Backyard Medicines Facebook Page.

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