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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

I stare into the mirror at my hair, soaked in Matrix SoColor, pulled back with pink clips. The dye runs along my hairline, blackening my light brown skin. Two babies back-to-back, postpartum depression and a move to a small town – all this in just over a year – has taken its toll. In desperation, I yanked my waist-length hair back in a ponytail and chopped it off. I hoped for a revelation. Instead, I went on mood stabilizers. Now, I’m ready to fix this badly self-hacked job.

The beauty parlour squats a few blocks from the town centre on the first floor of an old brownstone. You can hear the rumble of passing trains even inside this place.

I scan the room. Four older women sit in a row under the blow-dryers. Locals. They stare openly. I smile. No one smiles back. I pick at the skin around my fingernails. I’m the only Indigenous person here.

Jane, the chatty stylist, hands me a glass of water. I take a sip. She seems eager to put me at ease.

“Do other native people come to this salon?” I ask.

“Of course they do, honey.” She blushes.

Why do I even feel this way?

My hair is trimmed and full of volume. Jane pats my shoulders. (She is fantastic, I recommend this place. Five stars.)

“You look beautiful,” she says. “Make sure you come to me first if you feel the need to chop your hair again.”

My dad, a man of Serbian and Irish descent, explained to me years ago that because my skin was lighter than my two brothers, I would take less of a racist hit. He tried to reassure me, “You’re only half-native.” His words stung. Was he secretly troubled that his kids are Indigenous? Did he know we’d have an unfair playing field full of booby traps and potholes?

Standing to pay, I notice an older man in the waiting area. He’s staring. My anxiety kicks in. I reach for my inhaler. Hardly thinking, I add a 30-per-cent tip to the bill, grab a caramel cream and push out the door.

The cold winter air hits my face, and I breathe in deeply. My respirations slow. I head across the street and enter the pub. The waitress ignores me and walks by. Two older couples stare from beside sepia photos of pioneers building this town. Ancient guys in plaid shirts, bellies protruding, sit at the bar with their beers, eyeing me. I shift foot to foot. A cook with a stained apron tells me to sit anywhere. I find a spot next to the frosty window and pull out my laptop.

Not long ago, the big city was my haven. A place to blend in and be who I am. Here in this waterfront town of only one high school and two ice cream parlours, I find myself apologizing to older, white men who march smack down the middle of sidewalks or grocery aisles, their gait daring me to stand my ground. Invariably, I step aside with a meek “Sorry,” cringing at my words as I give way.

When I shop, I no longer pull out my status card – the ID that says I’m Tlicho Dene First Nation and entitled to moderate coverage on prescription medication and lower taxes on certain goods. Small compensation for the injustices done to my people. But I don’t want to be singled out, treated like an inconvenience every time I whip out government proof of what is rightfully mine.

When I was pregnant with my first son, my mother, a residential-school survivor, told me under no circumstances to let a health care worker other than my midwife check on my newborn in my home. I would be “flagged” in the system simply because I’m Indigenous. My status card alone would raise the risk of my infant son being taken from me, based solely on a social worker’s judgment.

Twenty minutes pass before the waitress takes my order. Halfway through my meal, she starts clearing the table.

“I’m not done,” I say quietly.

She shrugs, leaves and comes back with the bill. This outing is no longer fun. I pay and head out to pick up my toddler from daycare.

I’ve lived near Mohawk and Ojibwe communities for most of my life. Indigenous people know how racist nearby towns are. Sometimes, the stories are brutal and heartbreaking. Murder. Violence. Lack of equal access to necessities such as clean water. I ask other Indigenous people how they are treated by shop owners.

“I get followed around the store like I’m a criminal.”

“I get told all the time I look like Pocahontas.”

“My baby has blue eyes and blond hair. I get asked if I’m his nanny.”

Those are the best laughs.

I’m the mother of two boys, yet I still make myself small in the presence of white older men. Why? Am I afraid? Was this ingrained in me as a child in the strict Baptist church that I was forced to attend where only men were allowed to pray in public? Is it because I am a woman, or because of the colour of my skin?

I don’t know. But I do know something inside me needs to shift for my boys.

Across from the grey, cinder-block daycare, ornate Victorian homes sit high on a rocky hill. Brakes screech as a freight train winds through downtown, over a handful of trestles. I open the heavy door of the daycare and head down the hallway lined with children’s handprints in red, yellow, green and blue taped to the white panels. An elder wearing headphones dips the tip of a paintbrush into blue paint. She nods and returns to her turtle mural.

My son Dezeh, hair pulled back in a braid, runs to me, almost knocking me over and hugs my legs. Both our sons have Tlicho Dene names. At the daycare, no one asks why we didn’t choose “Canadian” names or why we aren’t cutting their hair. I linger longer than usual, asking his teacher about his day. Dezeh points to the door. He’s ready to hang with his Papa and Tibaa. We wave goodbye.

I pull on his boots and stuff his mittens and hat in his backpack. The sound of a train’s horn fills the air. Dezeh squeals, “Choo, choo.”

Outside, the sun dangles above the horizon, lightening the sky to pink. Spruce trees stand at attention on the hill. The red train engine roars by, pulling its green, yellow and black cars along the tracks. Dezeh punches his fist in the air and cheers.

I don’t know which side of the tracks I’m on. On which side I belong. What I do know is that as I leave the small town and wind down the quiet road, my anxiety melts away. Our home on the lake is just a 10-minute drive away – my new haven.

Laura Vukson lives a few hours north of Toronto.