Kelly Young was 15 years-old when her parents entered her bedroom and announced, “You are Mi’kmaw and a member of the Qalipu (ha-lee-boo) Mi’kmaq First Nation. We are going to a pow wow. Would you like to come with us?”

Taken aback by both the parental invasion and the news of her Indigenous lineage, Kelly declined and went back to being a teenager growing up in Stephenville, N.L., on the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. 

Once she left home to study biology and environmental science at Memorial University (MUN) in St. John’s, the province’s capital, Kelly’s interest in learning about her Mi’kmaq (mig-mah) heritage deepened.

“I’m reconnecting,” explains Kelly. “My family wasn’t fortunate enough to have had language and culture passed down. While I am privileged that my family wasn’t directly affected by residential schools, the colonial perception that Indigenous culture was not accepted, was very present. This caused people to hide their Indigenous identity.” 

Two hands hold a large, white feather with a black tip. There is a string of white, red, black and yellow beads coming from the end of the feather and loosely wrapped around fingers.
Kelly is passionate about reconnecting to her Mi’kmaq heritage and sharing her culture with others.

Kelly now works as an environmental, health and safety advisor for Suncor’s East Coast operations. The hazard assessments and safety policies she develops are unique as they focus on a worksite that is constantly moving—the Terra Nova Floating Production Storage and Offloading vessel that is anchored about 350 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 2018, Kelly joined Suncor through its Indigenous Student Program, but working for an energy company hadn’t been on her radar. 

“It was the opposite of what I wanted to do,” explains Kelly. “I had no idea what I was hoping to do after graduation, but I didn’t think it would be in oil and gas and I knew it had to be something to do with the environment.”  

To Kelly’s surprise, working in the health and safety field has shown her the value that Indigenous students can bring to an organization. “The people I work with, they really do care,” says Kelly. “I see firsthand that people are speaking up for the environment. I also see the work taking place with Indigenous awareness and realize I don’t have to work specifically in Indigenous relations to make a difference—that showing up and having authentic conversations in the office, makes a difference. It’s rewarding.” 

As a reconnecting, mixed Indigenous person, Kelly says she sometimes feels alone and nervous about taking part in ceremonies and other Indigenous events. But she feels supported by many people.

 “I have people in my life who ‘get it’ and understand what it means to be an ally,” says Kelly. “To me, it’s about people feeling like they can ask questions that help them better understand Indigenous issues. It’s people being open and vulnerable in these spaces, which takes practice—you have to keep asking the awkward questions, with respect and genuine curiosity. I see glimmers of this happening.”

 Some of the glimmers Kelly sees are in the eyes of the students at MUN, where she guest lectures on the effects of the first European explorer (William Cormack) to travel through Newfoundland and highlighting that Indigenous people made his trip possible.  She also sees curiosity in her fellow students in the Mi’kmaw language lessons she takes through the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. 

Kelly may be a reconnecting Mi’kmaw, but her commitment to honouring the culture and the first people of Newfoundland and Labrador, which also includes the Beothuk, Innu and Inuit, is fierce and strong enough to carry anyone  who wants to join her on the journey.

Kelly’s story, and that of many more inspiring Indigenous People from northern Alberta to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, and places in between, can be found in the 2022 edition of Pathways magazine. Visit our Pathways magazine page to read more.