Indigenous people have a champion in Edmonton

Cheryl Whiskeyjack is the confident leader of Bent Arrow

Whoever coined the phrase, “If you want something done, give it to a busy woman,” may have had Cheryl Whiskeyjack in mind. In addition to serving as executive director of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, a role she has held since 2008, Whiskeyjack is the co-chair of EndPovertyEdmonton, an executive board member on the Canadian Accreditation Council of Human Services, and a general member on the National Advisory Council on Poverty.

When she graduated from MacEwan University’s Child and Youth Care program and took a job at Bent Arrow in 1995, Whiskeyjack couldn’t have envisioned she’d be leading the organization 25 years later, but talking with her about her journey comes with a strange sense of destiny.

“Interest and fate led me here,” she says matter-of-factly.

She worked for 12 years with Shauna Seneca who, along with her husband Brad, founded Bent Arrow. Their goal was to use traditional aboriginal teachings to help children, youth, and families who were struggling in our urban environment. Seneca’s sudden death in December of 2006 led to Whiskeyjack being appointed to her position by the non-profit organization’s board of directors. 

“I learned a lot from Shauna, having worked with her and watched her for 12 years. But we aren’t the same. I may have stepped into her shoes, so to say,” she recalls, “but I was pulled in my own direction.”

In the years that she’s taken the helm of Bent Arrow, the organization has grown substantially and she finds herself doing a lot of work collaborating with other organizations outside of Bent Arrow. Whiskeyjack is very keen to share Bent Arrow’s strategic successes with other organizations serving urban Indigenous people. 

“I have great leaders within my organization and that allows me to get out in the community and use my time to support our work at other tables,” she explains. 

Developing partnerships like the C5 group comes naturally to her. C5 is a group of non-profits which includes the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Terra Centre for Teen Parents, Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre, Boyle Street Community Services, and Bent Arrow. Last year, they pooled resources to open the C5 North East Community Hub in the strip mall that houses Giant Tiger at Victoria Trail and 139 Avenue. It’s proven to be a vital place for the community’s families—many of them new to Canada and/or low-income—to gather, socialize, and learn.

I ask Whiskeyjack about what International Women’s Day means to her, if anything. Her response, like all of her responses, is calm and measured.

“I guess it’s nice that there’s a day. In my culture, women are very highly regarded,” she says with a smile. “So, it’s nice that there’s a day to celebrate women but in my culture, we aspire to do that as often as we can. I come from a matriarchal people, after all.”


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