Finding the way back to her roots

One course assignment began what has been a lifelong process of cultural exploration and learning for this grad.

By Meaghan Drury '12


If I could describe Vanessa Henry ‘13 in one word, it would be "inspirational."

Growing up in Hamilton, she knew very little about her background. "I was told ‘I’m native’ and I should be proud of who I am," shares Vanessa, "but I didn’t know what that meant."

Her father, a residential school survivor, with a family history of disconnection to their culture, did not utilize the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre (HRIC) resources for his own family. Although Vanessa did not know then, one day, she would work for that same organization.

As a Wasa-Nabin worker at HRIC, Vanessa supports urban Indigenous youth ages 13 to 18. Wasa-Nabin is Ojibwe meaning "To look ahead," so in many ways her role is to support youth on their journey to adulthood.

Vanessa’s passion for her work is evident. "Being an Indigenous youth growing up in the city, I can relate to the disconnect that happens with them," says Vanessa. "I was a part of the statistics. I was a high school drop-out. I was a teenage mom. I struggled with alcohol, after the loss of my partner in a fatal car accident in 2000. But I am hopeful I can help that change."

In her mid-twenties, Vanessa was looking for a change herself and some direction for her career. She enrolled in Mohawk’s College and Career Preparation program, known today as Academic Upgrading, to explore what she wanted to pursue in college. It was in this program that Vanessa truly began to learn about her Indigenous cultural roots.

Having heard the words "residential school" growing up at home, Vanessa wanted to know more. One elective course assignment on "whistle-blowing" began what has been a lifelong process of her own cultural exploration and learning.

Vanessa Henry outside her home in Hamilton.

Vanessa Henry outside her home in Hamilton.

It also happened that around the same time of this life-changing assignment, Kevin Annett, a former minister who famously exposed a history of abuse in residential schools, came to Mohawk to speak. Vanessa did her assignment on her lived experiences and the similarities Kevin shared in his talk including the history and impact of residential schools in Canada. "It was a huge eye-opener for me," says Vanessa. Through that assignment, meeting Kevin and doing her own research, she came to have a better understanding of her dad and how she and her siblings grew up.

She soon enrolled in Mohawk’s Educational Assistant program, graduating in 2013. Throughout her time at Mohawk, she would continue to find ways to incorporate every aspect of her own cultural learning into her studies. For an American Sign-Language course presentation, she signed a traditional hand drum song while her son was singing and drumming. In another course, she was assigned to write a children’s book, so she focused the content on the medicine-wheel teachings.

Fueled by her own curiosity, Vanessa was actively searching for understanding and healing for herself and her family. "I think about the generations in my family. My grandma, who didn’t have any rights and had her kids taken away. My dad being taken to a residential school and then having five daughters who had no connection to their culture. Even my three kids – my youngest has benefited the most as he learned as I was learning," explains Vanessa. "And now my grandson has it all."

At Mohawk’s Fennell campus, Vanessa spent a lot of time in the Aboriginal Educational Student Success Centre (AESS), known today as the Indigenous Educational Student Success (IESS). Eventually she was offered a part-time job. "I was meeting with elders and facilitating drum circles too," she says. Having connected with many staff as a student she has worked to maintain that connection since graduating.

Today, in her role at HRIC, she provides general support, works with youth in care who are placed in non-Indigenous homes to connect them to culture, and helps youth with educational pathways whether it is through mainstream or alternative schooling.

With over 30 programs offered through the Centre, Vanessa works with youth one-on-one to get them connected to what will work for them. "This is my passion. It’s my whole heart. I know I am the worker that I needed in my life."

A drive to connect to her community and culture has taken her from a disconnected relationship growing up – due to intergenerational traumas caused by governmental and church abuses – to working every day to instill a deep connection within the next generation of Indigenous youth, teaching and providing them community as they learn and grow together.

A true inspiration.