By Cari Kilmartin
Lisa’s passion for green energy is rooted in making the world a better place for her grandbabies, Anastasia and Zavier. She is currently studying to become an energy advisor with Newo’s energy audit branch.
life story so far
Lisa grew up splitting her time between Alexander First Nation in Alberta, and Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan. Nearly given up for adoption by a mother who, as she found out later in life, did not want her, Lisa spent the bulk of her first seven years living with her grandparents (mooshum and kookum) in Alexander.
Aside from a single day in a residential school, where she was shamed for only speaking Cree, Lisa did not attend school during her time with her grandparents. Set on keeping her and her older brother out of the residential school system, Lisa’s grandparents instead took them on the road. During that year of camping, Lisa’s education took a slight deviation from standard elementary curriculum.
“I learned a lot of things, like how to catch a fish, how to scale a fish. My kookum showed me a lot, like how to make a fire, how to make bannock over the fire,” Lisa says. “We used to go forage in the bush, me and my kookum. We had wild onions and a lot of berries and wild radishes in our bush. That was cool.”
When she was five, her mooshum passed away, prompting Lisa and her kookum to travel around Alberta and stay with various relatives.
“We hitchhiked, and my kookum would hide me under her dress when she was standing on the side of the road,” Lisa explains. “My kookum was a big woman and I was just a little kid, so I’d just come out of nowhere when a car stopped,” she says, laughing.
Reflecting on her childhood, Lisa’s love and gratitude for her grandparents is palpable, her time with them deemed “a blessing, because they took care of me.
“My kookum always had munchies in her purse, and we were never hungry. I thought we were rich, but I guess we were barely surviving,” she says lightheartedly.
When Lisa was seven, her kookum got sick, and Lisa’s mother took her back to live in Sweetgrass with her dad and five younger siblings.
“She came and got me, which was the worst thing ever because she was real abusive to me,” Lisa shares. “My mom and dad were alcoholics, so I practically raised all my younger siblings.”
But there was joy and lightness too; from the excitement of earning her own money babysitting to being able to laugh at the terrible haircuts her uncle gave her (now, anyways), Lisa is skilled at seeing the good.
“We had to do laundry outside and hang clothes. And in the fall, you could just hear the trees blowing. Oh, that was so therapeutic. Me and my sisters, after we would get done hanging clothes, we would just sit in the grass and just listen to the trees, and it was so nice. I loved it.”
A serious car crash at 15 left Lisa unable to have children, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a mother to “her boy,” Zachary. Lisa was there with her sister in the delivery room when her nephew was born.
“Me and my other sister were standing there behind the doctor, crying and holding each other, watching this baby being born,” she says, “The doctor wrapped him up and turned around and gave him to me. I was looking at him, and Zachary looked at me. He stopped crying, and we had that connection right there,” she shares.
Lisa would regularly babysit her nephew, but when he was 18 months old, the babysitting suddenly turned into a longer term gig.
“One day they just didn’t come back,” she explains, “I guess she had warrants or something. She went to jail for nine months. So, what was I supposed to do? I wasn’t going to give him away.”
So, Zachary was her boy. And though his living situation changed over the years, whether bringing home food from her serving jobs or sending him money while working in camp up north, she took care of her boy.
At 30, Lisa was thrown a horrific curveball. She found an incriminating video tape implicating her partner of 13 years in the abuse of his own grandchild. Devastated, Lisa packed up her things and left the house they had shared together as quickly as she could, bringing the tape to the police.
“I went on a bender, I was drunk for…I don’t know how long. And I was doing cocaine and crack and all that because of what I discovered.”
She went on, using drugs and alcohol to cope, until she was compelled to change.
“For a long time I was really toxic to myself. But then, when Zachary was 10, he was like, ‘I don’t want you to drink anymore, I want you to stay with me,’ because he was staying with my mom,” she says. “I had to sober up, and I didn’t know how, so I put myself in a mental hospital.”
She stayed in contact with friends and family during her three-month stay there, sharing that she was fine and sober, but never letting them know where exactly she was.
“Because I didn’t want them to know my shame. Because I felt guilty, like I couldn’t save that little baby, you know, because I was working all the time; I didn’t know he was doing that kind of shit. But how could I not know? Every day I just want him dead. But then I have to forgive him for me to get better, right? I have to let it go…but it just gives me anxiety.”
Lisa’s journey to peace hasn’t been easy or straightforward, nor did her discharge from the mental health institute mark the end of her struggle with heartache or substance abuse. But on April 2, 2014, Lisa called it quits on alcohol, and about a year later, she stopped using hard drugs. And how, you ask, did she calculate how long she’s been sober? Ever the loving auntie, she uses her niece’s and nephew’s ages to tally the years.
When asked what she is passionate about, without missing a beat and grinning ear to ear, Lisa blurts out, “Grey’s Anatomy!” She pauses, then continues.
“Watching my grandchildren grow up in a healthy environment, that’s what I want. That’s what I’m passionate about. That’s why I like green energy, because I want the world to be a better place for them.”
Her interest and awareness of the natural world was rekindled when she returned to where her kookum had taught her to find wild onions, radishes and berries.
“A few years ago, I took my nieces there to show them how to forage. Such a beautiful place when I was younger, but there was nothing and the creek was all dried up, so… that sucked,” she says. “After that, you know, I wanted to make the world a better place.”
In 2019, she enrolled in a course at Yellowhead Tribal College, where she ended up taking one of Newo’s first training courses.
“That’s how I got into green energy. But I was thinking about the future, about the grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
Lisa continues to be interested in the technological part of things — she is studying to become an energy auditor as we speak — but the heart and human side also call to her. In 2021, she started an initiative called Free Talk, where she hosted a small group of women with the goal of providing a safe, non-judgemental space for them to share stories and get their sorrows off their chests. She feels compelled to create this space, aimed at those experiencing domestic abuse but open to anyone, because, “I didn’t have that growing up, so I always looked for that kind of connection.”
However, creating such a space takes its toll. Lisa’s mental and physical health took a hit as a result, and she has had to take a step back for now.
But that hasn’t stopped strangers from feeling drawn to her and sharing their burdens with her.
“What I think is that the Creator put me on this earth to guide people, because why else would these people just come up to me, you know? There’s something about me that makes them feel safe. And I appreciate that. When I’m depressed, that’s what I think about. And it brings me back into the light, because I’m not here just to take up space, I’m here to help.”
rooted in people or place
From the welcoming people — strangers and friends alike — to the “million parks,” Lisa just loves Edmonton.
“When I go back to Saskatchewan, I always want to come back here. And I go to Alexander, I want to come back here. This is my home,” she says.
Though living in Edmonton hasn’t always been uncomplicated, it’s where she has found the most beauty, kindness, and support.
“I was homeless here maybe five or six years ago. For about a month I lived on the street, downtown Boyle Street, but then I found my cousin and lived with her,” Lisa says. “My cousin Laura and my auntie Linda were the ones who helped me to find a program, take a course, find work. And without their encouragement, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
A fighter known for taking on her fair share of physical altercations in the past, the self-described “one-woman army” ends with an elated revelation about her adopted hometown: “And you know what, I’ve never, ever fought here!”