By Jessica Ryan

Jillian is one of the newest (and most instantly indispensable) members of the operations team at Newo. She is also assisting with food sovereignty projects, and exploring how structured rhythms, food/medicine, and community contribute to wellness and feelings of abundance.

life story so far

Jillian Barvir grew up in a house on a golf course between Okotoks and Calgary with her father, mother and older brother, “not really in the city, but not really in the country either.

“I was a very scheduled kid, I would say.” Between swimming, hockey, dance, guitar, voice and piano lessons, “My mom was essentially a full-time chauffeur for our lives.”

With so many activities to enjoy, settling on one path was daunting.

“How do you pick one thing to do? The idea of choosing and having a career for the rest of your life was a question that brought me a lot of anxiety.”

Her Catholic grade-school education (though her family isn’t religious) extended to St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, where she studied psychology, then general science, then human nutrition. No one course resonated as she grappled with the question of what she wanted to do with her life.

And then Jillian took a summer course called “Mind, self and society” that involved visiting a Buddhist monastery in Cape Breton. The professor, Dr. Adela Sandness, was incredible.

“I loved learning from her. I loved her teaching style. She would start every class by asking everybody what their favourite thing was since we last saw each other, and it just cultivated such a high vibe in the classroom.”

Jillian delved further into Eastern religions under the mentorship of Dr. Sandness, ultimately graduating with a Religious Studies degree.

Jillian in hockey and dance attire
With her mom at high school graduation

turning points

She had almost studied somewhere else, having intended to follow her brother to Queens University in Ontario until her grandparents advised her to forge her own path.

“I think that if I had gone to Queens, I would obviously be living a drastically different life,” she said. “Meeting Dr. Sandness, and the religious studies department, was a huge turning point. I think many of my beliefs and values that I currently hold are based in what she taught and the experience I had mentoring under her.”

Turning points sometimes occur when there is a life-changing decision to be made, when we have the agency to determine which path we will take. Midway through university, the change of direction Jillian experienced was not of her choosing.

“I ended up losing my mom in my third year. Although I wanted to drop out of university at that time, my family encouraged me to carry on, believing that a task to focus on would help me through my grief. Dr. Sandness’ courses provided spiritual guidance at a time when I desperately needed it,” Jillian said. “I never knew or thought that her courses would lead me on a path, but in a way they have I suppose.”

After graduating from university, Jillian headed to Haida Gwaii and did a six-month apprenticeship on a farm on an island in the middle of nowhere. There was no electricity, the apprentices showered in the garden and they took the produce on a little fishing boat into Daajing Giids (formerly the Village of Queen Charlotte) to sell at the farmers market every week.

“That drastically changed the trajectory of my life. I was applying to several master’s programs and I would have gone a very academic route if I hadn’t have done that. It led me to travel for a few years, but still working through the grief and trauma of losing my mother to suicide, I found myself in my dad’s basement for six months, suffering from depression. My dad gently supported me through this time, as he had done for my mother for so many years, helping me to rebuild my spirit. If it weren’t for his love and endless encouragement to do what brings me joy, I would not have had the courage to continue on the path of farming, moving from his basement to Red Deer, where I met Phil (Rioux, her partner, and brother of Newo’s Sebastien).”

A goal-oriented person, Jillian is intentional about breaking down her aims into daily tasks that become habits.

“If I’m going to be doing something, I want to make sure that I’m doing it for a reason and that I’m being kind to my future self,” she said. “I think all decisions ultimately are turning points. Yes, there are major events that happen in our lives that impact us more than the little things, but I do appreciate the details and think that the small decisions make a massive impact as well.”

Lynda, Jillian, Jack, Brittany, farming Haida Gwaii
MESC saskatoon planting4
Dad and Jillian having girl’s night

core values

Four main principles guide Jillian these days.

“If I’m not healthy, I’m not really able to do good work or be present for other people,” she said. “From the food that I buy, to how I set up my day, to the people that I interact with, to what I allow in my mind (the content I read or watch), it’s all very important to me, and I attend to my health as my number one goal and value.”

Second: the idea of community, which she has recently been able to experience in a new way.

“I don’t feel like I had that growing up. I mean, I had great family, great friends, but not a core group of people with the same values, interested in living a similar life. And now I feel I do have that, and I value it tremendously.”

Her third major value is encompassed in the word “wilderness,” both wild, untouched external places in nature, and wilderness within people.

The latter idea stems from the book Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, which encourages readers to connect with and listen to their intuition, something Western society seeks to tame, often to the detriment of its denizens.

“I resonate with that deeply,” Jillian said. “You’re meant to value other people’s opinions of you and you’re given a gold star for doing what someone else wants of you. I felt very cut off from what it is my heart actually wants. What do I want to be doing? Did this decision I just make come from me? Or did that come from what I think others expect of me? And I think I’m still exploring this.”

Lastly, Jillian values beauty: within her home, in the meals she prepares, and beyond.

“In any space I cultivate or anything I do,” she said, “I want to put forth something that’s beautiful into the world as an offering.”

Jillian, mom, brother in Waterton Lakes National Park; Rioux familiy pyramid; among Edmonton friends

rooted in people or place

There is something special for Jillian about Waterton National Park, where she grew up spending summers with her grandparents.

“No matter where I’ve travelled, when I just think about the flora and fauna of that area, something changes in my heart where I feel called, or a longing to be there, and I need to visit every once in a while to satisfy something inside of me.”

Beyond that childhood connection to Waterton, however, human connections are currently encouraging Jillian to grow roots in Edmonton.

“Right now, I would say what’s calling me to this space and this area is people, it’s my relationship with Phil, and now the friendships and community that I’ve developed. If they were to move away, that would drastically change how I feel about living here.”

Two months after meeting on a farm in central Alberta, Jillian and Phil had to decide whether to go back to their respective hometowns in the south and north, or just jump right into a relationship. From that point on, Jillian was drawn into the extended community of Phil’s friends, meeting people who shared similar values and dreams, and with whom she has formed a tight-knit circle.

“My decision to move to Onoway was made from my heart, not my head, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. The love I’ve found with Phil, the second family I have in the Riouxs, and the friendships I’ve made are extraordinary. My heart knows what I need more than my head ever will.”