As a child, Kayla Mansfield-Brown attended monthly zone meetings for off-reserve Native communities with her mother but has little recollection of her Native identity shaping her life much in those early years. Things changed though, at nine or 10, when her mother was hired as a facilitator through the Native Council. Suddenly her mom was always on the road or hosting workshops throughout Nova Scotia — often with her youngest in tow. As a result, Kayla’s connection to her Mi’kmaq culture blossomed quickly. “That’s where it flowered from” she recalls. “And from there I was really able to explore my Indigenous roots.”
In her early teens that connection to her Native identity deepened. The more she learned about her culture, the more she realized that (for her) being Native isn’t so much about who she is now, but who she’s becoming. As she gained a better understanding of her roots, she began to see the impact of intergenerational trauma and systemic racism on her people, and how her struggles were connected to her identity as an Indigenous woman.
At 15, and pregnant with her first child, Kayla sought to break the cycle of trauma. “What really kicked things into gear for me was having my oldest son.” Realizing education was her best chance to break free, Kayla had her baby, finished high school, and enrolled in the Recreation Leadership program at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC).
Owing to strained family dynamics, Kayla and her son lived in a women’s shelter for the length of her program. Over the same time, a partnership agreement between the college and Acadia University allowed students that completed NSCC’s two-year program to transfer those credits toward Acadia’s four-year Bachelor of Recreation Management. Armed with her diploma and acceptance to Acadia, Kayla and her young son relocated to the valley and moved in with her new love, and current partner, Kevin Brown.
Over the next two years, Kayla completed her Bachelors at Acadia. Although initially called Recreation Management, the school renamed her program ‘Community Development,’ which suited Kayla just fine. “It was much, much more fitting. Even the classes I was taking — Sustainable Community Development, How Communities Thrive, Healthy Communities… were way more up my alley in terms of serving my own people.”
A major in Environmental Sustainability also gave Kayla the opportunity to draw on Indigenous knowledge and traditions. “Having the knowledge is one thing, but applying it is significantly different. It was amazing. Community development was really the right fit, and the environmental component gave me the opportunity to explore environmental issues from an indigenous perspective.”
While initially planning to pursue a Masters in Community Development, one of her professors persuaded Kayla to consider a Masters of Education. Though she wanted to avoid getting stuck in the school system, the program’s Leadership stream focused on social justice, and — through community initiatives and leadership techniques — advancing equality for marginalized communities. It was an obvious fit, and she is set to graduate from the Masters of Education and Leadership program this winter.
Growing up in a large, extended (and blended) family, Kayla — now 26 — always knew she wanted a bunch of kids of her own. “From a young age, I knew that’s what I wanted because I had such a good experience growing up.” And with her oldest, Alex, now 11, a five-year-old daughter (Avila), three-year-old son (Jossen), and a fourth due to arrive at the end of September, she and Kevin are on track for the large clan of their dreams.
On top of juggling post-secondary school and their hectic family life — her oldest son has ADHD, their daughter just received a provisional autism diagnosis, plus there’s the toddler, and her pregnancy — Kayla spends much of her time working and volunteering in her community.
For the past five years, she’s facilitated a parent group under the Native Council’s Child Help Initiative Program (CHIP), which provides culturally supportive services to Indigenous families who live off-reserve in the Annapolis Valley. Services run the gamut — from assisting families with access to the resources they need to survive and thrive — like employment services, food bank access — to acting as a reference with social services.
Every two weeks the group meets, bringing in people from the community to present information on developmental milestones, provide dental services, offer moccasin, dream catcher, cooking, and smudging workshops — and a lot more.
Building strong connections can be a lifeline to those in off-reserve communities. The impact of colonialism and structural racism is still felt today. It’s hard for Indigenous people to access the systems intended to help, which can be isolating. The group, says Kayla, “provides an opportunity for families — mine included — to be in a safe and supportive atmosphere and discuss these daily issues.” Coming together allows people who have found a way around or through the systems share their victories and the skills families need to move forward on their journey.
For Kayla, opening up the conversation and tending to the relationship between Indigenous and non-indigenous communities is essential too. Not only is her family of mixed heritage (her partner is non-indigenous and was raised in a traditional western household) but she believes learning to love ourselves and appreciate those around us is essential to reconciliation. For her family, that means building a healthy foundation between herself and Kevin that lets their kids thrive, and teaching them about their heritage in a way that respects their western roots, and appreciates the resiliency of their Indigenous identity. “We hope that they know and appreciate those struggles and how to counter them.” For her greater community, it’s about making space for dialogue. “It’s about having tough conversations, but having them in an open, supportive, and positive environment.”
One way Kayla encourages those conversations is through her involvement with a series of peace circles taking place in her valley community. Established to honour the alliance between the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq in Grand Pré, the circles are a continuation of the conversation of reconciliation started at Grand Pré 2017, a four-day celebration of the peace and friendship between the two communities, but on a smaller, grassroots scale.
Each week the circle covers one of seven sacred Mi’kmaq teachings — each represented through a sacred animal. One recent Saturday the circle was about love — as represented by the eagle. It was wrapping up when something extraordinary happened. “I kid you not — the biggest eagle flew over us. It was the most heartwarming, chills-up-your-spine experience. It flew so low, you felt you might touch it. I think we often take for granted that we live where we do and overlook much of the beauty. So when you have a new understanding of what that one animal means to a person or a nation, it gives you a new appreciation for it, too.”
Understanding and appreciation are needed today more than ever when it comes to improving relations between Indigenous and non-indigenous populations. Tensions over environmental issues — like pipelines, tire-burning, and water access, are mounting and show no sign of calming anytime soon. According to Kayla, “there’s not much more you can do to harm Indigenous peoples than harm Mother Earth.” Indigenous laws and ways of life — everything — connect back to the land. The continual degradation of the environment degrades Indigenous communities, too.
For Kayla, moving forward as an Indigenous woman is about understanding her identity, the history behind it, and how that history still has an impact today. It’s about being fearless and unapologetically Indigenous. It is accepting that the struggle is a part of who you are and learning to overcome. “It’s kind of a cliche, but when I look back on my personal experience, that’s all I have to go by. A big part of being an Indigenous woman is understanding self-empowerment and how powerful a force it can be. It’s an amazing experience, but it’s an ongoing one.”
And it’s an experience she’s been noted for. Last April, Kayla was recognized as an Indigenous Leader, when she received the ‘Fearless Leader’ Award at One Women’s Summit in Halifax.
With her Master’s degree about to wrap up, where will her journey take her next? “I love working hands-on with organizations and communities that are trying to meet the needs of Indigenous people through the work they do. There’s a poem by Rupi Kaur that I love that goes:
‘of course i want to be successful
but i don’t crave success for me
i need to be successful to gain
enough milk and honey
to help those around
“For me, it’s about continuing to educate myself, and others, so I can be assured they have the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge they need to get to where they want to be.”