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Mothers Day memories with Sherry Saevil, HCDSB's Indigenous Education Advisor

Remembering Sherry's mom, Hilda Johnstone, an indomitable spirit who raised nine children in the face of impossible odds
Sherry's mother was a firebrand and fierce advocate for her children | Sherry's mom, Hilda Doreen Johnstone was a Cree woman from Mistawasis First Nation. She is shown here at 17 in 1950 with her sisters Verna (left) and Louise (middle). | Provided

To mark Mother’s Day this year, Oakville News sat down with Sherry Saevil nee Lanceley, Indigenous Education Advisor at Halton Catholic District School Board, to remember her mother, Hilda Johnstone. 

Hilda was a Cree woman born in 1933 on Mistawasis First Nation, outside North Battleford, SK, where the rolling aspen parkland meets the scrubby northern prairie in Treaty Six territory. She was a residential school survivor, a fierce mother, and a teacher of lessons. 

"My mom was a force to be reckoned with," Sherry remembers. "Because she had the strength and tenacity of her own life, she gave that to us too. We learned things may get tough, but you don’t give up because it’s going to get better, be patient because doors will open."

"She would always tell her kids, ‘Get your education because you don’t want to end up like me,’" Sherry says. "I saw enough of what my mom endured to know that I never wanted to have that life."

By the time Sherry was a toddler, her mother had been widowed twice and struggled to support her five children as a single mother in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

When Hilda sought support from social services, the response was to forcibly seize Sherry and her siblings, placing them in foster care. A phenomenon later called the Sixties Scoop was in full swing, and Indigenous families were being separated in similar seizures across the country.

"We never grew up with our mom for the first ten years," Sherry says. "She was dealing with the effects of residential school and the trauma and injustice of being a poor Indigenous woman. She was a very kind mom, but she also wanted to do better."

One of Sherry’s earliest memories is how her mother advocated for her children, even if the family couldn’t live together.

In one of the first foster homes, the foster parents were abusive. During a supervised visit, Hilda observed welts on her daughter’s back.

"When she lifted me up, I arched my back in pain and screamed. I remember this, at two-years-old, my mom’s act of resistance and tenacity – she stayed in that room and wouldn’t leave until she knew her children were not going back to that home."

After that, Sherry and her sister Darlene went to a family that offered a more respectful and loving environment.

Sherry (right) and her big sister Darlene | A photo of Sherry and her big sister Darlene in foster care in Prince Albert, SK, in 1964. | Provided
Sherry (right) and her big sister Darlene | A photo of Sherry and her big sister Darlene in foster care in Prince Albert, SK, in 1964. | Provided

Although she wouldn’t realize it until later, her political sensitivities and activism were set by observing her mother’s response to living in an unjust society. 

Around the age of nine, Sherry remembers when her siblings had rejoined her mother permanently. It was the early 1970s, and there were still signs around Prince Albert, SK, enforcing racial segregation – separate water fountains for white people and others for Indigenous people.

One day, her mother took her and her siblings on an outing to a department store called Kresge’s that had a restaurant inside where Indigenous people were openly discriminated against. 

Sherry Saevil | Sherry Saevil is the Indigenous Education Advisor for Halton Catholic District School Board, and mother of three grown daughters herself. She shared stories of her mother with the Oakville News for Mother
Sherry Saevil | Sherry Saevil is the Indigenous Education Advisor for Halton Catholic District School Board, and mother of three grown daughters herself. She shared stories of her mother with the Oakville News for Mother's Day 2022. | Jennifer Boyd

"My mom had the money to pay for the french fries and a pop, but the waitress refused to come to the table because we were visibly Indigenous,” Sherry recalls. “They told my mom if you want service, you’re going to have to sit at the counter."

"At the time, it felt shameful. I didn’t want people to get upset with my mom or people looking at us. I didn’t know what she was doing at that time, but now I wonder what other stuff she had to endure in that society. We sat there for a long, long time."

Sherry remembers eventually leaving the store with her family when they got too hungry to keep up their small protest, but the experience stayed with her. “I know it was an act of resistance.

"There were all sorts of stuff I was exposed to when I was younger – I was still a kid in an adult world, and a lot of the stuff never made sense, but on the other side of the coin, I am glad I experienced it. It made me empathetic – things don’t always go the way you planned."

Although Sherry was now reunited with her mother, home life was far from ideal. Her new step-father was abusive, there were new half-siblings, and the children were all exposed to alcohol-fueled battles that often got violent. By the time she was 16, Sherry had moved out, dropped out of Grade 10, and become pregnant. 

Although she wasn’t living at home, she still needed a parent’s consent to terminate the pregnancy and Sherry’s mom wouldn’t sign. Sherry was ashamed and feared what others would think of her. However, she now recognizes, "it was a lesson: this is something you have done, now you have to figure it out."

"I figured it out pretty fast. I thought, I can’t keep this child because I know what my life would be like – it will be a life of poverty and welfare. I stayed with my sister until I had the child, and once I had him, I gave him up immediately." 

Shortly after that, she moved to Saskatoon and started working in the restaurant industry, making her way up from the bar to waiting tables at fine dining.

Her older sister had finished high school and headed to university as a mature student. "She was a role model to me," Sherry recalls. "I was 20 or 21 and working as a waitress. I was getting some good tips because I was young and pretty, but I realized this may not always be the way. ‘How many tips am I going to get when I’m 50?’"

She remembers the happiest day of her life was the day she got her acceptance letter to attend the University of Saskatchewan as a mature student.

"I thought: this is going to change my life, intellectually, emotionally, financially. And it has."

Sherry graduated in 1992 with a degree in Native Studies and Criminology. "Coming from a poor community, you never would even think to go to university because university was only for white people who had money."

After receiving her degree, she worked for several Indigenous organizations, starting her career with the Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research Centre in Manitoba, where she was the lead researcher in archival research.

Afterwards, she spent five years at Six Nations of the Grand River Territory as an assistant director focusing on land claims research in preparation for submissions to the federal government, then as Six Nations Justice and Law Coordinator to her current role with the School Board.

In February, Sherry was the recipient of the Rotary Clubs of Oakville 2022 Paul Harris Fellowship Award. She has lived in Halton for 25 years with her husband. The couple had three children, all of whom are adults now.

"I loved her for who she was and accepted her," Sherry says, reflecting on her mother's journey.

Although Hilda faced poverty and addictions, abuse and deprivation, she lived to see all of her children attend post-secondary, and some went on to purchase their own homes. More importantly, all have broken the cycle of poverty. 

"That’s pretty amazing - to have gone from poverty to middle class in one generation," Sherry remarks. "And our story is not any different from other Indigenous folk across the country."

Sherry’s mother was 78 in 2011 when she passed away from cancer in Saskatoon.

"There’s still healing I have to do, but she did the best she could have done with what she had," Sherry says. "Even as an adult, I still never wanted to disappoint my mom. She would always look at me with a smile in her eyes."