The Art of Conversation with The Whirlwind Woman

Some people make you wonder why you just instantaneously gravitate towards them – Pollyanna McBain is one of those amazing individuals. Chalk it up to her beautiful smile that reaches her eyes every time, and is contagious, or her naturally maternal vibe – always so caring; or her genuine interest in what you have to share – you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t love her. And, this is why I knew I had to get to know her more through Arts Council of Wood Buffalo’s (ACWB) Art of Conversation project earlier this summer. Another major reason was my quest to get to know more about the Indigenous culture, learn, and grow, and this was just the opportunity.

Art of Conversation was launched last year before the pandemic in partnership with the St. Aidan’s Society as artists led seniors through a series of art-making workshops. And, then the world changed due to COVID-19 and so the program evolved as well.

Luay Eljamal, Programs Manager, ACWB explains.

“After conversations with the St. Aidan’s team, it was clear that the senior and Elder communities were in high need of psychosocial support. We wanted our project to help bring people together in a meaningful way, that didn’t necessarily over-rely on the use of video technology, because we knew that seniors who didn’t have access to those technologies were the ones who needed the support the most. That’s where the Art of Conversation came in. The idea was to have artists engage in phone conversations with seniors and Elders, and then create a new piece of art inspired by that conversation. Arts Council would purchase the artists’ completed pieces, with the goal of having it gifted to the partnered senior or Elder.”


In the first year, ACWB had 34 seniors interact with 30 artists, from Fort McMurray to Janvier and Fort Chipewyan. Currently, they have approximately 30 pairs of artists and seniors working together. Artists have produced a variety of pieces ranging from poetry to songs to paintings and more.

Back to Pollyanna. She is Mi’kmaq from Eel River, Bar Reservation in New Brunswick, has a traditional name of Whirlwind Woman: Ugjusinesgw (pronounced: Ook jew son iskw). Yet, as you’ll read in my poem “The Whirlwind Woman,” produced as a result of the project – not a thing about her is chaotic from her soft way of speaking to her gentle interactions. As I mentioned earlier, the reason for wanting to feature Pollyanna for the initiative was to learn more about the Indigenous culture, and do my part in creating more understanding of their beautiful ways.

The first of our many conversations began with her ancestors, who she says are always there to guide the Indigenous.

“We are always receiving signs of guidance from our ancestors – consistent hints from the universe,” she shares.

“I enjoy all the ways of our traditions. We are strong female warriors, life-givers, always taking care of our family. We are the shakers – always making things happen. We celebrate our individuality as women, taking care of ourselves, and others. Our strength and resiliency makes us stand out. All women are resilient, but Indigenous women have a higher resiliency.”

Indeed, she knows a thing or two about that resiliency when she began taking care of her seven siblings, to help her mother who was a residential school survivor, and often inebriated. This meant dropping in and out of school, and then high school. But, eventually she secured her education, and became a teacher.

“Our Elders always taught us to have hope. And, I used to wonder what hope looked like – when I was treated like a number in school, and the Indigenous still are sometimes. The British changed the face of our history 500 years ago in the East Coast, and 300 years ago out West. We were lied to and cheated. And, still are. We used to live in harmony and balance with the land, but they changed it. But, we are finding our way back.”

“I have these life lessons of hope taught to me by my grandma, Nancy McBain, who was our primary caregiver. In Indigenous households a grandparent’s job is discipline, and parents provide love. She used to make us laugh, and I have happy childhood memories of going to the beach, digging clams, selling them with my uncles, and making baskets,” Pollyanna remembers.

She continued this bridge building in Wood Buffalo. Last year, Pollyanna, 57, who is the Cultural Navigator for the Fort McMurray Public School Division received the Angel Among Us Esquao Award in Culture from The Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW).

“I love being in schools, and teaching students plus learning from them. Indigenous teachers have a lot to offer when it comes to teaching about Mother Earth and Father Sky.”

When I asked her what it is that she would want people to know about Indigenous ways, her immediate response was to put more effort in understanding, and taking the time out to do just so.

“The last residential school shut down in 1996, which was just 25 years ago. We have gone through a terrible time; don’t judge us. And, we still are going through terrible times with missing and murdered Indigenous women, graves being found of residential school victims. Indigenous women are forced through tubal ligation without their consent – which happens a lot in SK, MB and BC. I don’t know why all this happens? But, a better understanding is the solution. It’s so important to get to know your neighbours. Ask us questions.”

Pollyanna has high hopes for the new generation, which she says is “more spiritual.”

“They want to save the trees, the planet. They are going to be that change we need. The pandemic has changed attitudes too. People are finally taking a closer look at their lives, and surroundings and don’t like what they see, because they’ve never slowed down before.”

Commenting about the Art of Conversation, Pollyanna dubs the program an “opportunity for those who want to listen.”

“Sharing is exciting. This is a morale booster for seniors, and Elders, who can be quickly forgotten. This program keeps our hearts young. ACWB has always created inclusiveness. Art gives us the opportunity to create change with different perspectives.”

Indeed, change comes with the effort to understand, embrace differences. And, even if you don’t understand – respect is not optional. A willful ignorance of the past is no more an excuse. Facing the wrongs done to the Indigenous Peoples, and helping them rectify is not a “nice to do when I have the time,” it’s a must for every Canadian. We owe it to the Indigenous of these lands, we owe it to ourselves and our children as we foster a better understanding, and stop the ugly cycle of stereotyping, and discriminating the Indigenous population. The time to fix things is now.

About the author

Author Profile
Kiran Malik-Khan

Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.

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