‘The mom you tell secrets to’: Aunties on the role they play and what their own aunts mean to them

Most of us remember a time when, growing up, we needed adult help or guidance, but didn’t think we could turn to our own parents.

If we were lucky, we had another adult who could fill that role. In many Indigenous cultures, this beloved and trusted adult is often an aunt: a woman, slightly older than you, who may or may not be officially related.

“I think aunts are kind of, almost like your second mom, but it’s the mom you tell secrets to, that you wouldn’t dare tell your real mom,” said Heather Bjorklund, educator, drummer and comedian from Fisher River Cree Nation, about 200 kilometers north of Winnipeg.

Bjorklund said she also relied on aunts to help raise her own children, especially during the difficult teenage years.

Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild is preparing to record a number of aunts at the Katita Cafe, located in the Winnipeg Art Gallery, earlier this month. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

We don’t have to give up supporting aunties, even when we’ve begun to fill that role for others, said Cheryllee Bourgeois, a Métis midwife at the Call Auntie Clinic, hosted by Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto. She called on aunts to help her into her thirties.

“I’ve always had relationships with a wide variety of women in particular who were older than me, who always played a part in just having someone I knew I could turn to,” Bourgeois said.

“I would just say aunts are a renewable resource. We can all be aunts and be aunts.”

CBC-Radio Not reserved asked a group of Aunties from Winnipeg and Toronto to describe the important role Aunties play in Aboriginal cultures. Here’s a bit of what they had to say.

Winnipeg-based filmmaker and author Sonya Ballantyne says her heart “blew into a thousand pieces” when she was first introduced as an aunt to her best friend’s child. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

Sonya Ballantyne, filmmaker and author, Winnipeg

I am very close to my nephew, who is not really my nephew…. I’ve known him since he was a baby and he’s my creative partner’s son. And when his mother called me his aunt… my heart exploded into a thousand pieces, because I had never been an aunt that way to anyone. It’s an honored position that I never thought I would have. And it crosses borders, because I was called Tia Sonia by a Filipino colleague once for her daughter. And I found out it meant “aunt” and I thought, that’s so cool.

Bjorklund, an educator, comedian and drummer, says people can turn to their aunts to share things you “wouldn’t dare to tell your real mom.” (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

Heather Bjorklund, educator and actor, Winnipeg

I think aunts are kind of like your second mother, but it’s the mother you tell secrets to, that you wouldn’t dare tell your real mother. In the Aboriginal community, I think Aunties play a very, very important role. For example, I know that I really leaned on my sisters when I was going through a difficult time with my children. And it was my older sister who helped me take care of the children, so to speak, when I couldn’t take it anymore. I’m like, ‘Here, take my child for the night. I just need a break. And she would. And that was it – that’s what aunts do. They kick in when you just have enough, especially when they become teenagers.

MacDonald, a teacher, comedian and playwright in Winnipeg, said she was raised by an aunt as a baby. “Family members step in, and it’s just an understanding,” she said. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

Joanne MacDonald, teacher, actor and playwright, Winnipeg

Yes, definitely like a second mom – but the mom you can have fun with and do all the cool things with. And she has all kinds of cool stuff in her closet that you can browse and try. I had a few… In my biological family, it was my aunt who took care of me when I was a baby. So absolutely, the family members are involved, and it’s just an agreement. It’s something so deeply rooted in aboriginal culture. And it’s something really beautiful. It’s an honor to be someone’s aunt. The person I’m an aunt to is in her thirties – but I’m a very young aunt, mind you [laughs].

Toronto-based journalist, author and executive producer of the Auntie Up podcast, Tanya Talaga, says part of being an aunt is “being there for our young leaders as they rise.” (Nadya Kwandibens/Red Works Photography)

Tanya Talaga, journalist, author, aunt up Executive Podcast Producer, Toronto

Great Aunt energy is love, support and understanding. And it keeps you close, and the members of our community close, with all the difficulties we are going through. And the Great Aunt energy is also there for our young leaders as they step up and see them shine. I wrote a column recently on Cassidy Caron, the new president of the Métis National Council, this amazing young woman who, you know, did her own thing in Rome when we were there waiting to hear if the pope was going to apologize. I will never forget her march in St. Peter’s Square, led by young fiddlers and the Métis delegation behind her. And she was going, damn it, to hold her press conference right in the middle of the square. And she did. And I was like, ‘Wow, I’m a proud aunt.’ I told him, I’m so proud of you. Aunt energy is everywhere. And if we’ve come this far, we just have to keep giving back.

Niiohontéhsha A’nó:wara, a community birth attendant at the Call Auntie Clinic in Toronto, aspires to be like her own open-hearted, dancing aunt. (Submitted by Niiohontéhsha A’nó:wara)

Niiohontéhsha A’nó:wara, community birth attendant, Call Auntie Clinic, Toronto

I will not tell [I have] a favorite aunt. I think I have a lot of aunts and each took on different roles and responsibilities in my life growing up. But my mother’s sister is an aunt who has always been in my life and has played a major role in who I am today. She allowed me to have the space to understand who I am as an adult person and who I want to be. And she has always provided a listening space in her home. You go downstairs to go to my aunt’s house just to have a dance party, and eat the food you want to eat, and be whoever you want to be. And so my aunt has really facilitated that space for a lot of my cousins ​​and siblings. She is very special to me. She’s been a part of my life for my whole life, giving people a space to figure out for themselves what they like to do, what they like to see in their lives. And that energy, that openness, and that non-judgmental kindness is the aunt I try to be every day and hope to be.

Krysta Williams, a community birth attendant at the Call Auntie Clinic in Toronto, says the aunt relationship can be negotiated between peers based on “who needs an aunt right now.” (Seventh Generation Midwives in Toronto)

Krysta Williams, Community Birth Attendant, Call Auntie Clinic, Toronto

I definitely consider it a chosen family role. It doesn’t have to be people you’re related to by blood, and it can be a role you come in and out of, you know, in relation to your chosen family or your friends. And I think that’s something that can be negotiated between peers about, ‘OK, who needs an aunt right now who can do it.’ about sharing culture, were all about sharing knowledge…to kind of give you more options, other than the family you were in, or the situations you were in, or the lived experiences you had had so far. It was just an opening of what was possible…. And they were really part of expanding my understanding of being Indigenous.

Cheryllee Bourgeois, a Métis midwife at the Call Auntie Clinic in Toronto, says she relied heavily on women older than her, even in her 20s and 30s. (Submitted by Cheryllee Bourgeois)

Cheryllee Bourgeois, Métis midwife, Call Auntie Clinic, Toronto

I am rich in aunts. I’ve had a lot of aunts in my life…and I think that’s also important because there are times, for many different reasons in our communities and in many other communities, where the adults in our lives can’t look after us, can’t necessarily provide us with everything we need. Whether physically or emotionally or whatever. We need to be able to both hold on and recognize that there are other adults who truly love us and can provide these things in times of, like – lack of other places. And so I grew up in a way, and I don’t even necessarily mean as a kid, like I also mean like in my 20s and 30s… with a wide variety of, well , women in particular who have been older than me, and also consistently played a part in just having someone I knew I could turn to, who I could talk to, who I could just check in with.

Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Kim Kaschor, Kate Adach, Rosanna Deerchild and Erin Noel.