Sonia Paquette is a community Animator born and raised in Grande Cache, Alberta. She comes from a proud Rocky Mountain Cree Indigenous and Irish background. In the early 1900s, the new treaties and statutes were implemented and began changing and building in Indigenous communities. The peoples that settled in Grande Cache (Sonia’s ancestors) were evicted from Jasper National Park. Sonia’s distant family settled at the base of Mount Louis in Grande Cache. When coal was discovered, other Indigenous groups were looking to evict Sonia’s family and their peoples.
“There were a couple of Métis settlements up north, and they were deciding where we should send the native peoples of this area. Instead, the families just said, ‘No, we are not migrating again, we are not leaving again,’ and they decided to stay. That resulted in us not getting treaty or Métis settlement land or anything like that. So, we got these co-ops and enterprises in their small little pieces of land outside of Grande Cache, where we settled.”
“[The co-ops] are private land, but it’s not reserved land. We pay taxes like everybody else, so it is unique.”
Finding roots in the community
“I had a good childhood, the only downside of that was my loss of identity,” says Sonia. “I struggled with that most of my life. My looks took after my dad but growing up, I was so proud to be Indigenous and I really connected with my culture through my mom.”
“My mom was only 15 years old when she had me. Being pregnant at 15 years old was not ideal or accepted in our culture. So, she was alone for a lot of that time. My dad’s family took us in to help raise me while still giving my mom some of her freedom to be the kid she was. We were so lucky to have that kind of support,” says Sonia.
Sonia returned to her hometown in 2018 to focus on community wellness. Sonia describes Grande Cache as “a hidden and lost gem to Canada.” She adores the town for its serene, authentic and “absolutely gorgeous” scenery.
“We’re lucky because our backyard is mountains, trails, lakes, and we can be out without ever seeing anybody. I always used to call Grande Cache a little Pleasantville.”
Aside from the scenery, Sonia decided to return to Grande Cache because of the tight-knit community feeling she missed.
“It’s the sense of community with the locals here. We have all known each other forever. We have all grown up with each other. Now my kids are playing with other people’s kids that I grew up with down the street. It was one of the reasons why I came back home.”
As beautiful and quiet as Grande Cache is, various challenges come with living in a town with just 3,000 people. Everything from personal privacy to community division can be some of the downsides to small communities.
Making a difference
When Sonia returned to Grande Cache in 2018, she knew that she wanted to make a difference in her community but was unsure of where that journey would take her.
She got a job at Youth Connections – a program that worked with high-risk children. Sonia was nervous because working with youth was not something she had done before, but she quickly realized she had a passion for helping young people in her community.
“Youth Connections is based around education, culture, tutoring and post-secondary help,” Sonia explains. “I found it challenging to meet these incredible youth that were so vibrant and smart but came from at-risk backgrounds. You could see that cycle of generational trauma in these kids and that they needed something that belonged to them. They can come and get homework help after school or they can simply come and hang out for an hour without worrying about what was going on at home.”
“I started to connect with these kids and they started to open up to me. They made me fall in love with the work. I realized that these kids were me 20 years ago.”
Creating engagement in unique ways
Sonia has used her background in technology to increase the social media presence for Youth Connections and uses it as a tool to connect to the kids in the program.
Despite the hard work Sonia and her team put into the Youth Connections program, COVID-19 hit Grande Cache hard. Organizations were left scrambling for money and trying to keep afloat.
Sonia began engaging with school staff to create awareness about Youth Connections and how to get involved. She also made herself available to help when possible.
“I was connecting with the principals at least once a week and helping any students that needed extra assistance through Google Classroom, much like we would have done in person at Youth Connections.”
As a working mom herself, Sonia understood the struggle to balance work and life at home during the pandemic.
“It was getting crazy. It was getting to be about 18-hour days between work, home, kids and everything was just jumbled together. I said to my husband that if this is any indication of how any of the families feel with their youth, we are struggling together. On top of that, our youth engagement numbers are much lower than they usually are.”
Sonia also made it a priority that many of the activities she planned captured the Métis culture.
“We did jigging and fiddling before Covid-19. Now we are trying to find ways to connect with the kids on Zoom. We had an idea to teach them how to make Bannock, but unless we provide and deliver ingredients, it would be a challenge.”
Although that idea fell through, Sonia still found a way to bring the youth community together while promoting Métis culture and heritage.
“We finally came up with what’s called land-based activities. The idea is that we put it back on the youth because everybody is outside doing things like ice fishing, hunting and hiking. We asked them to send us their pictures or their stories of what they are doing outside like the trapping, hunting, tanning hides, or whatever they are doing to keep themselves busy while in lockdown,” says Sonia.
Sonia also created and developed the snack program. The initiative provides free snacks and lunch fillers such as fruits and vegetables, juice boxes, granola bars, yogurt, gummies, etc., to youth in need. Later, entire families began coming for snacks and the program became a huge success in the community.
“About 36 to 40 youth were accessing the snack program and I think about 19 or 20 families. Every week we would go and get things to help with their lunches. The program was developed because we used to have a hot lunch program here in Grande Cache catering to the Indigenous kids for the co-ops and enterprises. When the hot lunch program was cancelled, all the Indigenous kids that were going to school in town no longer had lunch. So, it was put back on the families to get the kids lunch, which could not happen in many cases,” says Sonia.
Authentically connecting with the community
Sonia became a Rural Mental Health Project (RMHP) community-based Animator in September 2020 after seeing how the pandemic deteriorated the mental health of people in Grande Cache and across Canada.
“This whole year has been revolving around mental health in communities. There are a lot of things that we can do to keep people connected. It’s just a matter of coming together and doing it right,” Sonia explains. She hopes to use her title as Community Animator to spread awareness and bring new perspectives to mental health initiatives in communities.
“I do not plan to only focus on the youth in the future. I want to do a Ways to Wellness for Grande Cache. Practice gratitude, eat healthy foods, get active, be yourself and even get your groove on. The connection to music is such a huge thing and I think people have lost that. Music has saved people’s lives. We have no piano teachers or guitar teachers or anything like that here,” says Sonia.
“Although there are services and information on mental health, I want it to be more authentic to really help connect people.”
Sonia’s generosity, kindness and innovative mindset have set the pace for a stronger and mentally healthier community. Through her work with Youth Connections and the Rural Mental Health Project, Sonia hopes to continue being a positive role model, leader and advocate for the people in Grande Cache.
Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. (2021, January 11). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) services. Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. https://bccm.coop/what-is-a-co-operative/co-operative-industries/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-services/.
Hotton, E. (2016, November 21). A History of Bannock. Food Services. https://ueat.utoronto.ca/a-history-of-bannock/.