Gilbert’s mother passed away when he was a boy. She had never recovered from the trauma being taken to a residential school when she was just seven years old.
“It took me a while to understand that story because I was very young when she passed. It was due to the trauma she experienced not only at residential school but also in the tuberculosis sanitorium in Birtle, Manitoba. I know my mother never talked to her kids about her experience because it was so painful,” says Gilbert.
“She’d shut the conversation down and dealt with it in her own way, which wasn’t very healthy—there wasn’t a lot of support, and that’s what led to her early death.”
His mother’s passing left his father on his own to raise five children in inner-city Winnipeg with little education.
Gilbert today, just outside United Way Winnipeg.
Because of the financial pressure on Gilbert’s father, his family used the breakfast program at the Youth Action Project, now the Boys and Girls Club of Winnipeg, every morning before school. The program brought many kids and families from the area together to start their days on the right foot.
“It was a safe haven,” says Gilbert.
Gilbert and his friends and siblings also used the after-school programs offered by Rossbrook House. They would gather and play floor hockey, as well as use the breakfast and lunch programs. He considers Rossbrook House very influential in his foundational growth as a child with intergenerational trauma from residential schools.
“If it weren’t for United Way and the staff at these programs, like the sports programs and the breakfast programs, a lot of the kids today with success stories wouldn’t be there. And I can honestly say that I would probably be one of them.”
One of Gilbert’s older brothers ended up living a life in and out of jail and battling addictions.
“It was tough watching that because as a younger sibling, you try to look out for mentorship. That’s where the programs and staff at United Way stepped up big time so I could have mentors and people that care about you and see what talents you have.”
“When I was playing floor hockey, he was out getting into mischief. It just goes to show that the after-school programs and everything else like that really do make a difference.”
Gilbert remembers a moment when he was a boy and made a choice in his life that he credits to the way his life went.
“I was walking down the alley with some friends and we were going to do something that I knew was not going to turn out well. Halfway down the alley, I thought about my dad who was at home watching Hockey Night in Canada. I always loved watching hockey with him and something inside me told me that I should be with him, not in this alley.”
Gilbert decided to go home and watch hockey with his dad instead. He clearly remembers that as a pivotal moment; when his options were being laid out in front of him.
“Unfortunately, some of those guys who went that way are not here anymore. Some of them have passed on already at an early age because of incarceration. Others suffered with addictions that really reduced their quality of life. From time to time I’ve driven by some of my old friends who are now living on the street. Without that kindness that was shown to me early in my life, I could have easily been one of them.”
Despite the hardships Gilbert faced, he went on to achieve many incredible things. He was elected a councillor and vice-chief of Norway House Cree Nation. During his time there, he was an advocate for his community and other First Nations people and spoke all over Canada. Gilbert did presentations about homelessness and housing with David Suzuki and eventually successfully defended his master’s thesis.
“I credit a lot of my success to the foundation because I never forgot the kindness,” says Gilbert. “When I got into office, I always made sure that I thanked people along the way. You can’t say that you accomplished all that stuff yourself, and I’m very proud to say that the programs and the staff are why I am here today.”