IAAW plants seeds of empowerment for financial healing

Bernadette Swanson empowers Indigenous woman through an IAAW financial literacy program.

by Laura Mushumanski 

(ANNews) – When a new group of Indigenous women gather to enjoy tea and bannock during an IAAW financial literacy session, they are met with an anxiety induced question that is affiliated with trauma, “What is your first memory of money?”

The question, asked by EMPOWER U’s senior facilitator, Bernadette Swanson, is loaded and is meant to dig deep inside ourselves. The connection between trauma and financial burdens is a hot topic during the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women’s (IAAW) EMPOWER U financial literacy program – and is not as easy to swallow as a piece of fry bread.

For the past seven-years Bernedette (Bunny aka waposis, in Plains Cree) has been supporting Indigenous women with EMPOWER U’s financial literacy program through IAAW, located in Edmonton, Alberta. And within those 7 years, Bunny has been providing humor and unconditional confidence as a means of healing and getting to the root cause of financial hardships for Indigenous women.

For anyone asking about IAAW, it is a non-for-profit organization that was founded 26-years ago by Muriel Stanley Venne and Marggo Pariseau. The organization was created specifically for Indigenous women to advocate for other Indigenous women going through tough times. IAAW acknowledges and promotes the rights of Indigenous women, recognizes their role, value and achievement in society, respects their privacy and dignity, and offers an array of supporting services and programs.

EMPOWER U’s financial literacy program offered by IAAW, addresses mental health related issues and money spending in a cultural context, with a focal point on understanding the relationship between money and Indigenous people. The financial literacy program explores relationships with money, and its link to the burdens that Indigenous people carry from experiencing addiction, abuse, and trauma.

Words like ‘rank,’ ‘I’m broke,’ and ‘hustling’ are all too common amongst the many conversations that take place during EMPOWER U’s financial literacy program.

With the prevalent exchanges about hustling to make ends meet, the two hours per week, 20-week program offers participants a special ‘matched savings’ opportunity. IAAW partners with United Way and ATB where tools for saving money are matched to the funds participants save ($360) during the 20-week program.

Since the first time Bunny stepped foot into IAAW, from her own experience she stated, “they didn’t give up on me, and didn’t judge me.” IAAW staff are known for their advocacy work, compassion, and listening and believing in the women that walk through their doors. When Bunny facilitates the financial literacy program, the hard truths and struggles that come with being an Indigenous person becomes as real as asking your cousin to lend you money during tough times. Even though the program explores uncomfortable avenues where some women have put up barricades from their experienced trauma, the environment IAAW has to offer is a place to feel safe, supported and heard.

The role that Bunny plays, and her own experiences with addictions and trauma have helped her to relate and understand the women that participate in EMPOWER U. A way that Bunny gives back to IAAW for the support and kindness that they gifted her, is by role modeling the same principles and values towards Indigenous women that are searching for a way to heal from obstacles and challenging times in their lives.

Bunny’s approach to empowering Indigenous women is by providing tools and tips to keep a person’s spirit happy. One of many gifts that Bunny has to offer is through her words of encouragement, “financial literacy is not about money, it is about all our life experiences for who we are today. People need to share their story, it is healing.” By planting seeds of encouragement, Bunny elicits Indigenous women to discover who they are outside a life of adversity, pain and suffering.

The stories being shared within the group of women that are participating in the program are the core of how Bunny approaches healing from trauma that creates financial issues. Bunny shares stories of resiliency and how becoming a proud Cree woman altered her perception of how she views Indigenous women’s relationship with money as empowering and healing, instead of a means of survival. Ultimately, the goal that Bunny has in mind is to, “help empower a generation of Indigenous women, and the generations to come.”

For anyone seeking financial literacy support, Bunny is available at [email protected] or (780) 479-8195.

IAAW also offers additional support in leadership development, justice initiatives for women coming out of corrections, violence prevention and healthy relationships, and spiritual support for women struggling with addictions. All programs and services can be found on IAAW’s website.

IAAW staff is available to support Indigenous and non-Indigenous women during the COVID-19 pandemic; for all inquiries contact [email protected], call (780) 479-8195, toll free: 1-877-471-2171. Business hours: Monday to Friday, 8:30 A.M. – 4 P.M.

Laura Mushumanski is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Native News. 



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