Hailey Sutherland walked the runway four times during a fashion arts festival, an event focused on Indigenous-made fashion, textiles and crafts
It was 2017, and Hailey Sutherland was living in Windsor when her father became ill. She felt she needed to return to her home community, Constance Lake, an Oji-Cree First Nation located near Hearst in Treaty 9 territory.
He is better now, she said, but that move has changed the course of her life in countless ways.
Now, not only is she pursuing an education that will support the people of her community, but also, she is pushing herself to be an example, to represent her nation in the arts, and in health care.
That means that while she is raising a child, a beautiful three-year-old daughter, and studying Psychology at Laurentian University, hoping to pursue a graduate degree, she also found the time to walk the catwalk in four different fashion shows at the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival.
The festival, which ran June 9 to 12, presented Indigenous-made fashion, textiles and crafts at Harbourfront Center in Toronto.
Sutherland walked for high profile designers like Metis artists Evan Ducharme and Amy Mallouf, as well as Lesley Hampton from Temagami First Nation, and Celeste Pedri-Spade of Lac des milles lacs First Nation. Pedri-Spade was formerly a professor at Laurentian and lived in Sudbury for some time, something the two women bonded over at the show.
Sutherland applied only five minutes before the deadline, and she told Sudbury.com she hesitated for many reasons: she didn’t feel comfortable in her body yet, still on her postpartum journey, and additionally, she said she grew up never seeing anyone who looked like her in fashion, and felt she wouldn’t even be considered. Then, to her surprise, she was chosen to walk the runway.
She said she was nervous, but it was when she arrived there that the true spirit of the event came through.
“It was so welcoming,” said Sutherland. “There was so much diversity in sizes, in skin color, and it just felt so great. And it came together all at once, and it was very emotional.”
She said she felt the welcome deep in her spirit.
“I always adored looking at older pictures of when my dad was young, or when my kôhkom (cree for ‘grandmother’) was young, and I always wondered, ‘why isn’t this encouraged, why isn’t it in the media today?’ We’re beautiful people, and we have so many talents and gifts.”
She said seeing the talent backstage left her a little shaky, but the moment her turn to walk came, she pushed it aside.
“I tried to put good thoughts into my head,” said Sutherland. “Growing up, I was lucky enough to have my culture and tradition from my kôhkom and I was always taught to always keep kind thoughts in your head, because that is your whole physical being; it is your body and you want to be kind to it. And that’s what I did, I got out of my comfort zone and performed.”
She said it was a boost of confidence that came at a time of need.
“It gave me a boost, told me I can keep going,” she said. Her studies were difficult, especially during the pandemic and with the ongoing insolvency issues at Laurentian University.
More than anything, she said she began to suffer “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that she wasn’t enough, that she was pretending to be something she couldn’t be. “But this was the confidence boost I needed to keep on going.”
The reason she chose psychology is rooted in interest, as well as family. Sutherland’s uncle battled schizophrenia, and she told Sudbury.com he died “due to health discrimination.”
She said he spent a full week trying to get a doctor’s appointment, with any doctor willing to see him, but he was denied. “Indigenous people have to try harder to get the health care that they need,” said Sutherland, “And I just want to break that barrier.”
She would like to focus her work with the youth of her community, not only because she didn’t feel she was able to have “big dreams” as a child, but she knows that is still the case. When Sutherland went back to Constance Lake to care for her father, she was able to work as a teacher there, working with a small class of children in Grade 5 and 6.
“I noticed that there are a lot of suppressed feelings that I think little ones have when they can’t live out their big feelings, when they’re not encouraged or supported,” she said. “There is so much talent there, they’re interested in gaming, and they’re interested in dancing, they’re interested in higher education, and that was also me growing up.”
She said she didn’t feel like anyone in her community had done what she wanted to do, or could support or guide her. “Indigenous kids need to have the community together and be supported, but it’s hard because of financial issues or intergenerational trauma, and I just want to help and guide them.”
She said that she loved her time working with the children, but soon realized she was limited in her ability to help them.
“I realized that I don’t have the education, I didn’t have my full potential,” Sutherland said. “And I realized that a lot of the times like I was pushed back because of this trauma, because I am a grandchild of residential school survivors and 60s Scoop survivors.”
She said that she considered herself very lucky to have her family, and proud to have the opportunities to speak her truth.
“For the community, I just want to strengthen the voice of every person,” she said.
She would often tell her students, “you can be anything, you can do anything, I believe in you,” she said, and while some may not have believed her, she needed them to hear it. “One of my students passed away, and I wish they got more of a message and encouragement from the community; I just want them to not feel alone.”
She says she wishes to tell young people the same words she wanted to hear.
“There may be days where you feel like it’s not possible, and it’s okay to cry, to think about those feelings, because it’s hard to feel like there’s no tomorrow,” Sutherland said. “But there will be light, there will be sun. You have talents that the world will love to see and admire. You are loved, even though you don’t hear it every day. It may take a few months or years to see progress in your heart, but know that you can do it.”
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.