First Nations elder Mary Decker hated sewing when she was a kid.
Growing up in the Northwest Territories, she remembers wanting to go outside to play but instead being met by her mother, a needle and bucket of beads in hand.
“I used to break the needle,” she said, laughing behind her hand.
Her mother always had another.
“I didn’t like to do it,” she said. “I wanted to be outside, but I had to be obedient to mother. We had to do it, like it or not. And today I can sew anything. I make my own parka, I make my own boots, mitts, anything.”
Decker tells her story as she sits around a table with seven other aboriginal women at the Canada Games Centre on a Friday night.
The table is strewn with hides, furs, beads and thread.
Their talking and laughter reverberate all the way down the hall.
It’s their weekly “stitch n’ bitch”
The group was started by the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of the Yukon and the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre to help aboriginal women who have been victims of violence.
The first group didn’t work out, but this second group has had more luck.
“There are so many factors and dynamics,” said Shelley Halverson, an outreach worker with FASSY and a driving force behind the program.
Trust, or lack thereof, can make or break a successful stitch n’ bitch, she says.
“Most women isolate themselves after being victimized,” said Halverson.
For many women, the isolation and loss of self-confidence only gets worse as the years of victimization continue to add up.
The group ranges in age from 20 to 70.
Some of the women live with FASD and other mental health issues. Others may not have been direct victims of violence but were traumatized by family violence as children. Still others may have provided a safe house for someone else who was abused, like a mother or sister.
The big difference between this program and others offered is that the onus is on the women to make this program what they want it to be, said Halverson.
From day one, it was up to the women to decide what the women did, where they did it and when they did it.
As the women around the table start telling their stories, it’s clear they are all at different stages of finding their voice and self-worth.
Marsha is the group’s celebrity, her cellphone constantly buzzing as she chats and laughs. Judy first appears to be the strong and silent type, but once she starts talking, her booming voice takes over. The other Judy of the group is quieter but she pipes in now and then.
Mary and Marie sit at the other end, sewing up a storm.
Mary came to the Yukon from a Manitoba reserve years ago, hoping to make a better life for her children. When she and Marie realized they could speak to each other in their traditional language, they formed an instant friendship.
Chatting back and forth, Mary gives Marie pointers on the traditional hide-mittens she is making.
“I like this because we all get together,” said Marie. “We tell stories, share sewing patterns, ask each other for advice. I like to come meet with my friends.”
“I have no close family here,” said Mary. “When you’re far away from home, you get lonely. Sure you know people, but it’s not the same. So for me, it’s good to get out and be with friends and just enjoy sewing because that’s what I like doing.”
Shelby Blackjack is the group’s facilitator – a term she uses loosely because a lot of the women are already skilled sewers. But she is able to help the group get materials and she even attends when she’s not responsible for any facilitation.
“It’s just awesome,” she said. “The fact that the women in this group always get to pick what we are doing next. We weren’t going to do something if nobody wanted to do it. It’s totally participant driven.”
And one crucial thing the group decided early on was to hold its meetings on Friday and Saturday nights.
“Really, what is there to do in this town, for young women, that doesn’t include drinking on a Friday night,” said Blackjack. “This is a Friday night of women getting together, sewing, working on different things, talking, sometimes venting. I’m all for the sober activities that promote First Nation culture and empowerment of women.”
After a year of meeting, and even a Pilates retreat thrown in for good measure, these women, who hardly spoke to one another at first, now sit and laugh and share their experiences.
But despite its success, an application to continue funding the group has been turned down.
Although the women aren’t sure where they’ll meet, how they’ll pay for sewing materials or how they’ll be able to afford other benefits of this group, like the use of the Canada Games Centre facilities.
But they are sure of one thing – they will not let the group fall apart.
“There’s a lot of trust here,” said the Judy with the booming voice. “We can laugh, we can cry if we want, we can do whatever we feel. That’s why I’d like to see this group carry on. For me, to get together with other women, I find it’s lots of fun and relaxing.”
“If we weren’t here, we’d be isolated at home,” said Marsha. “And we wouldn’t be doing nothing.”
“Back home, there’s nothing going on,” said Marie. “And this is good because we are learning how to teach our own kids, our next generation.”
“I want to teach my granddaughter,” Marsha said, lifting up the beading she is working on.
The groups has chosen two women to act as contacts between them and have already set next Friday’s meeting.
Halverson is also determined to see this group live on.
“You see programming beginning and ending all the time and that’s not what we want for this,” she said.
“The goal is to create a self-sustaining group. A lot of these women are used to relationships coming and going. We want this to be consistent in their lives.
“The women have committed to this process and want to continue. Seeing them exchange phone numbers and continue to connect is a success.”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at