________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 10 . . . .January 20, 2006


Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms.

Sylvia Olsen.
Winlaw, BC: Sono Nis Press, 2005.
165 pp., pbk., $19.95.
ISBN 1-55039-152-6.

Subject Headings:
Indian girls-British Columbia-Social conditions.
Teenage mothers-British Columbia-Social conditions.
Teenage mothers-British Columbia-Health and hygiene.
Teenage pregnancy-British Columbia.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**** /4



On Monday, March 24, 1997, my fourteen-year-old daughter, Heather, came into my bedroom before school and tearfully announced that she was pregnant. On Tuesday, March 25, 1997, she gave birth to her daughter, Yetsa.

I had no idea I was about to become a grandmother, unless I count a dream I had had the previous November. It was one of those dreams that was too real to ignore, so I asked Heather, "Are you pregnant?" She looked astonished and said, "No, of course not." I needed to believe her more than I needed the truth so I was satisfied. And anyway, why would Heather be pregnant? Within the context of our life pregnancy made no sense at all. Heather was a good girl. She danced, did her school work, hung out with her girlfriends, and gave me no reason to worry about her.

At first, everyone on both sides of Heather's family was shocked by the news of the baby. After the initial surprise, however, my family's reaction became very unlike that of her father's family. Culture and social location determined how our families would respond to her having a baby at such a young age.


Heather's First Nations relatives accepted Yetsa, but remained shocked that she had become pregnant: being half-white did not make her immune from the "Indian girl with the baby" stereotype. Heather's non-Aboriginal relatives saw her pregnancy as a typical outcome of her being Aboriginal. And, regardless of who they were, everyone wondered about what Olsen and Heather were going to do with the situation, and what would be best for both the young mother and her child. Those are the questions which are faced by all teen parents and their own parents, but Olsen saw this family crisis as an opportunity to explore a social and cultural phenomenon, to seek answers to crucial questions, and to offer an opportunity for all involved to discuss, share, and seek solutions. The outcome is Just Ask Us, an interesting combination of action research and authentic personal story-telling.

     With funding from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, the project was undertaken in 2003. Thirteen young mothers, ranging in ages from 15 through 24, participated both in formal discussions (focus groups and directed interviews) and informal, community-strengthening events (picnics, birthday parties, baby showers), building relationships and camaraderie. Several young men also took part in the project, but it is the voices of women which dominate the conversation. Adding to the conversation are the voices of community members, elders, grandparents, social and health support workers. It is truly a rich and revealing discussion, although Olsen also points out that "there were things they didn't want to talk about. Sexual abuse and violence were two subjects acknowledged but generally avoided."

     Each chapter begins with a fictionalized vignette (based on a combination of real stories, blended to maintain anonymity), followed by text which explores and discusses a series of issues. "What's the Problem?" offers an historical and cultural context, and "Who We Really Are" explores the stereotype of First Nations teen mothers, making it clear that, in so many ways, they are teens like any other in Canada. "We Need to Understand" why sex education, as currently presented, doesn't work for this audience while "Sex Changes Everything" and "Condoms and Complications" focus on the difficulty that teens have with responsible sexual decision-making, and the reasons why condom use is frequently ineffective.

     Once a young woman finds herself pregnant, abortion is rarely considered, and the reason is this: "Because we don't look down on people who have babies. We accept babies, no matter what." Culturally - irrespective of traditional or Western religious affiliation - abortion is not accepted as an option amongst First Nations communities in the same way that it is outside First Nations communities. "Being Pregnant" takes the reader through the minefield of emotions faced as a young woman works through denial, having to tell and deal with the responses of family members and her boyfriend, and then, to live with the irrevocable changes pregnancy brings: weight gain, giving up smoking and alcohol, disinterest or abandonment by the baby's father.

     These young women are suddenly thrust into roles, responsibilities, and situations for which they are unprepared. In "We're Adults and Parents," we read of their broken dreams, difficulties or delays in completing their education, conflicts with their own parents and family members as to how to raise their children, and overwhelming, their sense of frustration and disappointment at hopes that are dashed and dreams that are now denied, at least for the present. And they do have hopes and dreams because, even though they are dealing with adult responsibilities, they also insist "We're Still Teenagers." Being a teen has its own set of challenges; being teen mothers, they find themselves stressed by the demands of an infant, continually having to deal money shortages, having conflicts with their own parents (who themselves unprepared to be grandparents), losing friendships with their peer group, and running into difficulties with or ending the relationships with their baby's father. Olsen points out that the problems discussed in this chapter aren't unique to the young women of the study: "Teenage mothers face parental fears that are common to all mothers... But unlike older parents, they don't have the skills, experience, or education to deal with those fears." Still, many rise to the challenge and find within themselves strength and courage to make necessary life changes: "My baby straightened me up. Once I was a mom it made me think. School wasn't my main priority until after my son was born. That's when I really knew I had to graduate. I wanted to give him a better life than I had. I wanted him to have a mom that had a job."

     Although most of the voices in this collection are female, "Our Relationships" gives special focus to the young men who are now young fathers. These relationships often fail, and the fantasy of a "perfect family" some young women envision dissipates quickly with reality. After all, "It's kind of crappy living under someone else's roof because then they can make rules and you have no other choice." After these relationships end, re-entering the world of dating becomes difficult, if not impossible - assuming, of course, that the young mom has either the time or inclination to do so.

     In the concluding chapter, "Conclusion: Looking Forward," Olsen asks the question, "Where do we go from here? What can Canadians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal do to end the cycle of teen parenting. The author (who candidly admits to the difficulties she and her daughter experienced in the course of Yetsa's pre-school years,) is both reasoned and impassioned: "make children once again the priority, in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities alike." For non-Aboriginal Canadians, there is a challenge: re-examine long held beliefs and stereotypes, realize the dangers of complacency and commit to invest in kids now for a future tomorrow.

     Sylvia Olsen's gift as a story-teller, blended with her ability to take the stories of others and situate them within the context of lived reality make Just Ask Us an extraordinarily powerful work. Although the focus is on the unique situation of First Nations teenage mothers, so much applies to adolescent parents of any ethnic background in Canada. Subject matter and some language make it suitable for Grades 9 through 12, and one might buy several copies so it can be used by students and teachers of senior high classes in Family Studies, Native Studies, and Sociology.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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