One of the best ways for Canadians to understand and appreciate the complex world of First Nations peoples is to hear from those who have lived it and achieved milestones
Shari Russell was just under two when she was plucked from her home with no warning—no knowledge or consent from her family or band. In an instant, she lost her loved ones, culture, history and identity.
A Saulteaux from the YellowQuill First Nation in Saskatchewan, Shari was part of the “Sixties Scoop”, a period in Aboriginal history in Canada where thousands of young Aboriginal children were literally scooped from birth families and placed in non-Aboriginal environments.
“Government authorities and social workers assumed that native people were unable to adequately provide for the needs of children,” says Shari. “Decisions were made for you and you just had to deal with it.”
The search to belong
Shari spent four difficult years floating from home to home. Many times she didn’t know if she could survive another day. Then she was adopted by a Salvation Army family.
As Shari searched for a sense of belonging and a way of coping with new customs, habits and unfamiliar food, she learned how to behave and act.
“I didn’t want to be sent away again,” says Shari. “So I did what I had to do.”
Adjusting to a different home also meant adjusting to life in the church. It wasn’t until later that Shari came to accept the truth of the teachings.
Shari went on to complete a BA in Christian Education, married her husband Robert and secured a MA in Christian Education. In 1999, Shari and Robert were ordained as Salvation Army pastors.
“In 2002 my children were sick with meningitis,” says Shari. “I wrote to my family of origin looking for health records. I thought they would respond by letter. Instead, I received a phone call saying your family wants to meet you. I was caught completely off guard but the reunion was a positively incredible experience.”
For many years, Shari struggled with her Aboriginal culture and wanted nothing to do with it.
“As a young Native person I’d been taught that anything related to my culture was evil,” says Shari.
Shari and Robert continued to research Shari’s traditions, heritage and culture. Meanwhile, a desire to serve within the Aboriginal community was ignited and before long the Russells found themselves as pastors of The Salvation Army Weetamah (which is CREE for ‘Go tell them’) Community Church in Winnipeg.
In a community that is primarily Aboriginal, Shari and Robert created an environment that developed positive Aboriginal expression. Community feasts, sports clubs, kids’ activities and employment-skills programs built connections and provided tools and resources to help restore wholeness and healing.
Today, Shari and Robert reside in Sudbury, Ont. where there is a strong Aboriginal community. As pastors of The Salvation Army they continue to help and empower people.
Raising cultural awareness
Within The Salvation Army, Shari has an additional responsibility as Aboriginal Liaison. She consults with other units as they seek to develop best practices with Aboriginal people. Shari also shares information and resources pertaining to Aboriginal ministry, leads workshops on Aboriginal cultural awareness for various church organizations, educates Salvation Army pastors in cultural awareness and networks and builds connections with other Aboriginal groups.
“I want to see positive, healthy Indigenous communities,” says Shari. “Everyone has gifts and strengths to contribute.”
Whether it’s addressing topics of concern, empowering people or educating others in how to effectively engage with Indigenous communities in culturally appropriate ways, Shari Russell knows without a doubt that it is her heritage that gives her strength, meaning and direction in life.
Captain Shari Russell and her husband, Robert, have three boys: CJ, Gavin and Brannon. As a family, they enjoy travelling, camping, playing sports and music.