By Kaylee Rattray

Gracing stages worldwide with a powerful presence, Madelaine McCallum is a multidisciplinary artist and keynote speaker whose performances have been received by the Métis National Council, the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics and the Festival du film étudiant de Québec (FFEQ). Equipped with the lessons from the adversities of her past, McCallum now shares her story of resilience and authentic self-expression ahead of the launch of her newly conceived mental health campaign “As I am, is Enough.”

To see McCallum perform is to feel healed and restored. Moving as one with the music, her body is an extension of the rhythm itself as she completes each step of the Red River Jig with a bright smile beaming across her face. To her, dance is not just a series of movements but a flow of energy which she equates to being hit with an overwhelming bodily sensation of elevation and strength each time she takes to the stage. This sensation and form of artistic expression is at the heart of all well-being for McCallum, and has helped her to rekindle her relationship with the environment and individuals around her.

As an ongoing series of trials and tribulations, life has not always been so kind to McCallum. At just twelve years old she packed her bags, said her goodbyes and left the confines of her community in Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan. A young girl in search of a sense of love and belonging, she travelled across provinces to find her father but was confronted with the harsh reality that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Although her surroundings were different, McCallum continued to find herself plagued by the same unhealthy cycles of addiction, violence and broken relationships she had hoped to leave behind. Continuing this pattern of behaviour through much of her twenties, McCallum moved from one tumultuous relationship to the next out of what she called “an attachment to the chaos and disorder of life.”

It wasn’t until her thirties, after much self reflection and a heartbreaking breast cancer diagnosis, that McCallum was able to finally free herself of her past traumas. During a time in which she could have faltered and fell victim to the fear of death and uncertainty, she chose to rise above and propel herself towards the life she had always dreamed of. As illustrated in her award-winning biographical documentary Dancing Through, dance played an integral role in her healing throughout her cancer diagnosis. McCallum chose not to see this obstacle as something that could take her life but as something that she could learn from. Using the Cree word “kakisimowin”, she describes her journey with cancer as just another step in her “perpetual dance with the universe.”

Through extraordinary means of transformation and healing, the now cancer-free McCallum emerges reborn and has been aptly named Strong Earth Woman. An advocate for Indigenous youth, she provides education on suicide prevention, healthy relationships, and the benefits of traditional and modern practices of medicine. It is her hope that in sharing her life’s journey through a unique and diverse range of visual storytelling that she can inspire others to look inwards and find self-acceptance, forgiveness and most importantly, “the fire within.”

McCallum’s advocacy and outreach efforts include being a speaker for the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau (IISB), a long-time partner of SAY Magazine. Kaylee Rattray from IISB caught up with McCallum to find out what wellness and the environment mean to her, and how she is carrying them with her into her new campaign endeavours.

Rattray: What does the term ‘wellness’ mean to you?
McCallum: If I could just do a dance for you here, right now, you would feel it. Everything we do is in relationship with the universe, and throughout my life, dance and music have always been there to help me through those really hard times. The steps, the rhythm—they impacted me in ways that I couldn’t explain, and when I recreated the movements for myself, I could feel it lifting my spirit. This feeling of elevation—that’s wellness to me.

Rattray: How does your connection to nature empower your work?
McCallum: Growing up without technology, we were always playing outside. You were going out to the lake in the middle of winter, listening to the ice crack and bubble. You were getting sand in your shoes and your shorts, bringing it home with you and everywhere else you went. My dad always told me, “You’re going to be connected to a lot of people.” I didn’t truly understand what energy and connection was then, but now I see these invisible lines of connection like a web—we’re connected to so many things. Right now, I’m sitting in a forest. I have this invisible connection to the land and so do you through speaking with me today.

I’m really grateful to have had these experiences—of just being. Those are the lessons I take from the trees I look at now. They just exist. They just are. That is how we need to listen, and that’s what nature teaches me.

Rattray: What inspired you to create the “As I am, is Enough” movement?
McCallum: This campaign came from so many parts of myself that felt I wasn’t enough. Because I didn’t have my parents in the way that I wanted. My breast cancer, my body image, my lack of public speaking training. But I realized I am enough. Even without a grandiose office to do this interview from, I am still enough to be in this space. You are enough to show up as you are. Self-love, self-appreciation and self-cheerleading are so important, and that’s what I really want to be at the focus of this campaign.

Rattray: What is the main lesson you hope others will take away from this campaign?
McCallum: The biggest thing for me is perspective. We have a choice—how do you want to live? In a perfect world? What does the story look like? You cannot let a negative perspective infest you. You have to find a way to take control and shift it using self-love and gratitude. I hope that people will be able to draw those lines of connection and realize that the language we use is everything. It connects us through a give and take of energy, not only to ourselves and each other but to the land as well.

Kaylee Rattray is a member of the communications team at the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau (IISB) and a Political Science major at York University.