The police officer who picked Zoey Roy up was white. So was the intake officer at Kilburn Hall, the youth detention facility she was in and out of 28 times. The lawyer she spoke to was also white, as was the case worker who visited the cells.
But in the bunks next to hers, and the cells throughout the facility, she saw only Indigenous people.
“I felt like if I continued to make these choices, falling into these traps, then I’d never have control of my life,” Zoey recalls. “I’ve always been a dreamer—but I felt like I was stuck in a cycle.”
Backstage with Zoey at WE Day Saskatchewan, it’s hard to believe this past could belong to the community-based educator and artist, but as her memories indicate, she’s treaded a twisting course.
Raised by her Cree father and Dene mother, Zoey traces the start of the aforementioned cycle to her childhood—her upbringing. “My parents didn’t agree on a lot of things,” she says. “But they did agree that it was better raising me as a Canadian, than a First Nations person living in Canada.”
Reeling from trauma in their own lives—between family experiences in residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and navigating the crushing stereotypes that limit life for so many Indigenous people—Zoey’s parents wanted her to have more opportunity.
But Zoey wanted to know her peoples’ story.
So at 13, thinking she was invincible, Zoey left home, ready for adventure and self-discovery. Instead, she ended up living on the streets.
“I tried to find myself in the darkest places,” she reflects.
Soon, she was committing crimes of poverty and desperation. She got caught in the revolving door of the system—being picked up for breaking curfew, when she had nowhere to sleep but under bridges and in doorways.
She was a rebel, but didn’t know what she was rebelling against.
And then it struck her; she had to be a success story in order to rebel against the system. The system that would see her incarcerated. The system that had incarcerated people who shared similar experiences.
And she has. She committed to never setting foot back in a corrections facility. Instead, she would be a light to other young people struggling to find themselves.
She got a part-time job, finished school and started volunteering—not only to give back, but to find a greater sense of purpose. Soon, Zoey discovered her voice through hip-hop and poetry, and quickly began using her skills to educate and empower others.
“I started building my foundation as if it was a jigsaw puzzle beneath me,” she explains, mapping out the steps with her hands as she talks. “I thought, ok, I have a place to live right now, there’s a jigsaw piece. I have a job, that’s another piece. I have some people who believe in me at school, I finished Grade 12, I spoke at a conference… all more pieces strengthening my foundation.”
With a solid foundation, she’s branched out, pursuing her passion for change and creating a better Canada for all. She’s gotten involved in politics, helping young Indigenous people register to vote.
She’s met with the Minister of Justice to talk about the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in jails.
She’s going on tour with the National Youth Orchestra’s Unsilent Project and is directing a project with the National Film Board to help celebrate Indigenous stories.
Zoey has discovered her cause. Now, she’s a rebel with a purpose—and all of Canada is better for it.
Zoey Roy’s 5 tips to finding yourself while creating a better country
Stars don’t fit into square boxes. Zoey was raised as a Canadian—instead of an Indigenous person living in Canada. She was divorced from her culture, but she felt its absence. As she says, “I never really fit into one circle, and I never really fit into another circle. Someone once told me that ‘stars don’t fit into square boxes.’ I am Cree. I am Dene. I am Métis. That took me a long time to know.”
You are enough and your story is valuable. “I’ve always been so insecure about my Indianness,” Zoey told WE backstage at WE Day Saskatoon. “And then I went and talked to an elder. I told her I’m struggling with being a good Indian girl. And she told me, ‘my girl, you don’t have to be anything else. You are a perfect Indian girl just as you are.’ And from that moment on, I felt validated. I felt like I didn’t have to search for feathers or regalia to be Indigenous. I could just be Zoey, and Zoey is great.”
Learn from the past. Zoey’s learned from her experiences—but also from people’s experiences. “We’ve missed a lot of opportunities to build some beautiful relationships. We’ve come a long way, and I believe in you, I believe in your kids, I believe in your grandchildren. I believe we can reflect on the wrong doings and become better as a result because once we know better, we can be better.”
Rebel with a purpose. In and out of the correctional system as a young teenager, Zoey was rebelling—but she didn’t know against what. “I spent so many years trying to find my cause, I didn’t know what I was fighting for, all I knew is that I was upset—I was mad,” she says. Now, she’s rebelling against any limitations Indigenous people face and channels her frustration into helping other young people discover their identity. “It’s ok to be a rebel, but we have to find our cause.”
Indigenous culture is alive—and Indigenous wisdom can guide everyone. “The seven sacred teachings are how you get to Pimatisiwin, the good life,” she told the audience during The Walrus Talks National Tour stop at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse. “The good life is a concept. And I’ve learned that in order to get there you need to practice. You need to practice love, respect, courage, humility, honestly, truth, and wisdom. That’s how I understand our people. That’s how I understand our culture.”
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.