Paulina Meader and Jeff MacNeil. Jessica Christmas photo.

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Jeff MacNeil and Paulina Meader have been dating for five and a half years. Jeff is non-native. Paulina is an Aboriginal woman from Membertou, First Nation, in Cape Breton, N.S.

Meader comes from a traditional Mi’kmaq family, culturally and spiritually. MacNeil never thought much about Meader’s heritage before dating her and had very little contact with native people.

“I had very little experience with native people, but in elementary school I remember there was one native girl and we had heard that she was paid to go to school,” MacNeil said. “In knowing Paulina’s family, I learned that isn’t true and its sort of the opposite – that bands actually sometimes pay schools for their students to be able to go there.

“It wasn’t talked about in my schools or at home from what I can remember. I started hearing more of that and the negative stereotypes when I was with her. It’s awesome that they invite me to take part in ceremonies and things like that. It’s cool to be able to experience that stuff because I had never even heard of any of that kind of stuff before from anyone else or in school.”

In the beginning, MacNeil worried that he was an outsider invading traditional ceremonies and worried he would do something wrong and offend someone. The community made him feel at ease.

“I’ve learned they’re way more patient and accepting. It feels really good to be able to be a part of it.”

Now MacNeil doesn’t hesitate to ask his girlfriend about anything. He thinks that there should be more public education and history told from the First Nations perspective and that there should be memorials and museums about residential schools.

From a First Nations perspective, Meader has experienced discrimination, both direct and indirect. She has been called names and has been followed around in stores.

“I often find myself educating people on history, culture, or correcting stereotypes. I love that I have the opportunity to do that. The fact that non-native people care enough to ask is amazing because I know from my family that it hasn’t always been that way,” she said.

“Of course, there are still people that are not open to learning, but I find more often than not people want to know the truth behind things they’ve heard or why certain stereotypes and opinions form the way they do.

“As far as Native people go I’ve had non-native people tell me they were surprised to see how nice people were on the reserve. That is wasn’t the slum full of angry, violent people they thought it was. This was always hilarious to me because I found Membertou to be safer and more welcoming than most other places I visited.

“Another would be about how native people are all alcoholics and drug abusers while 95 per cent of my family members are completely sober and live successful lives. Native are uneducated and lazy while my mother went to school and earned several degrees when I was a child. Most people in my family have at least one form of post-secondary education and include tradesmen, teachers, lawyers, nurses, social workers, engineers, business owners, managers, and executives. My family isn’t unique either – so many of our people are hard-working, well-educated, and motivated individuals.”

MacNeil and Meader describe their relationship as effortless. They work together as a team – financially, emotionally, physically and culturally.

Justine Lake, Meader’s best friend, was born in a Christian community in Sydney, Nova Scotia. While growing up, she heard negative stereotypes about native people. In high school, she became friends with some native women and noticed more microaggressions toward the First Nations communities.

“There are some great people in my hometown but unfortunately there are also still many who are brought up being taught through stereotypes and hate,” said Lake. “The most common stereotypes I heard about native people were that they liked to fight and were often referred to as ‘savages,’ that they were lazy and didn’t want to get jobs. I also saw this in the media and often in old movies portraying Natives as ‘Wild and Violent Indians.’ Growing up they always seemed to show natives on TV either fighting, holding weapons or drinking.

“I feel like I slowly learned more and more about how terrible those stereotypes were through my relationships. I was young but had a lot of learning opportunities through my friends, family and from spending time in Membertou,” Lake said. “I took some time as well to educate myself by researching residential schools at my local public library and I also started going to museum and cultural exhibits surrounding Mi’kmaq history in Cape Breton.

“My mother and I have always felt welcomed by the native community in our hometown. My father passed away a few years ago and many of the Membertou elders have prayed for us and sent us healing energy. Jane (Paulina’s mother) and Paulina have always been there to be a part of our healing process and we appreciate them a lot for that.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that with love and friendship, comes understanding.

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