Jill Stephens worked hard and persevered to get where she is today. Now she does her best to lift others up.
Her traditional Nisga’a name is Hlgu K’aa Kw’adikskw ahl lax uhl n’eekhl, n’eekhl, which was passed to her from her mother, and many mothers before her.
Stephens is a cheerful 29-year-old with a quick, hearty laugh. She works as a First Nations access co-ordinator for Coast Mountain College, working out of the Waap Galts’ap longhouse on the college’s Terrace campus. Her job has many facets, including welcoming new Indigenous students to the college, providing cultural support and personal support, and maintaining a safe space in the longhouse.
She didn’t have access to such services when she left home in Terrace in her late teens to study at UNBC in Prince George — there was a First Nations support centre there, but she didn’t know about it and was too wracked with anxiety to branch out.
In her role with Coast Mountain College, Stephens goes around to classes at the beginning of each semester to introduce herself and let students know Indigenous support is available.
“I wish that I had someone like myself,” she said. “The inspiration I have to be here is to be the person that I didn’t have going through my academia.”
Originally, she studied toward a biomedical degree at UNBC with the goal of becoming a pediatrician, after her work organizing day camps for kids sparked a real love of children.
“I just love being around their curiosity, their learning through play, their innate sense to just be who they are. Being around them made me feel safe. It made me feel like this is who I wanted to be,” she said.
But Stephens felt out of her element at the university, with huge class sizes and professors who didn’t know her name — not to mention being disconnected from Indigenous supports.
“Not having that [support] just made me feel like I didn’t belong in academia. It just gave me that sense and that anxiety of saying ‘I don’t know how to do this. Maybe I shouldn’t be here,’” she said. “That really started to show up in a lot of my work.”
She took a break after two years at UNBC and traveled through Europe, passing through 23 countries. She met plenty of other young people who were also coming from situations where they didn’t feel they belonged, who were trying to find themselves through travel. She talked with grannies in Albania, roamed the back streets of Paris, and celebrated a FIFA World Cup win in Germany.
Feeling renewed, she returned to Prince George and resumed her biomedical studies at UNBC, but her balance faltered when her last remaining grandparent passed away.
“That’s when my mental health really started to decline, because I was so far away from home, I couldn’t fulfill my cultural duties, and I still felt like I was alone there in Prince George,” she said. “It just felt like I so wasn’t where I needed to be, and so I came home.”
Stephens has very strong family roots in Nisga’a territory and in Terrace. She was born in Prince Rupert and for the early years of her life lived in Laxgalts’ap, the Nisga’a home village of her parents. When she was 5, her parents moved their immediate family to Terrace.
But they remained very close to family in Laxgalts’ap and traveled there frequently. She remembers massive family gatherings, where children would gather around as grandparents told stories.
Growing up she was taught Nisga’a feasting traditions as a member of her family house, Wilp Duuk, a laxgibuu (wolf) house in Laxgalts’ap.
“Getting ready for settlement feasts, getting ready for weddings, getting ready for stone movings, things like that where we would have to come together and we would meet with our house,” she said. “My house has always been quite large, Wilp Duuk, but they have also always been very open, and they would always include the kids in, because we had to learn what to do for when they had passed on.”
“Talking about the business of feasting, and the witnesses that are needed, but also talking about protocol, and learning that from the chiefs and matriarchs themselves makes us [young ones] feel like, yeah, that is part of our law, it’s part of our ayuuk that we have inside of ourselves and what we need to carry forth when they leave this physical world.”
So, when Stephens left UNBC in her third year and returned to Terrace feeling low, her family helped her heal.
“I came back and I surrounded myself with family, and I found solace in my nephews that are here. They’re just absolutely amazing … Just being surrounded by that pure love that comes off of them,” she said.
She started taking a few courses at Coast Mountain College. It was her first time studying qualitative social sciences, instead of quantitative hard sciences. She started to learn more about oppression of Indigenous people, such as the history of residential schools.
One course she took, a women’s studies class, was a game-changer. The instructor made a real effort to support people of colour and Stephens truly felt validated as an Indigenous woman in academia.
“It changed my entire perspective of academia,” she said. “I started to feel that belonging. I felt like there was something here that I could relate to, and I felt like I was being acknowledged.”
Brimming with inspiration, she returned to UNBC and switched her major to First Nations studies.
“That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a counsellor. I wanted to be someone that people can come to and talk about their anxieties, to talk about how they are learning about residential school, and how they are learning about themselves, because that’s what I was doing in these courses … Reflecting on how much pain and sorrow that [Indigenous] communities are holding, and are shamed for” she said.
Stephens is an advocate for racial equality and the environment.
When an anti-racism demonstration was held in front of Terrace city hall in June, Stephens attended carrying a sign that read “That’s not a chip on my shoulder. That’s your foot on my neck! #BlackLivesMatter.”
And during the height of the recent Coastal GasLink pipeline conflict between Wet’suwet’en people and the RCMP, Stephens paid for a tattoo as part of a fundraiser for the Wet’suwet’en Unist’ot’en camp. It was a traditional stick-and-poke tattoo done by a Nisga’a artist. The design was a salmon with red eggs — called laan in Nisga’a. The artist crushed up lava rocks from the lava beds in Nisga’a territory and mixed them into the ink.
The stick-and-poke process was much longer and more painful than Stephens’ previous 11 tattoos had been. Throughout it, she and the artist talked in depth.
“She was putting me in ceremony. This whole thing was a ceremony, and releasing all these negative energies I was carrying, especially about the Wet’suwet’en conflicts. I was carrying a lot of that angst, and a little bit of that anger that I have,” Stephens said. “I am not necessarily an angry person so it’s a very uncomfortable feeling for me.”
Stephens said she will never stop trying to improve the community around her.
“How can I change and break the status quo, without people thinking I’m too radical and not listening? … One of the biggest things for me is a word that we say, is amukwsin, and it means to listen” she said. “Not only to have people listen to me, and tell my stories … but also listening to other peoples’ voices and illuminating them. So, I do it in my job. I do it at those rallies. I do it when I’m a student. I do it with my family members and my friends, to say ‘I’m here for you. I’m standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you, and I’m here to raise your voice up so others can hear you.’”