Enrolling in a Niagara College program has transformed the life of 23-year-old Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Claudette Cort.
The young mother of 2-year-old Eli was introduced to the Niagara Peninsula Aboriginal Area Management Board’s (NPAAMB) Journey to Success – Hospitality and Tourism Certificate program by her youth service worker who thought it would be a good fit for her. Cort was eligible for several supports including funding for her son’s daycare and transportation to classes, making it possible for her to join the program in January 2020.
Though her background is First Nations, Ojibwe, to that point Cort had never truly embraced her heritage. The cultural experiences that were part of the program, such as opening and closing circles, and the inspirational speakers on topics including intergenerational trauma, strength and perseverance, opened her eyes.
“When I said yes to committing to the program, I guess I was definitely ready for that,” she says. “I definitely learned more about myself. I didn’t really know who I was besides a mom. Being surrounded by other Indigenous students created a community. For Indigenous people, a sense of community is a form of strength, of having a support system.”
Throughout her life, Cort has been a shining example of strength under difficult circumstances. Raised in a handful of foster homes since she was 11 years old, life could have been a lot different for her if she hadn’t found a way to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system.
Though she never knew them, Cort knows that her biological grandparents were products of that system. Her mother’s parents lived a life clouded by drugs, alcohol and violence until their deaths at a young age. Her father’s parents also lived similar lifestyles.
Cort’s mother, Catherine Williamson, died at 26 years of age of carbon monoxide poisoning, discovered in her downtown Niagara Falls garage by Cort’s father, James. She was three years old at the time.
She and her brother Dakota were then placed in the foster care system as her father tried to deal with the tragedy. When Cort was six years old, they returned to her father’s house, but the reception wasn’t with open arms.
She has fuzzy recollections of life with either of her parents, but does remember James bringing a new girlfriend and her children into the family home. That new girlfriend never accepted either Claudette or her brother.
Dakota’s ADHD proved too difficult for James and his new partner to handle. A year later Dakota was placed back into the system, separating the siblings. Claudette followed four years later, at 11 years old.
She lost contact with her father until shortly before his death four years ago at 43 years old. At that time he finally apologized for pushing both Claudette and her brother into foster care.
Today she calls Dakota, who now works at a Toronto restaurant after graduating from Niagara College’s culinary program, her best friend.
Claudette’s first foster family was also the first people to show her that life could be a whole lot better.
She now refers to Karen and Wilf Wiens of Niagara Falls as her parents, and continues to have a close relationship with them.
“They were a very religious family, very good people,” she says. “It was hard at first, as I was coming from a home where there was a lot of neglect and abuse. They had to teach me manners. A lot of different parenting had to happen in those first years.”
The Wiens’ also had two daughters of their own, close to Claudette’s age. The family provided Claudette with the same opportunities her new “sisters” had to be involved in dance, gymnastics and sports.
“I was very lucky,” she reflects. “They pushed me to be the best that I could be. They were open and approachable, they brought me to see therapists when I needed it. They included me in family events, too.”
She was with the Wiens family until finishing Grade 8. Following that, she moved through a couple of other foster homes, and attended secondary school at Eden High.
During that time, she was diagnosed with high-functioning Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
The diagnosis allowed her to have an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which offered teachers solutions for dealing with her deficiencies in focus and memory, as well as some mild impulsivity.
Cort remains one senior English credit away from earning her high school graduation diploma.
Eventually, at a time when she was in “kind of a bad spot,” Cort moved in with a close friend in Virgil. While working part time at Nina’s Gelateria, she met Eli’s father, Ethan Kerr, and they moved into a house together.
When she discovered she was pregnant with Eli, she was able to reflect on some of her family legacy. She knew she had to break the chain to support her unborn son.
“I was in a phase where I was going out a lot, I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities, I wasn’t in school,” she says. “I quit my lifestyle right away. I wasn’t ever addicted to anything, but I knew my family all had addictive personalities. They struggled with staying sober during pregnancies.”
“It’s not like I had to reconsider my own life,” Claudette clarifies. “It just came subconsciously. The focus became Eli.”
Watching the uncovering of the residential school nightmare over the past few weeks has been heartbreaking for Claudette.
“You know that there are so many other schools out there left to be explored,” she laments. “You know what’s coming, and you know it’s always been there. Does it have to take a few mass graves for people to realize it?”
“Indigenous people are finally getting more of a voice”, she adds. “As an Indigenous mom, I couldn’t imagine Eli being taken away from me in a year from now. It brings back some of the feelings from my own biological family.”
Her involvement today with NPAAMB and the Niagara Regional Native Centre, as well as her experience through the Niagara College program and her resulting job with Kakekalanicks, have made Cort committed to ensuring that Eli embraces his Indigenous heritage.
“I got involved with the Native Centre, I became part of their Healthy Babies program,” Cort tells The Local. “I was also provided with an advocate, who talked to me about how I was feeling as a parent. I wanted to use all the resources I could through the Native Centre.”
She’s brought her son to work with her, where they have held ceremonies to mourn the lives of the children whose bodies have recently been discovered on the sites of residential schools. He’s been with her at drum circles and healing gatherings. She’s committed to instilling in Eli a sense that these traditions are normal for him as he grows up.
As well, Cort says she has a great relationship with her mother-in-law, Erica Lepp, who has been a huge support for her. Lepp expresses pride and awe in Claudette’s ability to push through adversity, and in her success in the certificate program.
Claudette’s job with Kakekalanicks, a Niagara-based Indigenous arts consulting company, came about through a Journey to Success work placement, a chance for Cort to put her skills into practice while further exploring her Indigenous roots.
Michele-Elise Burnett, president of Kakekalanicks and co-founder of Landscape of Nations 360° (LON 360°), invited Claudette to join the company as her executive assistant. Since being hired she has helped Burnett, Metis/Algonquin Bear Clan, develop a number of Indigenous tourism initiatives, many of them attracting national attention.
“I’ve been working with her for over a year now,” says Cort. “She sees where your strengths are and tries to help you grow in those strengths. She’s more than a boss or a mentor, she’s a great person to go to whenever you have a problem or need advice.”
Her experiences with Journey to Success, Kakekelanicks and the Niagara Regional Native Centre have helped Cort set some new goals for her future.
“I want to go to school to do the full tourism management program,” Cort says. “I want to continue to work with Michele-Elise part-time, too.”
Event management is another area of interest, and she would like to be involved in the Niagara College Student Administrative Council.
Today, Claudette Cort says she is more confident with who she is, what she can accomplish and where she can go.
Told by her NPAAMB coach and mentor Marie Bowering that she would get out of the program what she put into it, Cort put her heart into it and let it guide her wherever it would take her.
And it’s taken her to a very, very good place.