Jorgina Sunn is not proud of a lot of the things she did in her younger years, but she doesn’t pretend they never happened.
“By the time I was 21, I was a walking time bomb. I did all the things to maintain my addiction. I sold my body. I sold drugs. My life could have ended many times, but you’re not thinking about that when you’re in it,” she says.
After years of crime and addiction, Sunn made the choice to change. Now, with three years of sobriety and a flourishing speaking career, she uses her experiences to help others who are trying to get off those same troubled paths.
She has travelled the province from Regina to La Loche sharing her story, taken part in a call for a provincial poverty action plan and counselled young people struggling with poverty, addictions and gang connections.
Her work has earned the respect of her peers, and recently national recognition in the form of an Aboriginal Order of Canada from the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
Despite what she has accomplished, she still considers herself a work in progress.
Every day is a journey of self-improvement.
“You can’t transmit anything you don’t have. That’s why I keep working on myself,” she says.
Sunn grew up in Alberta. She spent her first four years in several foster homes, an experience she says influenced some of her later troubles. “There were lots of different abuses in those homes. Just really unhealthy, dysfunctional environments,” she says.
Things improved at age four when she was adopted by a family from Canmore. She spent her youth hiking, skiing and learning the piano.
Despite a relatively stable home environment, she had a lot of negative experiences during the time. As one of just eight aboriginal students at her school, Sunn says she experienced constant racism and bullying.
By age 10 she started to rebel, staying out late and smoking cigarettes. At 16 she started drinking and getting high. She had her first run-in with the law when she stole her parents’ vehicle and was caught driving without a licence.
She dropped out of Grade 12 and moved to Calgary, where she got into more serious problems. She joined a gang, got addicted to crack cocaine and started selling drugs. She spent time living on the street.
Her first big reality check came from the law. Sunn was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to spend six months in a healing lodge. Although incarceration was a generally negative experience, it was there she got her first real exposure to her First Nations heritage.
Growing up off-reserve, Sunn never learned about her cultural heritage. Programming at the lodge introduced her to things she didn’t realize she needed.
“I think it had always called to me,” she says.
Still, she was hesitant. She felt like an outsider, even among those who shared her heritage.
“My fear had always been about asking questions, not knowing enough, being judged by other First Nations people because I didn’t understand,” Sunn says.
After her release in 2006 she came to Saskatoon.
“I picked Saskatoon because I didn’t have any connections here. I wanted a fresh start,” she says.
She tried to get on a better path, but had trouble committing.
“It was rather intimidating to me, the idea of being quote-unquote healthy,” she says.
Sunn started using drugs again. Before long, she found herself back in Calgary, back on the street. It was during this second stint that Sunn started finding the conviction to make a real change.
“There was a certain what I called ‘freedom.’ I didn’t have to pay bills. But at the end of many nights, standing in minus-30 weather with nowhere to go, it starts to hit you that you don’t want to do this any more,” she says.
She began to wonder about the inevitable end of her lifestyle.
“I started seeing people many years older than me, knowing they were never going to get out of that life,” Sunn says.
With the help of her brother, she got on a bus back to Saskatoon. It was here she became fully involved with Str8-Up, an organization she credits with saving her life.
Str8-Up’s mandate is to help people get out of gangs and criminal lifestyles.
Stan Tuinukuafe, an outreach worker with the organization, remembers when Sunn first came in.
“She was sick and tired of being in jail, making promises to people and not following through, always seeing the same people, those kinds of things,” he says.
Tuinukuafe recognized in Sunn a genuine desire for change.
“She had the drive in her. There’s moments where she relapsed, but she always picked herself up and continued to move forward,” he says.
To this day, Sunn is extremely grateful of Tuinukuafe. “He’s one of my greatest heroes and mentors. How he navigates his life is how I want to navigate my own life,” she says.
He and the other members of Str8-Up gave Sunn the support she had never found elsewhere.
“They sat with me and listened to me for hours. They let me cry, they let me scream. Even when I was wrong about my anger, they would let me have it,” she says. “I began to put things in perspective. There was lots of things I was able to let go.”
She got sober, found a place to live and started working. Meanwhile, as she continued to work on herself, she started taking a more senior role with Str8-Up. She would take part in presentations in communities around the province, telling her story.
“It was a very daunting and scary experience at first, because of my shame for where I was at and my shame for the things I had done in my life,” Sunn says.
But she was a natural. Articulate and comfortable in front of crowds, Sunn was a boon to the organization, according to Tuinukuafe.
“I’m not going to say Str8-Up gave her a voice. I think Str8-Up gave her the confidence to speak out,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sunn started helping out with other people coming to Str8-Up, trying to make the same improvements she had. Having lived through her own dark times, Sunn found she was able to talk to the members without sugar-coating things.
She recounts seeing a young woman screaming and crying, just as Sunn had years earlier. Sunn worked with the woman, walking alongside her as she reached three months of sobriety, then six months, then a year. Being on the other side of the experience was a revelation.
“It’s the most rewarding experience, watching someone transform their life. There’s nothing quite like it,” Sunn says.
Alex Munoz, Str8 Up’s executive director, says Sunn thrives in her senior role with the organization.
“She role models what it means to be healthy,” Munoz says.
The concept of a healthy environment is central to what Str8 Up does, Munoz says. It’s all about getting out of an unhealthy spot and finding something better.
“She has done that perfectly over the last three and a half years. She’s worked on herself, and she’s extended that outward to her community,” he says.
The adversity Sunn had to face is what makes her such an effective helper for others, according to Kim Beaudin, another staff member at Str8-Up.
“For someone to rise up, overcome all the obstacles and barriers she has, and take her life in a totally opposite, positive direction is inspiring to people. That was the key,” Beaudin says.
Meanwhile, Sunn was working on some things outside of Str8-Up. Having learned piano as a child, she started writing songs that went along with her life story. As she travelled the province speaking, she played her music and found people connected to it.
After an appearance on a Shaw music program, she got connected with Earl Pereira, the Juno-nominated cofounder of Wide Mouth Mason and the Steadies. The two of them are recording Sunn’s first album, scheduled for release in May.
Sunn says she isn’t expecting riches and fame from her music, but hopes more people can connect with her story and possibly follow her lead.
“As an indigenous person playing piano and writing pop music, I really hope it will help create a pathway for other artists,” she says.
Another avenue for sharing her story came through involvement with Poverty Costs, a campaign by a coalition of anti-poverty organizations calling for a comprehensive plan to tackle the issue in Saskatchewan. Sunn spoke at an event launching the campaign, and also shared her story with some of the organizers. She says it is important for such organizations to include the voices of people like her in order to formulate effective strategies.
“You need the people who have lived through it to share their experiences,” she says.
Saskatchewan has a long way to go in the fight against poverty and the misery it creates, according to Sunn.
“We need to get back to healing the family unit, and creating safe places where people can detox, or get over their abandonment issues,” she says.
All of Sunn’s positive endeavours contributed to Beaudin’s decision to nominate her for the Aboriginal Order of Canada. Beaudin is a delegate to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, a Canadian organization that represents Metis, off-reserve and non-treaty aboriginal people.
“I just believe her contributions to the community were really positive. I just thought she deserved it,” Beaudin says.
In September, Beaudin and Sunn travelled to Ottawa, where Beaudin made his case for why Sunn deserved the honour. The board unanimously agreed.
“I was completely baffled and blown away,” Sunn says of the honour.
Tuinukuafe, who has seen Sunn go from those first meetings at Str8-Up to her current position as a mentor for others, says the award is a great honour for both Sunn and the organization.
“It validates the journey for her, and for other Str8-Up members,” he says.
At the same time, Sunn doesn’t consider her journey over. The upcoming album represents a whole new challenge. On top of that, she is working toward going to law school, where she hopes her firsthand knowledge of the criminal justice system will allow her to effectively help others.
She will continue to tell her story in a multitude of venues, and use her position at Str8-Up to positively influence those who need a helping hand. Having got one herself, she loves nothing more than to pay it forward, and see someone else on the path toward health and stability.
“If I had some small part of that, that’s a gift worth more than millions of dollars.”