For years, Brenda Gardiner chose to consider her past, just that, in the past. However, it was a difficult past to forget. Before the age of five, Brenda witnessed the death of her mother, at the hands of her drunken father.
She was the oldest of five children, all of which were placed in foster homes after her mother’s death.
“I was raised by a wonderful foster family,” Brenda said of the home where she and one of her brothers grew up.
It was from her foster dad, who she fondly recalls as “Dad”, she learned with determination she could overcome any obstacle and that’s how she’s lived her life.
Brenda was one of six 2014 Coast Mental Health Courage to Come Back Award winners, but admitted when her nominator RCMP Cpl Jenny Collins asked if she’d let her name stand, she was not completely comfortable.
“My first thought was I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” she said.
However, with Jenny’s assurance of her imminent worthiness of this award, Brenda agreed.
“Once I realized that Jenny and others consider me and my story inspirational, I knew if it could help even one person to escape abuse it was worth telling my story.”
Brenda’s exposure to family violence and abuse was not limited to her immediate family. After graduating high school, she moved to Saskatchewan and at 19 married a young farmer and raised her four children and a nephew she adopted, all the while learning the skills needed to help her husband wrestle a living on a marginal farm.
Like her father, Brenda’s husband was an abusive alcoholic and although she now values many of the skills and lessons she learned in the 20 years she spent with him, she knew she had to leave and break the cycle of abuse in her life.
“It was a life of survival,” she said.
Over the next few years, Brenda shared her story but never really came to terms with the effect it had on her.
After leaving her husband she returned to her home in the Smithers area and at 39 graduated from Northwest Community College and worked locally until accepting the job as band manager at Nazko First Nation in Quesnel. Brenda was learning the value of speaking up about injustice, encouraging women (especially First Nations women) to leave abusive relationships and the give back to the community in positive and productive ways.
She realized sharing her story wasn’t facing it, however, about seven years ago, at a violence workshop she told her story with emotion for the first time.
“The audience was overwhelmed by my story,” she said.
“Following that break through, therapy followed which I’m still in today. It’s been very good for me.”
She recognizes without the adversity in her life, she wouldn’t be the woman she is today.
“I’d never have learned to operate a combine if things hadn’t been tough in the marriage and on the farm,” she said.
“And I’m a damn good combine driver.”
Other skills and personal development might not be so obvious, but Brenda knows they are just as compelling.
“I have determination and stubborness that drives me to do what I do,” she admitted.
“I’ve also learned a healthy respect for alcohol and can enjoy a modest amount but never to excess,” she said.
“I don’t put myself in a situation where abuse is possible, not anymore.”
Currently, Brenda works with seniors helping them maintain life in their own home and loves her clientele, but her commitment to working with women in abusive and violent situations is still very much a priority for her.
She has formed a consulting business Warrior Woman 5 which presents workshops and awareness to First Nation women living in abusive or dysfunctional relationships and tells them there is help to deal with their addictions and emotions.
“I urge women not to beat themselves up for remaining in an abusive situation,” she said.
“Women often have several failed attempts at leave, but I also encourage them to never give up.”
Brenda knows it difficult to break the cycle of abuse. In her mother’s family, every member has died an alcohol-related death.
“No one grew old,” she sadly said.
It is Brenda’s firm conviction that the road from poverty, violence and abuse is paved with educational dollars, and women need the tools – self-esteem, life skills, employment readiness – before they can successfully leave the violence and abuse behind.
With her primary focus on First Nation women, Brenda adds if society really wants to address the culture of violence in these communities, it’s vital to reach the young women in a preventative way, instil the tools they need to survive and success without the spectre of abuse and violence in their
“My voice is strong – I have no fear,” she said.
“If I can say, in a powerful, eloquent and factual way, what needs to be said, that’s what I’ll do.”
Brenda was not only honoured Jenny thought her worthy for nomination but was thrilled to receive the award.
However, possibly the most powerful aspect to the ceremonies was sharing it with her daughter, the next generation.