When Jennifer Bahinski moved to Bradford in 2013, she admits it was "a bit of a shock.”
She was happy to leave the big city behind for this quiet, rural, suburban community. It seemed less busy, a better place to raise a family.
But she had concerns about what she saw as a “disconnect.”
“I always was drawn to smaller towns and I liked that community feel, but I also noticed there was a lot of progress that needed to be made here in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
As they connected with their neighbours and other parents through local hockey and their kids’ school, they felt a community that was welcoming, growing in diversity, open and ready for change.
“But I felt maybe our town leadership hadn’t quite caught up to that progress,” she says. “There were a lot of voices that weren’t being heard.”
That didn’t sit well with her but it really hit home in 2019 when she got life-changing news.
An ancestry DNA test revealed she was adopted, had Indigenous roots and was a victim of the “'60s scoop” when agencies placed Indigenous adoptees with non-Indigenous families.
Then, in May 2021, national news broke about burial sites being recovered at residential schools. Ground-penetrating radar revealed remains of hundreds of children around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
With news of more burial sites “popping up almost daily” in headlines in the weeks leading up to Canada Day, she was galled to think her newly adopted hometown was still planning to party.
Other communities were taking a pause, scaling down their celebrations out of respect and acknowledgement, but not here.
“Our Canada Day festivities were still happening — fireworks, music, nothing missing a beat.”
When she voiced those concerns on social media, she was contacted by Rise Up BWG, a community-led coalition promoting unity and racial inclusion in Bradford.
Together, they penned an open letter to the town describing how community members were in deep mourning, triggered by the recent burial recoveries, and offering suggestions how Bradford could approach the Canada Day holiday more sensitively.
“When we see our neighbours are in pain or mourning, it’s our job to reach out and hold their hand and stand with them during that time.
“Unfortunately, the town proceeded with the festivities,” she says. “They released a public statement, but it definitely wasn't the outcome we had hoped for.”
Undeterred, Bahinski and Rise Up organized the Every Child Matters ceremony with a traditional healer, drumming and guest speakers. The following year, they held a Red Dress ceremony marking the National Day of Awareness and Action for Missing Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Gender Diverse Peoples.
More events followed and soon, the town and farmers' market were reaching out to them, wanting to carry on their efforts.
“That was a great moment because we had sort of been the leaders to organize these events, raise awareness and educate the community and now here we see our community members stepping up and carrying that load, doing the work, taking it on themselves to move forward as a community," Bahinski said. "It was a beautiful thing.”
Today, Bahinski continues to volunteer with Rise Up and is vice chair of the town’s Diversity Equity Inclusion Committee where she hopes to help raise visibility for residents of differing backgrounds with murals, sculptures and cultural celebrations.
She’s also involved with charity drives like Handbags for Hope helping women in need, and CONTACT Community Services The Clothes Line, a social enterprise thrift shop.
It makes for a busy life, running her small business, Bella Lovelee Beads, raising three children at the same time, but it’s worth it, she says.
“I think what drives me is the belief that everybody deserves a sense of belonging. They deserve compassion, empathy and they deserve for their voices to be heard.”
And in return, Bahinski says, she watches her community grow into the kind of place she dreams of, one where everyone feels safe, respected and like they belong.
“People don't realize that they can create so much change," she said. "You don't need an official title or position of power to create change in your community. Everyone has that ability. It just starts with with one little step.”