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‘I want to show my community it’s possible to come out of addictions and make a life for yourself’

First Nations’ nursing student Molly Boyce overcame trauma, addictions on her path to becoming a nurse and serving her community

By Laura Eggertson
May 21, 2024
Courtesy of the Boyce family
Molly Boyce had just two semesters of her practical nursing course left. Her goal was to return to Fort Hope to serve the community. Having sought care while she was on the streets using substances, she wanted to exhibit the compassion she did not always receive.

Editor’s note: Just days after giving the interview for this article, Molly Boyce died unexpectedly, a week short of her 55th birthday. She had entered hospital for what her family thought was influenza. Although she never got to return to her community as a nurse, we believe she will remain an inspiration to those who learn her story, including to the three grandchildren in Nova Scotia she shared with the writer of this article.

Margaret Boyce was just 8 years old when the nurse treating her mother’s diabetes inspired the Ojibway girl’s desire to care for others in Fort Hope, Ont., the remote fly-in community north of Thunder Bay where they lived.

Courtesy of the Boyce family
“I had purpose. It gave me a goal. It gave me hope. It gave me happiness, to go back to school on my terms,” Molly Boyce said.

“She would ask me questions, like ‘What would you want to do when you are grown up?’,” Boyce said in a recent interview. “I remember saying — ‘I want to help take care of my mom.’ Then she started allowing me to help.”

In those moments, when the nurse allowed her to help change the bandage on her mother’s foot, Margaret — called Molly — decided she too wanted to become a nurse and serve the other members of the Eabametoong First Nation.

Less than a year later, a predatory teacher assaulted her, she said. What happened derailed her dream for more than 40 years.

“He raped me,” she said. “And after that we had cookies and blueberry juice.”

She never went back to school.

But in January 2024, at age 54, Boyce entered her second-to-last semester of a practical nursing program at Oshki-Pimache-O-Win: The Wenjack Education Institute, in Thunder Bay.

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation created Oshki-Wenjack to increase access to education and support First Nations’ students who, like Boyce, often take their post-secondary courses as adult learners.

Twelve years ago, Boyce could not have imagined the changes in her life and all she  achieved. At the time, she was living on the streets of Thunder Bay, 350 kilometres southeast of the reserve where she grew up.

The barriers to getting an education seemed insurmountable.

Schools erased culture

The church-run school had the same goals as residential schools: to erase Indigenous culture and assimilate First Nations’ students. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was told, the purpose of the federal government policy that led to Indian Residential and Indian Day schools was to “‘kill the Indian’ in the child for the sake of Christian civilization.”

Both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported widespread sexual and physical abuse of Indigenous pupils at these schools.

As a girl, Boyce came home to a chaotic, alcoholic household, where her parents — also abuse survivors — were dealing with too much of their own pain to notice hers.

The trauma of sexual abuse, as well as subsequent tragedies and a life punctuated with stints in foster care and domestic violence, propelled Boyce into struggles with mental health and addiction. Those struggles claimed decades of her health and sobriety.

For more than 15 years, Boyce experienced homelessness. Her two oldest children, who had remained in Fort Hope with their grandmother, sometimes combed the streets of Thunder Bay to find her.

But on the streets, Boyce finally felt she belonged.

No one judged her for drinking or using drugs to blot out the pain and guilt she felt at her separation from her children.

“My friends on the street became my family,” she said.

Street life took a heavy toll, however. One of her lowest points occurred in the spring of 2012, when Boyce asked her youngest son to inject her with the intravenous drugs she was using after he aged out of foster care and came to find her.

She was too sick, at the time, to inject herself. In addition to the drugs, she was drinking solvents, mouthwash, hairspray — anything with enough alcohol in it to keep her from the physical torment of withdrawal.

“Something happened to me after that,” she said.

She woke up in a shelter — and decided to try to start a different life. She enrolled in Shelter House’s Kwae Kii Win Managed Alcohol Program in Thunder Bay. The program saved her life and started her on the road to recovery.

Sense of identity

Through the program, Boyce received regulated doses of alcohol. The program also got her stable housing. She stopped drinking solvents. She wasn’t constantly striving to find her next drink or next high. Program staff taught her life skills, including cooking, self-care, and budgeting.

She also worked with an Anishnawbe Elder and a psychologist to develop a sense of identity and a spiritual life.

“It basically gave me life, that program,” Boyce said. “It taught me that I matter. Because of the people that worked there. It also taught me about my trauma, where I needed to begin to start to heal. It taught me who I was.”

At Shelter House, Boyce’s dream of becoming a nurse re-emerged.

“Of course you can,” the workers encouraged her.

Over the next few years, Boyce began to get sober. She reconnected with her children, forgave one of her abusers and spent time with her grandchildren. She cared for her father before his death from cancer.

A stint as a community health representative in Fort Hope, and the time she spent with her father, confirmed her talent for health care.

Graduated valedictorian

She set out to get her high school diploma. For the first time since the teacher assaulted her, Boyce entered a school without fear.

“I had purpose. It gave me a goal. It gave me hope. It gave me happiness, to go back to school on my terms,” Boyce said.

She graduated from the Matawa First Nations’ Kiikenomaga Kikenjigewen Employment & Training Services (KKETS) program in 2017 as one of her class’s two valedictorians.

She began to give back, working at Shelter House, helping people with the same compassion her colleagues showed her.

Boyce’s example inspired two of her adult children, Jonathan and Isabel, to go back to high school and get their diplomas through the KKETS program.

Over the next six years, Boyce also received her diploma from the Oshki-Wenjack Institute in Indigenous Wellness and Addictions Prevention, graduating as an addictions’ worker. Although she enjoyed that work, she was still determined to be a nurse.

She upgraded her courses through a Pre-Health Sciences — Pathway to Certificates and Diplomas program, while continuing to work at Shelter House and at a detox facility.

Despite struggles with her studies — math was her nemesis — Boyce persisted. She leaned on the help Oshki-Wenjack’s student support navigators offered.

“These last few years have just been study, school, work, school — basically I had nothing else. In between, I’ve met a lot of great people.”

Ensure equitable health care

Boyce also found time to try acting, getting roles in a couple of commercials and a documentary. She travelled to Nova Scotia to spend time with her three grandchildren there and often returned to Fort Hope to help her daughter with her seven other grandchildren.

Boyce had just two semesters of her practical nursing course left. Her goal was to return to Fort Hope to serve the community — just as that eight-year-old girl wanted to do.

“I want to show my community it’s possible to come out of addictions and make a life for yourself in whatever it is you want to do, without substance use,” she said.

She also planned to get her driver’s licence, another milestone she missed along the way.

Once she became a nurse, Boyce intended to do her part to ensure equitable health care. “That’s going to be one of my purposes, to ensure that our people get the same health care that everybody gets.”

Having sought care while she was on the streets using substances, Boyce wanted to exhibit the compassion she did not always receive.

The hardest part of being homeless was not how she was living, it was the way people in the health-care system who were supposed to care for her treated her. “I’ve been the Indigenous person that’s been invisible, even in health care, because of why I was seeking health care. I was a drunk. Homeless. And today, I’m not,” she said.

“Today I go into a hospital emergency room and just because of the way I dress and the way I am now as an Indigenous person and the way I speak, I get better treatment,” she said.

“With my experience, I’m hoping to show a new generation how to be part of the change, and also how not to go into the life I went into.”

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist based in Wolfville, N.S. She shared three grandchildren with Molly Boyce.