Christa Couture is an award-winning performing and recording artist, non-fiction writer, filmmaker and broadcaster who is proudly Indigenous, queer and disabled.
Christa Couture is an award-winning performing and recording artist, non-fiction writer, filmmaker and broadcaster. She is also proudly Indigenous (mixed Cree and Scandinavian), queer, disabled, and a mom.
Over the course of her acclaimed career, Christa has become known, unenviably, as an expert in loss: singing, speaking and writing about the childhood cancer that led to the amputation of her left leg, abortion, and the tragic deaths of her two infant sons. When it came time to make her fourth album, 2016’s eclectic, upbeat and twangy Long Time Leaving, a more run-of-the-mill loss, divorce, provided inspiration.
Those years of loss are revisited in her debut non-fiction book How To Lose Everything, published September 2020 by Douglas & McIntyre. But Christa’s most recent recording Safe Harbour tells a different story. Safe Harbour’s six songs were written during a thankfully tragedy-free, joyful time in Christa’s life that saw her leave Vancouver, her home of 17 years, and relocate to Toronto to start anew. During this time, Christa took a step back from recording and performing music to write her memoir, take on a daytime radio host job, and welcome a third child.
Her fourth album Long Time Leaving was nominated for Best Folk Album at the 2016 Indigenous Music Awards, and before that, 2012’s The Living Record made Best-of-the-Year lists at CBC Music, Radio Regent and the Georgia Straight, which also chose the album to represent 2012 in their 50 Albums That Shaped Vancouver.
Christa’s sophomore album The Wedding Singer and The Undertaker won a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award, made the Top 10 on CBC Radio 3, and landed a #1 song on the National Aboriginal Music Countdown.
As a writer and storyteller, Christa’s essay “Sanibe” appears in the collection Radiant Voices: 21 Feminist Essays for Rising Up (TouchWood, 2019), and “These Are My Children” appears in The M Word: Conversations on Motherhood (Goose Lane, 2014). She has been published in Room, Shameless, and Augur magazines, and on CBC.ca. In 2018, her CBC article and photos on disability and pregnancy went viral. She has spoken for audiences of Walrus Talks, DNTO Live (CBC), Moses Znaimer’s ideaCity, and Imaginate in Port Hope, ON.
Her short, animated film How to Lose Everything: A Field Guide, based on an excerpt from her book and co-directed with bekky O’Neil won Best Animated Short at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco and the Imagine This Women’s International Film Festival in Brooklyn. The film will be the first in a series of five animated shorts for CBC Arts.
She was the midday host on Toronto’s 106.5 ELMNT FM for three years and has been heard as a frequent contributor to CBC Radio on Now or Never and The Next Chapter. As an arts administrator and advocate (and lover of tidy paperwork) she was the project manager of the Indigenous music platform RPM.fm and the general manager of Native Women in the Arts.
Prairie-raised, Christa spent 17 years in Vancouver and now calls Toronto home.
Watch the video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/zU_gJgRgan0
Some resources for grief suggested by Christa:
For bereaved parents: https://tcfcanada.net/articles-2/the-bereaved-parent/
Check out Christa Couture’s memoir, How to Lose Everything
Katie Hawkins-Gaar has this great list of books about various grief experiences: https://bookshop.org/shop/mysweetdumbbrain
Christa Couture. How are you?
So nice to have you here. I don't know if you know this, but when I first thought of the show and I know we haven't talked much because I always want to save our chatting for this moment, because when I first thought of the show, you were one of the first persons that came to mind for me. And we're going to get into the thick stuff in a little bit, but when I think about going through stuff, there's nobody that I know more who has been through more stuff than you have in your life in terms of loss and some hardships. I want to get into that in a little bit, but I want to start with a little bit lighter stuff first because I know we met we met at, I believe was an Aboriginal music camp bunch of years ago.
Yeah, I think that was the first time. Amp Camp at Falcon Lake. We would be there the same year.
Yeah. Which is- We're nearing 20 years or something like that. Was that 2008?
I think the first time I went to Amp Camp was 2011. Okay. It's been a long time.
Okay. I know you as the musician, Christa Couture, but you've now since added author to that. So what's going on with you one of these days? What's happening? Because the book is probably done really well. I'm hoping. I'm thinking.
I hope so too.
Yeah. And so what's happening with you? So are you still doing music stuff?
I'm not really doing music stuff, and it's almost hard to say that because it was such a big part of my life for so long. Like, when I met you those years ago, I was touring as much as I could. I recorded four albums, a number of EPs, and then about five or six years ago, I decided to make a shift. Partly I had to, I had a thyroidectomy and thyroid cancer and my voice, it was injured for a little while, so that caused me to take a step back. And then I had this project of wanting to write a book that had been kind of in my head and in my heart, and stopping touring gave me the time to do that. And then I fell in love with the process of writing that book, and then decided to want to try and have another kid. I had my daughter, so that kept me in one place for a little while, too. You know how that is.
And it's just been kind of feeding other projects. And I probably will go back to music, but I'm actually right now my sort of biggest creative thing is I'm producing a series of short films, animated short films for CBC Arts that is called How To Lose Everything, which is the same name as the book. So the book has kind of grown into some other creative work that I'm really loving and I'm just kind of connecting the dots right now.
That's really cool.
I don't know what I'm going to do next.
I love How To Lose Everything. That title says it all. Because for me, again, when I first knew you and kind of got to hang out with you at Amp Camp and over the couple of years, I didn't know fully the scope of loss that you had suffered at that point in time. One of the things that- you taught me something, the phrase limb difference. Because you had your leg amputated when you were 13. Yeah. I did some research.
And so that was through something called Ewing sarcoma. Ewing sarcoma, is that the bone cancer? And so through that, how was that like going through that as a teenager, pre teen and a teenager?
Yeah. I was first diagnosed with cancer when I was eleven and then had chemotherapy and radiotherapy, went into remission and then the cancer came back. And so the amputation was the cure for my cancer, which is incredibly lucky. Everyone you have lost someone to cancer for sure, at least one person in your life has died of cancer. It's everywhere, right? And so many people have cancer, so many people are impacted by it. And so I was very lucky that there was a cure for my cancer. I knew a lot of other kids at the time who died. I was making friends in the hospital who died. And so on one hand, I was very aware of this kind of good fortune that I had in surviving. And also it was a huge loss. My leg was amputated above the knee. I was 13 years old. It was this kind of swirl of adolescence where adolescence is a battlefield for everyone. You're just figuring out who you are, you're becoming more aware of your body. And then my body went through this huge not just like adolescent changes, but I had to learn how to walk again. And I was out of school for almost a year or two. I just kind of was on a very different path from my peers and so it changed my whole life. It pointed me in a new direction. But I also don't know what it would be like to not have cancer. It's the only kind of childhood I had and so I can't really compare what it would be like without it or who I would be without it. And of course I never would have chosen to have cancer, but at the same time, I love who I am.
Have you always been that way? Or was there a process to get to that place? Like, I would imagine 13 is a massive loss. I mean, it's always a loss.
But I imagine at that point in time, I feel like it would be like a tidal wave.
I think it was, and I think I didn't quite realize the scope of it until really maybe in my 20s. My late teens started to hit me where I was like, holy smokes, this is a big deal. No one else has just one leg, right? When you're in the hospital and you're with other kids who are bald and who have their limbs being amputated, it's sort of normalized. And then I got out more into the world and I was like, oh, this is actually extraordinary. I'm not meeting other amputees, other people with limb difference, and this is permanent. Like, oh, this is my life now. And so it was kind of in my twenty s. I think I went through a phase of some grieving and some acceptance and then even more into my thirty s of finally kind of stepping into feeling some not just acceptance, but even like celebration or gratitude for the experience or for being in this body. But yeah, I think on one hand, being 13 and being young and it's hard to think of like now when I see pictures of me, like at 1111 year olds are little, right? And when you're eleven, you don't feel a little but you see, I'm sure you look at your kid and you're like, oh man, he's still a kid.
And so in some ways it's a heartbreak to think about going through that at that age.
Little crista. At the same time, though, I think because I was young, it just shifted me. I didn't have a sense. I think if I were now to experience that kind of physical change, I would have already been sort of settled in my adult life in a certain way and I would be losing what I know my life to be. But at 13, I didn't know what my life was going to be. I think probably more of my parents and my family were like, okay, this is going to be a different path. But I think the way that kids adjust and accommodate and kind of go with it it's not to say it wasn't hard, but I think again, I didn't have a sort of bigger picture understanding of the world. So it just was my world.
This phrase, limb difference. I love that you picked that up.
Because I hadn't heard the term before.
Okay, cool. So it's not something I came up with. But it is a broad term that a lot of people with limb difference will use. I often say amputee. I mean, my leg was amputated, so that's accurate. But some people are born without a limb, which would be like a congenital limb difference. And so some of those people will also use amputee. But they didn't have a limb that was removed. That's just how their body grew.
That's just their body.
And so for them, I think limb difference feels more accurate because it's just different hair color, different limbs, different thing about your body.
It's a more inclusive term, experience using it now.
Exactly. I'm glad that you use it. That's awesome that you picked up on it because I think language is so important and within disability, there's so many different kinds of identities. But limb difference is a nice kind of umbrella term for everything that comes under there.
Right, yeah. Also, in my extensive research, your mom was a folk singer in the didn't know this.
Oh, man. Yes. Both of my parents were singers, actually. My dad sang traditional music, was a healer. But my mom was a folk singer. Wrote her own folk songs, played guitar. She was in what I call the affordable peter, Paul and Mary because Edmonton, Alberta, they're called the seller dwellers. Her and two friends. We grew up singing. I grew up singing with her and singing harmonies with her siblings. I have a sister who's also a singer.
Okay. Is she still doing music, your sister?
No, she never did it as sort of like the foreground. But she's someone who's always singing and a very musical person.
Well, yeah. I grew up with my mom and dad singing. And so I think for me, I come by music quite honestly. Just having that. They were like kitchen parties, sort of like you're in the north end of Winnipeg. That was my first exposure to live music, was watching them. And I think that really because I also watched them and I probably mentioned this before on the show, but I watched them engage in music in a loving and passionate just for the sake of music and the joy that it brought them. There was no money involved. They weren't at a gig. It was just them around a table with their friends. And it was just like I just thought, this is really music at its purest and it's most joyous. And I think that really affected me as a kid and as a performer now, I think. Was that what led you to doing music for a while?
I mean, music was always there. Yeah, same. It was joyful. It was the thing that our family did together. Also, like the cousins and the friends and singing harmony and people playing different instruments same. It really instilled. Just an appreciation and a joy and how it connects us. But I grew up my traditional name is Sanibay, which means singing woman. And when I was given my name, they told the elder, told my family, she's going to sing a lot and she's going to talk a lot. I grew up being told that story, too, and in this way that it's self fulfilling or it was always going to be true. But when I think of that story, I feel so loved, because when my family's loved me, no, they always loved me. But if there was a moment of me feeling it lifted up and appreciated for who I am as a kid, it was like when they called me Sanibe and when they said, oh, Raymond told us you were going to sing a lot, there was just this sort of like, loving celebration around that name. And so I just always thought, that's what I'm going to do. That's what I'm going to be. I'm a singing woman. That's me. And I always wrote songs. But it took me, it was kind of my mid 20s where I was like, decided to then step into it more as the career and not just for the joy, which is like I mean, making music for the joy is always the place to start, right? And then stepped into developing it more as a career and a job for a while. And now it's just for the joy.
I want to hear more about that in just a moment. Krista we're just going to take a quick break here as I'm going in with the career path. With music, it's a constant reminder you're supposed to do this because you love it, not because it's a job. And I'm happy to say, like, 90% of the time, it feels like I'm in that joy place, but there's that 10%, and I'm just like, it's a good grade. Yeah, but I'm fighting for the 100. That's what I'm fighting for. Can I ask you about Emmett and Ford?
Yeah. So Emma and Ford, your two children who you lost, I'm sure it was a big part of obviously in the book, how to Lose Everything.
Yeah. So the book, how to Lose Everything, each chapter is about a different loss that I've experienced. And you've mentioned that I happen to be someone who's had a few, and we've talked about cancer and my leg being amputated, and so those are in there and a few other losses. But my son Emmett died as a newborn, and my son Ford died at 14 months old. And so they're in the book as well, and they're really like they're the everything. Losing my leg was hard, sure, but that's not losing a person. And a lot of my music is about those losses. As well but I think even because the book had been sort of on my mind I felt like for a lot of years I was singing about the loss of my kids and I was talking about it sometimes but I felt like I so wanted to tell the story in a deeper. Bigger way which I got to do in the book and what it meant to me to go through those losses what it means to me now. I mean it was just the anniversary of Ford's death, it's been twelve years which in some ways feels like no time at all and also enough time has passed that I can sit here and tell you about it, right? But I love to talk about them not just because they're my sons and I love them but I feel strongly about talking about grief and we all have it or we're going to have it and I feel like some of our harder stories it can be hard to articulate them and the more that we see other people do it I think it makes it easier for us to maybe name our own hard stories and so I always felt sort of moved to talk about my heartbreak hoping that it kind of helps us all feel a little less lonely I know.
When I first heard that story from you there's this feeling of as a parent I've got three kids and when I first heard that story my son was probably around the age that Ford would have probably been our kids would have been around the same age my son's almost eleven now so it's pretty close and there's this feeling for me and you might have heard this before from other parents but it almost feels like guilt. There's this sense of like I feel like can I talk about my kids with you? Right? And I do wonder if there's that feeling of like wanting to protect you because of these memories that I'm building with my children you didn't get to have those years and there's this feeling my heart broke when I heard that story for you and also the sense of camaraderie because it's every parent's nightmare essentially, right? There's no other way to describe it and I think for me it's really just about wanting in my way to support you as a fellow parent too and knowing that you've been through that and one thing that I find so incredible because this show is called through the Fire when I think about the fires of life you've been through a big one and more than once.
Do you do that? What pieces did you claim to or hold on to in that season? Because I want to know and I know people out there are probably wondering the same thing and I'm sure it's in the book I haven't read the book.
I apologize. You'll get to it first of all, I want to say thank you for I remember telling you we were in a restaurant in Toronto. It was after amp camp. It was the next whatever incarnation of it. And I remember telling you, and I remember seeing you feel it. I remember seeing it. You feel it in your heart, and that you felt for me, and that meant a lot to me, because sometimes I tell people, and it's too much for them, which I get. Some people are like, Whoa, okay, okay. And they can't. They can't. And that's also fine. You never know where someone's at. I remember telling me, because you were really kind to lose a child. It's not impossible. It's not even that uncommon, necessarily. But to lose two is more uncommon, particularly in Canada and in my social location and in living in a major city and all the things that can health care and all of that other parts of the world that don't have that access that I've had. So I know that it is quite something. And again, because it's me, because it's my story and I don't know anything else, in some ways, I feel like this is my norm, this is my life. This is what I've been living with. But that's not to say that it hasn't been or it wasn't devastating. And for a long time, the only thing I feel for a long time, I just was in this I just was in the heartache. I just was in so much sorrow and grief and regret, and everything was just like this for so long. And sometimes people ask me how I got through it or how am I okay? Sometimes people look at me and they're like, how are you? And then I have a few answers to it. Because the biggest thing, the piece of advice that I can give to anyone if they're immediately immediate aftermath of a huge loss, if it's a child or something else, whatever, your big thing is that you have to wait. Like, you just have to wait. It's not that time heals. Like, that's a cliche, but there is something to time passing, and there's a lot for me that there's sort of a contextual resilience. I feel like sometimes people look at me and they want to sort of elevate my individual resilience, and it's not to diminish my own spirit or my choices, but I had community. I was always housed. I had people who brought me food, who helped take care of me, and those are huge, right? If I didn't have those resources, easily lost my home, or easily been in a path of addiction or the things that happen when you maybe don't have the same resources, I access therapy, thank goodness. That really carried me through, and music for a long time also really carried me through. I had something to put it all into. If I'd been a gardener, I would have just been in the backyard digging through the dirt for five years. And I think I was lucky that I knew what my outlet was. Maybe some people haven't found it yet. And I was like, okay, I can sit at the piano and I can bang on the piano, and I can sob and I can sing and move something through me and just kind of trying to get 1ft in front of the other of you, holding onto my family, holding onto my friends, holding onto music, letting those things hold onto me when I wanted to let go. And I think for me, the grief hasn't gotten smaller over time. Like, I talked about feeling so kind of in the middle of it. It was my entire landscape. But over time, there's been things that have grown around it. I feel like now I can visit that grief, I can walk around it, I see it sometimes, I'll step right in it again. But there's other work, other relationships, and I have a daughter now who's four years old. Sona. That's right. And so that parenting part of my heart. Not that it fixes the loss of my son, but I get the parent.
And I get to give that to her.
You birth sona, right?
I birthed her. I grew that kid.
So how was that process? Because I imagine triggering yeah, that's the only word I can think of.
Yeah, dude. It took me a long time to be ready to try to have her, and I started a single mom by choice, and so I very intentionally made that baby, tried to make that baby. I bought the sperm. I went to a doctor. Like, this was happening. But for me to get to that point, for years, it was like, am I going to try to endure the kid? I don't know. Because it's to be open to a loss, the outcomes and the outcomes, and, you know, this is a problem to conceive, to carry to term, to have a live birth, to have a healthy baby. Those are all hurdles, right? There's all kinds of things that happen in the meantime. I mean, it's a force of nature, right? And stuff happens.
Let me get this time on right, though. So you had four, you said five.
Years ago you went through that pyrodacty was six years. And sort of in that aftermath of, like, sitting in one place, I was like, maybe I could try to have a kid. But yeah, I had to be ready to be open to whatever was going to happen, which is to say, I had to be ready to be hopeful. I had to be able to be like, I hope for the best here. And for a long time, I was like, it's just not going to work. I have had such bad luck, I don't even want to try. But overtime, little nudges, little things, and even, I mean, you talked about, like, you saying you felt almost guilty talking about your kids. For a long time, I couldn't hear about other people's kids. I would not wish I was like, yes, but I'm not the person to hear about.
And then over time, there was actually well, you know Terry Williamson?
Her son at a Gone spa. I met not long after the thyroid activity, me and I went to help out with some babysitting. She was doing something, and I was like, okay, I can do this. I can help take care of the baby. Okay, okay, I'm not going to cry. I want to help my friend. And she was doing a bit of work, and she was like, Here, take the kid. And I was like, and then I will always be grateful to you out of onslaught. We just looked at each other and we looked at each other, and he just, like, got right in there.
And something changed. He changed something in me where I thought I could try and oh, I could be with a little baby. And so he planted a little seed where I realized I was ready to see what might happen. And I'm so glad, because now I have sona. It took me a long time to get there. I don't know if that answers your question. I mean, I think there's so many answers to how to get through the fire, and there are so many ways that that's individual and there's so much that I really do want to attribute to the context that some of us are in, because I think sometimes what happens with resilience actually, I have a real sick about this.
We have elevated resilience in a way that we put so much emphasis on the individual that I think can be unfair, because it's okay if you're not resilient. It's okay if you can't handle it. We need community care. We need to take care of each other. And if for whatever reasons, you maybe don't have that around you, it's probably not your fault. We see people who are struggling, and it's not that they're not resilient. They can't handle it. That's fine. We need to step in and help. And so I think for me, getting through what I often want to share with people is like, look around you and maybe you think you don't have that person who's there for you, but maybe they are. Maybe you can reach out. Or if you're someone who's doing okay, like keeping in mind who's in your network, who do you see who might need some support? Because that's really what gets us through, is helping each other when we need it. I've been so lucky to have help and have people shelter me and carry me.
You say that with grief, that it's very present, still present, and there's other growth and new things around that. I remember hearing a story by it was a monk. I saw this video one time, and he was talking about how he'd always suffered with anxiety. And he said, the elders around you would see me, and they'd see me struggling with anxiety. And one person just said, you need to become friends with your anxiety. And so he said, that changed everything for me, because he would see that he feels anxiety wave coming over, and he would literally in his mind think, hello, anxiety. I acknowledge you're there and I see you. And all of a sudden, it helped him get past it. But it was still there. It didn't go away. It stayed with them. And I imagine it's somewhat the same with grief.
Oh, yeah. And I often personify grief. The last passage in my book, which is the part called how to Lose Everything a Field Guide I talk about spoiler alert, spoiler alert. It won't ruin the book. You can still read it. It's kind of an epilogue, and it's actually the passage that one of these short films that I'm making is based on. Okay, but personifying it is really useful because it feels like such a presence. And I actually asked someone recently who was telling me about some of their own experiences with grief, and I was like, what kind of roommate has grief been like for you? And they're like, oh, my God, she makes such a mess. She doesn't do the dishes. It's a language that I really like, because for me, I was like, man, when she's at my house, I don't even get out of bed. Like, I don't know what it is about her. We just lay in bed all day. It doesn't feel very good, but it's a way of kind of welcoming it, I think. And not fighting it with anxiety or grief, it doesn't really help to fight it. And so I remember reading a poem that said, you should always open the front door to sorrow, but never lock it behind them. You can be like, yeah, come in. And when you're done, you can go, but you're welcome here as long as you need. And I think that kind of language also helps me think about even some of those pieces of care. So if I'm feeling grief or if you're feeling grief, I think, okay, well, what does grief need? Like, do you need some time? Do you need a hug? Do you need some food? Do you need to cry? What is it that grief needs right now? And it kind of helps me think about tending to it so that it can go back out into the world. But if you ignore it and you fight with it, it just gets messy.
There's a line that I read of yours somewhere. I can't remember where exactly it came from. Maybe it's in the book, I'm not sure. But the wounds that people can see and the wounds people can't see. And I think that so oftentimes we look around the world and we look. For the physical wound. What's got you down? And why is it this way? But not realizing so much that so many of us are walking around with these internal things that are paramount to our human experience?
Everyone is. Everyone is. I think sometimes for me, what's been interesting in this body or the way that I don't hide my disability, but so sometimes people look at me and this is a very visible wound. This is a very visible loss, where people like, oh, that's the person with one leg. And that's, of course, the story. And I'm shaped by it. But, yeah, people don't look at me unless I have told them and say, oh, wow, the person who lost two children. I know that my losses are extraordinary, but I don't say that to minimize other people's losses. You don't have to love your children to be having a hard time. Like, life is hard. Life is hard. And yeah, the wounds we don't see, I feel like that's like, for me, the human quest is to remember that about each other, to sit here with you and know you might have something going on right now in your life big time, right? Yeah. And it's like, you showed up, you're doing your job, you're hosting a thing, we're having a conversation. But to just remember, oh, yeah, this is a person who's got a big, full life and who knows what's going on.
I think about that so often when I just see random people, I think, what's going on in their world right now? And they don't even have to be, like, stereotypically looking broken necessarily, right? I know it's the person beside you on the bus, the person driving on you, the car beside you. Like everybody's going through something. And I think if we just take a little bit more time to be patient and kind to each other and recognizing wait a second, we're all carrying something. And I think one of the feelings I get from you too, is that you offer that. And I think you offer that to people, and I think we can all learn so much from that. I value that so much, and I value that in our friendship. Again, every time I end these conversations, I feel like there's so much more to say, but for time and for respecting your time too, I just want to say thanks so much for coming to share some of these thoughts with us. And I think it's important to remember these things that you're sharing with us today.
Thanks, don't. Thank you for having me. And like I said, I feel like any time any of us tell our stories and you're sharing all these stories here, it just helps all of us feel grounded in our stories, I think.
I'm grateful for you, Christa. Thank you.