From Austrian refugee camp to one of Canada’s Top 20 under 20
Driven by dedication and hard work throughout her life, Claudia Covalciuc has had unusually challenging hurdles to overcome. Claudia began life in an Austrian refugee camp and has lived on three Nova Scotia reservations since immigrating to Canada. Today, Covalciuc lives in Indian Brook and works as a caseworker with the Mi’kmaq Legal Services Network
Claudia's memories include spending months subsisting on salt, margarine and bread in Timisoara, Romania; and walking 10 kilometres from Eskasoni First Nation to the bus stop that would take her to high school each morning. And, finally, how she put herself through her first year of university with scholarships and a student loan.
In the spring of 2013, Claudia graduated from Saint Mary’s University with a degree in criminology and sociology, which she’s already put to use as a caseworker with the Mi’kmaq Legal Services Network.
“I feel like I have an opportunity to soar now,” she says. “I’ve worked so hard in my life to accomplish so much and it’s really meaningful to hit a point where you still have to put a lot of hard work into it, but you can start to see the benefits, not just to me but to others — those who matter the most.”
There’s a fateful quality to Covalciuc’s life and how it’s become enmeshed with aboriginal culture. “I think it’s absolutely necessary,” Covalciuc said of living in the aboriginal community.
“For the job that I’m doing right now, without the community experience, the cultural knowledge, the lived realities of aboriginal people and what they have to go through, you can’t provide them with the right support that they need.”
When Covalciuc first landed in Nova Scotia at the age 16, the friend she had made online never showed up. She didn’t have enough money for a shuttle bus or a taxi. Instead, a stranger noticed her crying and offered to take her home to Eskasoni.
“One of my first teachings in Eskasoni was that there’s no word for ‘me’ or ‘I’ in the Mi’kmaq language,” she says. “It’s only ‘we, us, them’ — people as a whole, as a community, as a group, not just the one individual.
“And that’s how I see my role, not just as the one person. My commitment to aboriginal people … is not tied to one individual. It’s tied to the community as a whole.”
Today, Covalciuc’s sleek black hair lies in a braid down her back, trapping her prayers in its coils. She lives on Indian Brook First Nation with her boyfriend, saying she’s chosen this life for herself.
And Covalciuc has become enchanted by the power of the drum.
It began in the Cape Breton highlands during the moose hunt, when several women noticed her eyeing the instrument, her singing lost under breath. Again, at the sweat lodge, others encouraged her to join them, but her shyness at singing aloud stilled her hands.
An all-women’s drumming group at Porcupine Lodge helped release her voice and her rhythm, she says, glowing as she explains the power she felt from the drum that night.
“I can’t describe it; you just feel it inside. People come up to us and have never heard an aboriginal drum like that before and they tell us, ‘I don’t know why, but I feel so good inside,’” she says. “We always say ‘Well, that’s the heartbeat of our mother.’
“When we were in the womb, before we were even born, we hear the heartbeat so when we drum on the big drum, that’s the same heartbeat — and it’s very calming and soothing.
And there’s a lot of healing power that goes along with that.”
That mother’s heartbeat means more to Covalciuc having been separated from her own parent for more than seven years. She saved enough to fly to Timisoara two years ago and found a shell of the woman she remembered. Her mother’s mouth was a gummy black hole, she suffered from delusions and blamed her daughter for everything that had happened in their lives.
“It was horrifying. I honestly would have rather seen my mother in a casket than seen her alive like that.”
Covalciuc’s mother stopped emailing her from Internet cafes about a year ago.
A cousin of hers sends notes over Facebook just to let her know she’s seen her mother, alive, in the street.
“I’m really optimistic, a really positive person, but when it comes to my mother, I feel like I’m really realistic. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but it’s just the chances of a good end is not really there. I have a hard time dealing with it so I don’t think about it as often.”
Instead, she thinks about the community that has wrapped its arms around her, the aboriginal youth she guides at the Mi’kmaq Legal Support Network and her dream of going to law school so that she can become a human rights lawyer.
And, one day, she hopes to become a mother herself.
“I just hesitate because my mother didn’t have the resources for me, so I want to make sure I have the resources for them,” she says.
“I want to be a responsible parent before my child is born.”