Natasha Kanapé Fontaine

Innu author, poet, translator, visual artist and actress

“I agreed to get my head shaved, not only for the community but also for myself; to take on this challenge and to speak on Indigenous women’s relationship with their hair.”

Photo credit: Julie Artacho

Born in Pessamit, in Côte-Nord, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine truly has wind in her sails. Last fall, the author of four books of poetry (including N'entre pas dans mon âme avec tes chaussures, winner of the 2013 Écrivains francophones d’Amérique award) published her first novel, Nauetakuan – Un silence pour un bruit. She also released her first album, Nui Pimuten – Je veux marcher, a mix of songs, slam, and poetry she is currently promoting with a tour across Quebec. Through her poetry and public speaking, Natasha advocates for Indigenous and environmental rights, combating racism and discrimination. She conveys a message of dialogue, reconciliation, and recovery.

With her soft and gentle voice, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine expresses how honoured she feels to join the Audacieuses. She agreed to part with her splendid jet-black hair first and foremost to raise awareness about Leucan and its services among Indigenous communities. “I have a feeling that not everyone in the communities know about Leucan and the services available to families. Parents of children diagnosed with cancer, like leukemia, can also feel like those services don’t apply to them because they’re Indigenous.”

She regrets that the much-publicized death of Joyce Echaquan was one tragedy too many. “Being discriminated against and not having access to the same services as the rest of the population is still a daily reality for too many of us in Quebec.” Admittedly, health care and support services are not always optimal. This could only exacerbate a reluctance in First Nations communities to reach out to support organizations like Leucan.

“This history of racism and discrimination weights heavily in the balance, with consequences still felt to this day.” Natasha wants to contribute to changing this mindset. “One thing that drives me every day is striving to make everything accessible to everyone; to put an end to discrimination, differences, and hierarchy.”

Between Traditions and Renewal

Before Leucan’s invitation, the Innu artist and activist had no intention to chop off her glossy locks. But she was thinking about it. “In recent years I wore my hair short for the first time since my childhood. That was already a big decision, but it was connected to an important event in my life. After a long hesitation, I had decided to let my hair grow long for personal and ancestral reasons. Nevertheless, I agreed to get my head shaved, not only for the community and to underline the obstacles we continue de face every day, but also for myself; to take on this challenge and to speak on Indigenous women’s relationship with their hair.”

Hair plays a significant role in Indigenous culture with specific meanings depending on the community. “I saw my best friend, who was pregnant, not cut her hair for the entire duration of her pregnancy. It was said to help, among other things, the baby’s development.” In some communities, “people will cut their hair after a death or traumatic event, like when a clan or family loses a significant member. When we learn of a child’s illness, it’s an event that can affect more than immediate family; it affects an entire community.”

“Of course, the act of cutting one’s hair is quite delicate in Indigenous communities, because it reminds of children in residential schools who had their hair cut upon arrival. It is a great trauma that has shaken our relationship to our hair. That’s also why many of us let our hair grow long; to wear our cultures with pride and to heal past traumas. We must be proud of our hair.”

It’s in that frame of mind that Natasha Kanapé Fontaine is approaching the challenge, which is coming at the right time in her life. “I’m shaving my head with this idea of renewal after several significant events – both personal and collective -- that took place in my life over the last few years, not to mention the pandemic. All these reasons are emerging naturally and making sense. I am also doing it for all cancer-stricken children, especially indigenous ones, so that they may be proud of who they are. By shaving my head first, then the personal decision of letting my hair grow very long will feel more complete after that. It is a new beginning.”

Rebellious Regrowth and Cultural Exchange

The young artist ponders on the skull aesthetic and the impact of this change on a person’s movements, body, and attitude. “When I look at people I know who got their head shaved, I see a tangible impact on their person. Some women I know did it, just to try it once in their lives. I love to see that.”

From a more personal perspective, she is a little preoccupied about a rebellious regrowth. “I wonder what I will look like with a shaved head. My hair is very thick and straight. Maybe I’ll never be able to style it and control its shape,” she confesses with a frank and contagious laugh. It’s obviously a cause of worry.

However, she will seize the opportunity of having a clear canvas to wear pearly earrings and thus proudly display Indigenous pieces of art. “I also think I will highlight my features with some light make-up.” Since she practices boxing, she believes a shaved head will leave her “feeling freer” when training. “I can’t wait to see how it feels!”

Natasha is excited about going through this metamorphosis with a group of women she barely knows. “For two or three years, I focused entirely on my family, and I was essentially driven by a need for building a community with those around me. But with this challenge, I will open myself up once again to live an experience with those women that will surely bring us closer and where I will have an opportunity to share my culture. It will be a very special moment.”