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J'net: an Indigenous Relations director at National Film Board of Canada and a cancer-fighter

40 Over 40 Movement: J’net, 52

Each person I get to photograph is beautiful and unique in their own way. J’net, however, is special to me. Ever since our first phone call, she swept me off my feet with her strength, vulnerability, and authenticity. By sharing her story and what our photo session meant to her, she opened my eyes to the importance of what I do and boosted my motivation to keep going.

J’net Ayayqwayaksheelth (One who gives away and still stands tall) is a member of the Ahousaht community within the Nuu-chah-nulth homelands on Vancouver Island. She lives in Toronto with her three children and misses home terribly.

Turning 50 was a big milestone for J’net after a breast cancer diagnosis. She made a wish, and celebrated her jubilee by dancing her heart out at the black-and-white themed party she threw in Casa Loma surrounded by all her dearest closest friends.

“My values are learning about kindness because I’m a truth-teller as a career. I work to unpack the indigenous experience of oppression and social inequities. Learning from the homelands of the Anishinaabe where I am, they talk about how truth with kindness goes a long way. And so, I’ve learned to find more softness and be less angry. To be kinder to myself and the people closest to me.”

It’s been a learning process to embrace what life offers and not hold back when an opportunity presents itself. Now J’net says yes to everything that serves her and helps her feel whole.

What drives J’net today is preventing side effects from the current cancer treatments. She has to stay hydrated and eat well. That’s a lesson she’ll carry with her forever. You have to learn how to love your body not just to get through cancer, but to stay healthy.

“I’d like to see myself as approachable, engaged, and caring. I’m a person who seeks kindness and a good life for all.”

J’net had the chance to reinvent herself in her career path, which brings her confidence and pride. After working as a trauma counsellor for 20 years, she moved to Toronto and decided she didn’t want to hear about any more problems. She worked hard for her current dream job as an indigenous arts educator at a senior government level. “I don’t do anything without art, because art tells its own story in a silent, powerful way.”

“My future ambition is to see my three children accomplish their goals. I want my youngest to get taller than me. He graduates in 2026. I want to see that.”

For J’net, this photoshoot was a big part of celebrating her body and her time. “I wanted to feel alive in my body at a time when I’m feeling vulnerable. When would I get a chance to do this again? With every breath I’m taking my body back, and I feel more whole. All we have is today. I took this chance because the stage four cancer journey does not define me or my future.”

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