Waneek Horn-Miller has overcome discrimination and trauma to emerge as one of North America’s most inspiring activists and Olympians. From her iconic TIME cover to her key role in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, she empowers our communities to overcome adversity, and helps us turn reconciliation—justice, healing, and dialogue—into a cornerstone of our national institutions.
“There are a lot of women I know who have been the victims of violence, or know someone who has been impacted by violence. But I want the public to know that this issue is not just an Indigenous issue; it’s a Canadian issue.”— Waneek Horn-Miller
Throughout her life, Waneek Horn-Miller has always stood up for what was right—as a mother, an activist, an athlete, and an entrepreneur. This has entailed hard choices, pain, and sacrifice. But this commitment has also made her one of Canada’s most inspiring figures. This year, she assumed the role of Director of Community Engagement for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. By connecting the commission to victims’ families, as well as the public, she provided a recognizable and trusted face to an incredibly important initiative: one that seeks justice, raises awareness of violence against Indigenous women, and furthers the dual tasks of healing and reconciliation.
But her public life began in 1990 at the age of 14. During the Oka Crisis, she protested the planned development of condos and a golf course on traditional Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) lands and burial grounds near Montreal. After nearly 80 days of stand-off with the RCMP and armed forces, she was stabbed in the chest by a Canadian soldier wielding a bayonet. The image of her wounded, holding her young sister, was shared across national media—and further galvanized Canadians to better understand, and care about, Indigenous issues.
This near-death experience marked a turning point in her life. Instead of succumbing to very real traumas, including PTSD, she found the strength to pursue, and achieve, incredible things. “I come from people who have gone through horrific things in history,” she says. “War, death, famine, genocide. How many times did my ancestors want to give up, lay down, and die? But they didn’t. They fought to continue. You have to keep going forward.”
“I encourage all Canadian youth to look beyond colour and borders and work as a team to solve issues together.”— Waneek Horn-Miller
One of Horn-Miller’s greatest achievements has been in athletics. “Sport in the Native world is more than just something to be physically active,” she says. “It’s a suicide preventer. It’s a self-esteem creator. It’s a leadership developer.” She was the first woman to be named Carleton University’s Athlete of the Year, which she won four years in a row. After winning gold with her water polo team at the Pan Am Games in 1999, and after winning MVP of the Canadian Senior Women’s Water Polo National Championships, she became the first Mohawk woman from this country to ever compete in the Olympic games, co-captaining Team Canada in Sydney in 2000. That same year, she appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. This became another iconic image—one of dignity, poise, and power, as opposed to pain and fear—as well as a milestone for Indigenous athletes. She went on to win bronze at the 2001 FINA World Championships and became a torchbearer for the Winter Olympics in Turin. She has been named one of Canada’s most influential women in sport by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity.
After her retirement as an athlete, she has gone on to help others achieve in sports and lead healthy, balanced lifestyles. She was Assistant Chef de Mission for Team Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games. She is also the host of Working It Out Together—a 13-part documentary and healthy-eating initiative with the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network, which aims to build “an Indigenous movement of positive change” and “features dynamic leaders in health advocacy and courageous men and women who are figuring out what it takes to be well and to thrive.” Her work here was recognized with a 2015 DAREarts Cultural Award.
She is also an ambassador for Manitobah Mukluks, the world-famous footwear brand that has been worn by Kate Moss, Jessica Biel, and Megan Fox. Known for being Indigenous-owned and proudly Canadian, Manitobah Mukluks supports Indigenous communities, shares success with others, keeps traditions alive, and celebrates living history—a compelling blend of fashion, quality product, and social responsibility.
“I have to say we were beyond thrilled with Waneek. She was everything we expected and more. We had a small group of 100 people but there was not a single person who wasn’t completely focused on her story and the journey she spoke about. I would recommend Waneek to anyone who is thinking about booking her; she was fantastic.”Algoma Family Services Foundation
“Waneek was an absolute hit with our students (and staff and faculty!). She was definitely the highlight of the event for many students. She hit all the right notes for us, connected her core message with our theme in a beautiful way that was exactly what we wanted to convey to our students. She talked about Aboriginal issues, a topic that many students and staff do not feel confident or comfortable speaking about, in a way that was relatable and comfortable, and I firmly believe she’s paved the way for many students to feel more comfortable learning more about and engaging in discussion around Aboriginal issues. I’ve had so many students and staff tell me that she was the best keynote they’d ever seen. I would definitely have to agree. Our First Nations Studies Program students were absolutely thrilled to have lunch with her. One student thanked our committee, saying that meeting Waneek was the highlight of her life so far. This lunch meant quite a lot to our department as well. It helped us forge better relationships with other units on campus and helped us delve more into Aboriginal issues. At our reception after the conference, there was constantly a line of students waiting to talk to her. She was incredibly personable and generous with her time. On a personal note, I got to spend some time with Waneek backstage. She was absolutely lovely and has an incredible gift for making others feel like they are part of her family. I feel so very lucky to have spent time with her and I know everyone else who got the opportunity feels the same way. Please pass on our deepest thanks to Waneek and thank you for your work in putting all of this together. It’s been so easy to work with you and the Lavin Agency this year.”University of British Columbia
Indigenous Reconciliation Finding Common Ground Through Dialogue
While working for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Waneek Horn-Miller knew process was just as important as results. The inquiry sought to expose the underlying causes of violence in this country—and make recommendations to eliminate them—in a timely, organized fashion. But this had to be balanced with the emotional needs of participants—their deep need to be heard, validated, and humanized. In other words, it needed to grant victims, and their families, the opportunity to heal. In this keynote, Horn-Miller unpacks the hard but necessary work ahead of us if we want to escape our history of conflict and move to a place of shared understanding. If we embrace the true spirit of reconciliation, we need to make it a way of life—a cornerstone of how we proceed as a multicultural society—and not just a destination. To Horn-Miller, this takes listening, and dialogue; it means extending empathy to those with different outlooks, and not shying away from debate; it means solutions-based thinking rooted in our shared aspirations. But if we can do this, we can do something unique in this country. And we can embrace what reconciliation is all about—a way of addressing wrongs, living in harmony, and healing for those who need it most.
Turning Trauma to Motivation Building Strength, Confidence, and Community
The greatest lesson Waneek Horn-Miller ever learned was that “anything is possible.” Suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome after being stabbed, at the age of fourteen, she could have recoiled from life. Instead, she embraced it like never before. On stage, she traces the powerful journey she took from beleaguered youth to star Olympic athlete to one of the most articulate and vibrant voices in Canada today. A model of perseverance, good-natured humour, and souful wisdom, Horn-Miller inspires audiences to follow their own dreams, fight for their heritage, and achieve their full potential in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. “Motivation is the biggest thing and the key to your success,” she says. “You have to figure out what it is that’s the trigger for your motivation and recruit people into helping you, and, as well, get tough with yourself. Look in the mirror and say, I’ve had it with all the excuses. I want to make my dreams my reality, and I want to start today.”
Working It Out Together Health and Wellbeing in Indigenous Communities
As the host of Working it Out Together—a documentary series that follows eight Indigenous people on a journey to reclaim their vitality through health, wellness, and fitness—Waneek Horn-Miller is dedicated to helping others find balance. In this talk, she addresses nearly every issue related to wellness: from food scarcity and boil-water alerts in our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities to the rampant physical and mental health problems Indigenous people face every day, including obesity, eating disorders, low self-esteem, substance abuse, lack of motivation, and more—including depression and suicide. A former Olympic athlete who has been living a high-performance lifestyle since childhood, she takes her audiences on a voyage of self-discovery, determination, sacrifice, and social change that can transform our lives (and country) for the better and prove anything is possible.