Whenever Iehente Gabriel sees a butterfly, she thinks of her friend Stephanie.
Stephanie and Gabriel met in nursery school and quickly became kindred spirits. They were both diagnosed with the same disability, cerebral palsy, and had the exact same medical care teams.
They understood each other’s experiences in a way nobody else could – so it was devastating when Stephanie was suddenly admitted to hospital. Over the years, Stephanie spent almost all of her time in and out of hospital. She passed away at 14 years old.
“I’ve lost 17 people to their ailments over the years,” said Gabriel. “Death is something I’m very aware of, and the spirits that may be surrounding me. I’ve lost so many friends, including Stephanie. Being almost 31 now, I’ve experienced so much in my life that she’ll never get to experience.”
Because Stephanie’s favourite animal was a butterfly, Iehente likes to think of every butterfly she sees as a message from Stephanie, flying alongside her. So, when she sat down with Mi’kmaq medium Shawn Leonard as part of his documentary series Spirit Talker, she was shocked when he mentioned butterflies.
“When he said there were butterflies, I was like wow, nope. This is it, it’s the real deal,” she recalled. “Nobody else knew that. She loved butterflies; her mom would call her butterfly. He told me, she sends you butterflies. I knew that was her.”
Iehente first learned about the Spirit Talker series last year, when her aunt asked her to help with her application for a contest where the winners would participate on an episode of the show and receive a reading from Leonard. Her one condition should her aunt win? Iehente was going with her.
“Lo and behold, she won!” Iehente said. “So I said, ‘I guess we’re going to be on TV.’ That’s how it all came about.”
The episode, which aired this week, saw Iehente joined by her mother, Tekahentakwa Myrna Gabriel on set. Partaking in the reading with Leonard, Tekahentakwa was touched to hear that Stephanie was still with her daughter.
“It was definitely bittersweet,” she said. “She was comforted to know that her spirit lives on through her, so it was empowering, but it was also sad. Of all people to come through, Stephanie was definitely surprising.”
The Spirit Talker crew also visited Travis Gabriel during their trip to Kanesatake. Travis, who owns Tionatakwente Lacrosse, taught Shawn how to make a traditional handcrafted lacrosse stick.
“The concept of our show is to bring Shawn to different Indigenous communities, he’s a man of medicine, and he wants to offer that medicine,” explained Angie Pepper O’Bomsawin, a producer on the show, who is originally from Odenak.
“But his work is very exhausting, and the way our culture works is with a kind of give and receive, an exchange of medicine. I’ve known Travis Gabriel for a while now, and his medicine is mind-blowing. He’s one of the few people who still makes lacrosse sticks with the traditional mindset.”
His traditional craftsmanship includes asking permission and laying down prayer before construction.
“One of my favourite things was just being able to have the understanding of the relationship he builds with the stick from the day he cuts down that tree until it goes into a game,” O’Bomsawin said. “Travis speaks so intentionally, so directly, so elegantly. It was a beautiful connection between him and Shawn, it was just wonderful to watch.”
Though the episode only just aired, it was filmed last March.
“I forgot about it!” joked Iehente. She explained that she initially planned to write about her experience on the show for her blog, but was asked to wait until after her episode aired to share details. Once her story was shown, she decided against sharing any extra information about what she spoke about with Leonard.
“The skeptics might not believe it, and I don’t want them to tarnish that, especially not with Stephanie, who is so special in my life.”
The most touching part of the reading was when Iehente asked Leonard if her friend was doing okay in the Spirit World.
“He explained how the afterlife works, and how all the ailments you live with on Earth, you no longer have in the afterlife,” she said. “So I know that she’s free of her ailments.”
Iehente’s exchange with Leonard has permanently changed the way she thinks about Stephanie.
“It’s not to say I didn’t appreciate her before, but I have a whole new appreciation now,” she said. “If anything happens, if I fall down randomly, I’m like, Stef! Why did you let that happen? You’re supposed to be walking with me here!”
Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door, and was previously an Editor at the McGill Daily. She has also reported on harm reduction and Indigenous issues for the Montreal Gazette, the Hoser, the Rover, and more.