Salena Starling

Understanding the challenges faced by Indigenous individuals


Salena was only 11 when she gave her first speech, and since then has continued to share her story as a route to help others understand the challenges faced by Indigenous individuals, particularly within the foster system, as someone who came through the system herself. Now the president and CEO of Community of Big Hearts, a role she took on at 18. She shares to foster empathy, encourage mutual understanding, and advocate for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.


Youth and Reconciliation: Salena brings lived experience to the TEDxWinnipeg Stage

Salena Starling remembers her first time on stage when as an 11-year-old student at Clifton School in Winnipeg’s West End. She felt at home on the stage, knowing she belonged there. That sense of belonging was rare for Salena, who was placed into foster care when she was four years old. She became the third generation of her family taken into a child welfare system that left her disconnected from her family members and Indigenous culture.

“I don’t have the family I was supposed to know,” said Salena, 19. This disconnection left her feeling shame about her Indigenous identity, as she only heard negative aspects in her environment. “I didn’t want my skin colour to be used to identify me,” adding that in those first talks she gave, she left that part of her identity out of her story. Now while she speaks openly about her Indigenity and the painful consequences of family members’ addictions, it’s with purpose. “Thinking of my identity as an obstacle was one of the worst things I’ve done,” she said. Now that lived experience is her most valuable asset, lending credibility that doesn’t come from a textbook. “Lived experience is experience,” she said.

“I never got to experience my culture or where my people came from,” she said, adding that reclaiming that part of who she is is part of her journey today. “I’m learning through working with other young Indigenous people in the business world,” she said, including Reanna Merasty, an architectural intern at Number Ten Architectural Group and Indspire award winner.

She met one of her other role models at 14, the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. While the meeting was a blur of excitement during his stop in Winnipeg on a speaking tour, the photo of them together is forever, even as the nickname she picked up after the meeting, Obama Girl, has since fallen out of use.

Now Salena goes by President and CEO, a role she took on for Community of Big Hearts late last year. Her company is launching the Reconciliation Road Challenge in partnership with the Johnston Group. The idea is to make reconciliation more than something corporations recognize in September’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day. As something for Indigenous, non-Indigenous, and settlers, the approach is meant to take some of the pressure of trying to fit something as important as reconciliation into a short period.

When she learned that TEDxWinnipeg was back, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. “It’s my calling to be in front of people,” she said.

Ahead of her TEDxWinnipeg talk, you can catch her appearance at Camp Rover, a conference for creative entrepreneurs at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights happening in April.


Salena’s TEDTalk is Presented By: