What is reconciliation? The stranger

Don’t worry, he’ll still be here, walking Toronto’s sidewalks in ten years’ time. Stopping to hug a stranger who puts a hand on his shoulder and opens her arms. Like her, we need someone to hold hands with, the way he held Pearl Wenjack’s hand. Someone to hug and kiss the way he kissed his bandmates and hugged them close. It’s quietness, that’s his trick. Silence where you hear soft voices and gentle breathing, the first opening of trust. You might not know it’s arrived. As you may not realize that Gord’s walked by. Just another guy in a jean jacket and toque. Scraps of paper in his hand and spilling out of his pockets. His brother walking beside him, arm around Gord’s shoulders. Sound of boots on the sidewalk, air moving aside as they pass.

It won’t matter that time passes if you carry the memory of her kisses with you. If you remember the feeling of arms around you when she last hugged you. Gord didn’t need to write those memories down. He carried them inside him and on his skin and clothes. He’s passed away, but he’s still here. You’ll have to watch and listen for that friend you used to know ten years ago. He might be downtown. A guy walking by. You don’t want to mistake him for a stranger.

In his time, he tried to reconcile with the ones he loves; tried to make this place the country of his dreams. In his heart, he held a little girl’s hand, a child needing help finding her way back home, from being lost; home to sounds of the TV, her favourite couch and her mother’s arms around her. In Toronto, he walked with his own daughter, their arms intertwined, holding her close. You could hear their footsteps and soft laughter; see long shadows of skyscrapers at sunset as they wandered home.

You’ll run into him one day outside a café perhaps, and he’ll wrap you in his arms. You’ll feel rough denim on your cheeks and his jacket’s buttons pressing in. Your tears will fall on his sleeve and his hat’s feather will brush your hair. It will be as if you’ve just returned here from a long time away, to this sidewalk, this bright window, the cool softness of his cheek.

 

What is reconciliation? Beginning again

The country we call Canada began as illusion: with the story that Canada was an empty space. A space to be opened up and taken over by settlers looking for new homes; by traders looking for riches. Canada rests upon a surface of illusion and disinformation. Beneath that surface is another place. It has survived the force our lies. A place we’ve damaged and disregarded.

I say this next part tentatively: Canadians need to learn the Indigenous stories and ceremonies and make them our own. Or better said: We must allow ourselves to be overtaken by the deepest part of this place, its ways and stories. If not, we shuffle and slip along a hard and brittle surface that prevents us from sinking down. Under the hardest ice are seeds waiting for spring; roots lying dormant; old leaves turning into new soil.

When we came, we brought stories with us, our plants and medicines too. But they are fading and dying off. They belonged to another place and time. My ancestors were poor Irish Catholics 200 years ago, but that doesn’t help me now. Some drops of the old time still cling to me, evaporating, long passed.

To know what this place is, its deepest roots, its oldest stories, what must we strip away? How do we arrive at the beginning?

What is reconciliation? Don’t just do something, stand there

At the first rehearsal of Irwin Shaw’s play, “The Assassin,” Producer Martin Gabel noticed a young actress gesticulating wildly instead of remaining motionless. Gabel shouted: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”

When I was a student, I was an Indigenous rights activist. I made friends with people from nations across Canada, and got to hear their stories. That’s how I learned about residential schools more than 25 years ago, and about the sixties scoop. I met people who experienced these things and told me about it.

Our student group organized demonstrations, panel discussions, film presentations, fund-raisers; even poetry readings. I wrote for the student newspaper on local and national Indigenous issues.

The goal was to DO something. To make a difference and get the broader society to recognize and respect Indigenous people and their rights. Our activist group had lots of success when it came to doing things. We put up posters and organized events. Raised funds, screened films, attended demonstrations, signed petitions.

After a few years however, I began to see that “doing” things wasn’t having the effect I expected. Strangely, the sum total of everything I did to “help” or make a “difference” seemed to have been handed back to me one-hundredfold as gifts, both tangible and spiritual.

These gifts were in the form of kindness and trust. People who had been hurt, sometimes deeply, by Canadians, offered me their trust and friendship and told me their stories; people with little money and humble means offered me meals and made me welcome in their homes. I was given thank you gifts: a Haudenosaunee flag; a hand-made Abenaki basket. To be honoured and trusted outshone everything I had ever “done”.

Mainstream Canadian society believes, deeply and unconsciously, that we are most important in this country. We tot up our accomplishments as if they will change the world. We want to solve problems, even if we have to invent them. We invented the Aboriginal problem so we could be helping and fixing. It is so much easier to be doing than it is just to be here, in this place we call Canada.

And anyway, how do we solve the problem of ourselves?

What is reconciliation? The myth of the vanishing Indian

“To the extent that the Indian was on his way out, [colonial society] created reserves, they created little wardship statuses, they created situations to manage the problem while it went away. In the meantime, the colonial society arrogantly assumed everything that the Indian had. Her land, his power, all of these things. In Canada in the 1950’s, the people and their rights were assumed to be…fading away, the vanishing Indian. But then, you had this boomerang effect where the Indian comes back, and it was ‘Indian’ at that time. The Indian comes back, physically, culturally, intellectually: that culture, that society, that power begins to re-emerge.”

–Taiaiake Alfred on Canada and its indigenous peoples, Dec 29, 2003

The myth of the vanishing Indian is the story about what’s left over as the people die off, leaving behind a faded imprint. As they fade away, their voices become faint; their cultures dim; a light going out. A light that shone brightly in the distant past. We look down through a narrow space of the present and see only worn-down reserve houses; broken bottles of booze; grey, cold streets with old men hunched on city sidewalks.

In this story, you don’t hear the piercing sound of singing around pow wow drums coming towards you under the earth, through the soles of your feet and up into your guts. Drums you hear all summer long on the pow wow trail, or in night clubs, where the electric pow wow beats of A Tribe Called Red bounce off the walls, and voices like high wailing wind swirl across the dance floor. In that story, you can’t feel the intense heat of sacred fires, burning all over this land. Where you can sit with tobacco and cedar in your hand before tossing the medicine into the fire, sending your prayers to your creator.

Mark how the face and voice of Charlie Wenjack’s sister Pearl rise in stark relief against that faded and tattered story of the Indian. Hear her voice travel to us across CBC’s airwaves as she retells how her little brother died escaping residential school. Ever since she started speaking to us, Pearl’s voice has been whispering in our hearts, whether we hear it or not. She has the voice of my grandmother and your grandmother. She had a brother who could have been my brother or yours. Feel it, a connection growing, deep within your sense of country.

It is time for you to find your roots in this land, to let yourself be changed. To let the spirit into your blood.

 

*****

Image from CBC News. Accessed November 19, 2016.

On the adventure

 

I think it was Algonquin park
It was so cold and winter dark
A promised hibernation high
Took me across the great black plate of ice

From “The Bear”
—The Tragically Hip

In the weeks leading up to the final Tragically Hip concert, I’d been reading Gord’s lyrics, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, wiping his face with a hankie, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans. On the day of the last concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day long, every radio station played the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people celebrating the band at the stadium, in the parks and on the streets of their hometown.

Gord was reminding me how I once thought my country was that place just outside of here, where wind lifts up the waves on Lake Ontario and on Huron, the freshwater sea. How we live along the north’s southern edge, with Canada geese, deer, coyotes, chickadees, and pelicans that fly overhead like an air force squadron in the Saskatchewan summer. Even the groundhogs and squirrels seem freer just north of here—two hours north of Ottawa, four hours north of Toronto, 20 minutes north of Regina.

I used to think this country could be as soft and sweet as young bluebirds learning to fly on prairie fields, dipped in the colour of azure sky. I thought it was about us helping each other survive on the edge of land we settlers mostly can’t live on, where we would not set out alone but always with a friend to keep each other safe—self-reliance being an illusion in vast, cold places.

Then I started to see fewer stars and more satellites up above, fewer horizons and more steel transmission towers marching in lockstep into the cities, more highways with line after line of cars. Our country was under the power of a pinched, stodgy and secretive government, casting a grey pall.

There is cold, still air at the tops of pines and firs rising up along Highway 7 north to Peterborough and Highway 60 up to Killaloe. There are deep-dark green and blue lakes. But what about the shacks that pass for houses in those little towns where no one driving through can figure out how you’d make a living? For us city dwellers, these towns among the wild, open spaces represent our dreams—of living differently, leaving behind traffic and the grind of work, day after day. But maybe there, the wind that feels so fresh to us is nothing special. The pines and firs not worth thinking about. The wild strawberries for the birds. Maybe in a quiet little town north of here, you’d be looking for a signal from the shiny cities, a new transmission and current of life.

This country was meant to provide food and furs to the Empire, which sent off its merchants and soldiers for that purpose. Behind them came refugees and immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, Poland and Iceland; people stolen from Africa who came north to defend the Empire in exchange for land. Is that our heritage? Beaver pelts and fish? Timber and diamonds; uranium and oil?

What about a cold stillness that hovers above the highest branches of a crooked jack pine? Or the feeling of washing away from shore in a freshwater sea nobody can see the end of?

What about the Mik’maq, the Innu, the Haudenosaunee—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora? The Algonquins, Saulteaux, Dakota, Siksika, Dene, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tlingit, Shuswap, Nlaka’pamux, and on and on? They have always been here. Since before Columbus and Cartier, and the shiploads of people searching for home; people who mistook the land for an empty place. People who saw fields for growing wheat and potatoes instead of for hunting and fishing or for gathering medicines. People wanting fences and roads, treaties and land deeds, cows, pigs and sheep. Not buffalo or even Canada geese.

Gord is my example: he lived each day as an adventure, travelling between the towns and cities strung like pearls along the country’s edge. He happened upon wonder in roadside motels, dug up miracles hidden in shells on the shores of Lake Ontario. I think of Gord and I’m reminded of the Canada I used to love. It reappeared after a long absence: a place that listened to the Hip all day, where 11 million people tuned into a concert.

I used to admire the idea of Canada. Not the constitution,  smug multiculturalism or nice houses and safe streets for fortunate ones. But what’s here, on the edge of things, just below where the north begins.

In fall, my son and I walk our dog on the street at dusk and, looking up, we see thousands of bats beginning their night travels. We hear their wings whisper, their dark singing flight, never knowing where they go or how they come back.

Gord didn’t know what Canada is any more than I do. He wrote about it anyway so he could stay on the adventure. He found himself on a ferry covered in ice in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He held hands with the girl from Thompson, Manitoba—she was so rosy-cheeked with her hair flying under the edges of her toque. He met polar bears, black bears and black ice; black and white checkerboard floors; one-third of his country singing for him in darkened halls, taverns and city streets on a Saturday night.

The adventure is touching the icy border where it all begins, feeling cold air come down from the roof of the forest. The adventure is driving to unexpected places, where little towns are falling apart and no one can figure it out, how do they survive up here? What do they hear in the wind?

With love,
Jennifer

August 26, 2016
Ottawa, Ontario

Powerful reflections on the Oka Crisis at Red Post Art Exhibit

Here is an article I wrote for Rabble.ca on the exhibit that took place in Kanehsatake earlier this month. I made the trip out and visited the exhibit at the elementary school in Kanehsatake. I chatted with Ellen Gabriel, the show’s curator as well.

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Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – the Red Post Art Exhibit, curated by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel of Kanehsatà:ke and Jolene Rickard of Tuscarora, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Crisis of 1990, also known as the Oka Crisis, by demonstrating its impacts through art.

This exhibit brings together the work of 16 artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have reflected on their experience of the Crisis of 1990. In some cases, artworks reflect first-hand experiences of Kanehsatà:ke residents, and in other cases artworks reflect on the long-term impacts of the Crisis.

The Crisis of 1990 began with a peaceful protest against plans by the town of Oka, Quebec to expand a private nine-hole golf course. The expansion would destroy part of a mature pine forest in Kanehsatà:ke and required the destruction of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community graveyard. The peaceful protest escalated when the Kanien’kehá:ka people of Kanehsatà:ke were surrounded by the Quebec provincial police on July 11, 1990.

Many of the artists represented in the exhibit are Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake, a Kanien’kehá:ka community which was also involved in the Crisis.

The exhibit offers visitors an opportunity to reflect on the effects of the conflict on the people who were personally involved, as well as the impact on Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies and politics across the continent.

In the centre of the exhibit is the red post itself, an installation piece created by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel. The red post refers to the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) practice of erecting a red post in communities during times of conflict or war.

Gabriel’s installation, a post painted red, a colour signifying power and war, reminds us of the Kanien’kehá:ka people’s long history, one that began long before European settlement and continues into the present. The symbols depicted on the post include wampum beads, corn, a war club and the tree of life.

At the top is a circle of people holding hands, united in protecting the land. These symbols emphasize the richness and longevity of Kanien’kehá:ka culture and calls into question the settler notion that Indigenous people belong only to the past, or that their cultures and political systems have no role to play in the modern world.

The red post also reminds those entering the exhibit of the long-standing and unresolved conflict over land rights that grew into the Crisis of 1990 and remains unresolved today. The pine forest where the conflict took place is considered by the municipality of Oka to belong to the town. However, the Kanien’kehá:ka never ceded the land that is now Kanehsatà:ke (includes the Pines).

Photos used with permission from the artists

Among the artworks contributed by artists from Kanehsatà:ke is Douglas Tehonietathe Beaver’s  backpack called “Pelt and Pine, Armed with Healing.” This work alludes to a soldier’s pack, and reminds viewers of the Canadian Army soldiers who surrounded Kanien’kehá:ka s in 1990. But instead of being filled with ammunition, grenades and guns, this backpack is “armed” with an eagle feather, a sweet grass braid, a cedar smudge stick and pot, and other items related to spiritual healing, presenting an alternative response to land conflict both in Kanehsatà:ke and elsewhere.

Another artwork emphasizing the importance of Haudenosaunee culture is a quilt called “Sky Woman’s Descent” by Carla Hemlock, a Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawake. The story of Sky Woman is the creation story of the Haudenosaunee people — Sky Woman descends into our world and lands on the back of a turtle that transforms, with the help of various animals, into North America. In this blue, gold and black beaded quilt, we see the back of the turtle from the perspective of Sky Woman as she descends.

Elizabeth Saccà, a non-Indigenous artist and retired Concordia University professor who lives near Kanehsatà:ke, contributed an abstract monotype called “Maelstrom.” For this viewer, this print evokes the confusion and disorientation that must have reigned in the Pines when the Quebec police first attacked Kanehsatà:ke with tear gas and smoke bombs. It also represents the ever-present potential for violence that Indigenous people face when they protest land development on their territories.

Nadia Myre, an Algonquin artist based in Montreal, contributed “Still Life,” an ink print depicting two protesters in silhouette with flags. The image connects the Red Post exhibit to the broader history of Indigenous social and land justice issues and brings to life the widespread support for Indigenous sovereignty manifested nation-wide in the form of demonstrations, blockades and flash mobs, as well as Idle No More.

Photos used with permission from the artists

Along with these artworks, pieces include Patrycja Walton‘s “Dress for Amicee,” a sculpture of a dress made of animal hide, wire and stain glass, and dedicated to missing Aboriginal women and girls, including her friend Amicee. Julie Otsi’tsaonwe Gaspé’s created her untitled graphite drawing of the Pines before the protests against development turned into an armed conflict. Her prophetic drawing depicts a conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Pines, while above them in the trees, faces look down, watching the conflict unfold.

Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – The Red Post exhibit moves from Kanehsatà:ke to Kahnawake, Quebec. Visitors are invited to reflect on these works and on the impact of the Crisis of 1990 at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre from August 24 to September 4. The Vernissage is on August 24 at 6 PM.

To learn more about the impacts of the Oka Crisis, and to hear a discussion by the exhibit’s curators and some of its featured artists, check out the webinar: 25 Years Later, Impacts of the Oka Crisis.

Honour the Treaties

Yesterday morning I watched Aaron Huey’s TED talk on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Lakota Sioux. To me, the most important thing that he said was:

“Honour the treaties. Give back the Black Hills. It’s not your business what they do with them.”

In these few words, Aaron voices the transformation needed here in Turtle Island – a shift from the patronizing, controlling approach to First Nations politics, land and culture – to one of respect. Canada needs to get out of the business of Aboriginal nations. It’s not up to us how a Mohawk or Ojibway or Haida community decides to use its land or organize its community. It’s long past time for us to get out of their business and start listening instead of dictating. I believe our future depends on it, because resource extraction in the form of mining, drilling for oil, forestry, etc is destroying our ecosystems. Maybe Aboriginal people will treat the land the same way. But if past experience is any indication, I believe things would be different. I also think that our colonial relationship with Native peoples is stunting our growth as Canadians, and undermining our humanity.

I recognize that ending our colonial relationships with Indigenous nations does not mean that First Nations become closed societies that don’t need or require relationships with other societies. It’s just long past time for use to get out of the way.

Thank you, Aaron Huey for saying it so well.

What is reconciliation? In the country

I got lost in Indian country. Don’t know when exactly. Maybe a few weeks after the Oka Crisis ended and traditional people walked out of the treatment centre in Kanehsatake, holding up sacred masks. It could have been on a trip up north in the middle of winter, riding in a cold van, sipping my Haisla friend’s twist shandy, listening to him strum guitar. We got out along the way and looked up at the stars. They were so bright, as if they had been plugged into a socket on overload. I could feel the shock. Somebody picked me up out of the snow where I was lying, gazing skyward. Brushed off the ice. We got back in the van and drove north.

Once I went out to Kanehsatake and sat among the Pines by myself, a lone figure in a grove of trees planted by the ancestors of the Mohawk people. I buried a silver bracelet under a pine tree and said a prayer for the little forest. That was years ago. Surely an animal has made off with it by now. Then I walked a road for a long time, looking for my friend’s place. Somebody stopped, gave me a lift to Joe’s tiny house perched on a hill above hayfields. I was definitely in Indian country then, among fields shimmering in the sun, lush with summer. Since that day, Joe has passed on, his ashes scattered over Blue Mountain near his home. He was behind the barricades until the last day of the siege of Kanehsatake (the Oka Crisis). He walked out to the army’s perimeter, climbed into a waiting bus and was driven to prison.

Joe and other Mohawks who stayed behind the razor wire until the end were eventually released pending trial. We used to talk on the phone sometimes about how to raise funds for their defense. He warned me that his line was tapped by the RCMP, but we talked anyway, about fund-raising, the Lord of the Rings (a favourite book for us both), and how anxious he was—he didn’t want to come out of the house some days. On that blue-sky day when I visited, I sat with him on his front steps, drinking grape juice, and then watched the sun shimmer over the fields as he raked grass. Had dinner with him and his girlfriend in the yard, back of his place. As I sat in Joe’s yard, behind his little house, I didn’t know where that country came from. I can’t enter Indian country at will. Maybe it’s an illusion as deep as hayfields in summer. There might be only one country, growing through me, filled with electric shock and pine roots and the dust of old friends.

Photo of Joe David, taken in Kanehsatake, courtesy of Elizabeth Sacca