“Defend Our Climate” and Indigenous Life Narratives

On Saturday November 16th I had the pleasure to go to one of 130 rallies occurring across Canada, from coast-to-coast-to-coast, against tar sands expansion,  pipeline development, and “run away climate change.”


5,000 people attended the rally

At 2 pm I boarded a bus, by myself, from UBC and headed to Science World. I’ve been to a few climate change activities in the past year and the experience of going to PowerShift 2012 in Ottawa deeply affected me and changed my outlook in life. It was one of the reasons I got into UBC as I wrote about my experience of going somewhere by myself with friends to learn about activism and how intersecting the climate change issue is. I came out of the experience with a newfound network in climate alliance and a new outlook in life.

At PowerShift I heard a woman by the name of Crystal Lameman speak on her experience as a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation who’s lands are directly downstream and on tar sands development. She spoke on the increased amours of rare cancers appearing throughout the community and the loss of a way of life. She spoke on how the people on her reserve do not have antiquate living standards. There is no access to clean water. However, just across the invisible border that separates “indians from non-indians” a farmer has access to clean, safe drinking water and doesn’t have to worry that he is poisoning his children by keeping them in their home.

And we thought indigenous suffering ended with residential schools.

The city of Vancouver declared “June 21, 2013 to June 20, 2014 as a Year of Reconciliation in Vancouver.” And now four months later my hometown of Toronto has decreed that November 12, 2013 to November 12, 2014 will be the year of reconciliation in Toronto. In Vanocuver we’ve seen the TRC come and go. We’ve heard the voices of past events, but what abut the present and the future? Colonialism did not end with the residential school system and still occurs in Indigenous territories across Canada where we have pipelines, mines, fracking operations, and chemical plants in communities where the people see little to no economic value. What is the point in reconciliation when children and elderly people living in the tar sands region have ten times the risk of developing life threatening cancers?

As a Torontonian I’m more familiar with the Line 9 proposal which seeks to transport crude oil from the oil sands through the poorest and most impoverished neighbourhoods in Toronto. So, coming to the Defend Our Climate Rally was eye opening because the same thing is happening here with the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. You may have seen an add for that as they have released a multi million dollar campaign to change public opinion in BC. I heard from Indigenous leaders from the interior (side note: I’m learning BC lingo) and the coast who have come in solidarity to oppose the pipeline as most of it runs through their unceded ancestral territory.

As I learned. first nation’s are the last line of defence for the environmental movement, because the minimal laws we had have been gutted with the passing of two omnibus bills. The latest one, Bill C-45, was the one that sparked IdleNoMore. However, Native Canadians have rights that are guaranteed in the constitution that gives them rights to their land and their way of life. And because of this collaboration between the environmental movement and indigenous peoples there has been a proliferation of oral life narratives. Every single climate event that I have gone to within the past year has featured a opening ceremony by the nation of the area followed by the stories of how the issue is affecting them. There are usually sage smudges, music and dancing. Never before have Native Stories come to the forefront of Canadian minds with the IdleNoMore protest and the story of Chief Theresa Spence and her hunger strike, and now this with the first line of a Global News article reading “First Nations and environmental groups hopes came true when thousands of people gathered to attend a ‘No Enbridge’ rally this afternoon.”



Regret, Relief and Confession

I was looking at PostSecret today and I noticed these two secrets that were posted:

These two posts made me stop and freeze in my tracks. I’ve had to look at PostSecret for my presentation, but these two just jumped out at me for the raw honesty in these people’s mini autobiographies. They talk about horrible things that have happened to them, but don’t at all filter it. It presents us with a shock value that makes us sit up straight and think about PostSecret. This is what I’m doing.

Both these posts show how regret can tear you up. In the first case, regret of your past events and in the second, regret for being silent. We can see from this that PostSecret allows for people to post and share the things they wish never happened. Instead of bottling it up, they post online and they have to deal with it. Look at the example of the second postcard. This person had held onto the card for 2 years, before they sent it in. However, once they did they felt free. This goes back directly to a quote that Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecret said.

You will find your answers in the secrets of strangers. – Frank Warren

By posting online this person was able to feel free. However, we don’t know if author of the first postcard felt free after sending in their secret. The contrast between the horrible message and the cartoony images seems to imply a sort of self-deprecating regret that exemplifies the author’s inner turmoil. One tool that PostSecret uses which is not part of the official website is a discussion board. On it, people can communicate and discuss and provide help for those who are suffering. So while we might not be able to tell how the person felt after submitting their secret, we can show that there is an alternate forum for them to come to peace if they so choose.

PostSecret is interesting because it presents a platform where the viewer can observe the unguarded lives of people. The cyclical humour of the first post, paired with the tragedy yet comforting second posts show us where postsecrets can start, but how every person’s journey to resolution is different. For both people, the act of sending away their secrets let them come to some sort of conclusion. For the first person it’s the fact that now that it is on the web they have to deal with their regret and sadness. For the other is that now they are unburdened by their sadness and it leads to their relief. Relief in moving on and having a new life.

PostSecret’s like these leave me uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the private nature of our society has socialized me to be weary of such unguarded emotion. A downfall of PostSecret is that there isn’t much I can do when I learn about these peoples suffering. As humans we want to fix problems, but with PostSecret their isn’t much we can do besides posting words of sympathy on a discussion forum.

There is a sort of burden that we as viewers take on. A burden of a witness that see’s what is happening, but can do nothing to stop it. We can compare this to the TRC. Horrible things happened to Native Canadians and so out of respect and dignity we listen to their sorrows. As witnesses of tragedy we often have feelings of despair. We want to make the world a fixable place, but it is not. So the best we can do are things like the “International Suicide Prevention Program” and the TRC that allow is to help, but not fix people.

By celebrating and becoming the culture of confession, we have a role to play as witness and that is helping people. That may be implied through invisible people on PostSecret sympathizing with someone or directly as providing advice for people on the forum. Whatever it is as witnesses we have roles to play in regret, relief and confession.


“I Was Just a Little Girl”

“I was just a little girl. I was just a little girl when I went there, and he took so much away from me.” – Margaret Commodore. September 18, 2013.

Those few words echo in my mind still, almost a week after hearing them. The words capture the story of a woman who was able to forgive everyone if in her life, but not her abuser. The words capture the heartbreak of cultural assimilation, experimentation and execution. They capture the story of Margaret Commodore. Unable to come to terms that she was abused by her educators, she has spent most of her life repressing her emotions and anger; passing on what she repressed to her children. On Wednesday September 18th, in front of a crowd of thousands, she choked out her story in perfect english. Like so many others, her story follows the common narrative of residential school survivors.  As a little girl she was stolen from her home and brought to Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. There she spent eight years under the watchful eyes of her oppressors before being spat into the unwelcoming world of Canadian society. She came from a good home originally and would have been fine if she had been left alone, but “someone thought they were much wiser than the rest of us and they took as away to try to make us a different person and it didn’t work.”

As a Canadian citizen I have a unique role in reconciliation. Unlike foreign students, I have a responsibility to be knowledgable of the residential school system. I grew up in this country and it is an embarrassment and an offense to the struggle of First Nations people to be ignorant to this day. Despite the fact that I am a first generation citizen, I have to embrace the bad and good of what it means to be Canadian. If what it means to be Canadian is too deal with horrors committed by my government then I have to accept that.

I am grateful for my upbringing in the alternative school system from grades one to eight. Unlike my peers in Ontario, where Indigenous culture is not as celebrated and well known, I have always known what our society has done to Native Americans and other peoples it has deemed to be unfit for civilized life. However nothing can prepare you to deal with an issue face on. Nothing can prepare you to look at our demon, as Canadians, in the eye and tell it that you’re ready.

On the day of the TRC I went to the UBC Longhouse to learn more. They streamed portions of the TRC and we participated in group discussions to talk about our role in reconciliation. I was intrigued by the thread of education. Having started this problem in the first place, education ought to be the tool the fix it. One man said that what he learned about the residential school system in his Canadian high school was a two paragraph blurb in a textbook.  Countless others confirmed his story to be true for them as well. There is a huge gap in the Canadian collective and it has affects down the line. Less educated people are prone to stereotyping and racist ideas which plagues Native communities across the country.  Why is it that until this day the horrors of a institutionalized cultural genocide is not known by every Canadian?  Why is it that TRC is only known in British Columbia? Why is it that Native Culture is so celebrated here rather than the rest of Canada? These question played at my mind and still do.

Every Canadian citizen, new and old has a role to play in reconciliation. Because like other speakers said during the day, cultural suppression was not limited to only Indigenous people. Through the Chinese Head Tax, the Japanese Internment, and the rejection of Jewish refugees, Canada had proven itself where it is possible and willing to go.

Education is the tool to fix this. UBC has taken a great first step, but look at the native studies classes it offers. Why are there so few courses available. Institutions, especially UBC in it’s connection of being on stolen land, have a responsibility to implement and execute campus wide reconciliation programs. Public schools have to educate the young. Kids grow up quick and it’s time that we’re frank on what happened. The only way forward is though education and it is a responsibility that all Canadians have to be part of.


You can watch Margaret Commodore’s testimony here.