Mental Health in the Legal Profession

A blue digital illustration of two ambiguous books. One is open and laying on a pillow the other closed.

by Naomi Sayers

This piece was first written when Naomi was an articling student and under a good character investigation by the Law Society of Ontario (“LSO”) as a result of her self-disclosures to the LSO. The LSO does not investigate all lawyer-licensee candidates. During that time, Naomi felt isolated and alienated from the legal profession given her experiences. To date, she stills feel isolated and alienated given the conversations around self-care and mental health fail to interrogate the ways in which colonialism and all of its misogyny and racism (and other isms) impact Indigenous law students to date. Naomi kept this piece in its original format, but she is now a lawyer. She still believes that LSO still has a lot of work to do in order to truly practice inclusivity. This represents Naomi’s views only and is not legal advice.

Self-care. It is one of those terms that seems to have been taken up by everyone and anyone. Sometimes it is used by people, organizations and institutions in an unintended way. One such way includes avoiding responsibility of systemic and institutional neglect over many years, decades even.

At the time I first drafted this piece, I was in Ontario’s lawyer licensing process. This means that I have graduated law school, applied to become a lawyer in Ontario, passed the lawyer licensing examinations, or as some of my friends have done, deferred the lawyer licensing examinations until after their articles. Completing your articles is the process of learning through doing. In laymen terms, it is like a co-op placement.

Throughout law school, I struggled. I struggled in the sense that I felt alienated and isolated from the discussions that were taking place in the classroom. This is not to say, however, that I did not do well. I felt alienated and isolated from the structure of law school. I did not see or hear about similar experiences that I went through within the classrooms. In one experience, where I enrolled in a course dedicated to social justice advocacy, I thought I would excel. I heard about how you could write an op-ed (an opinion piece that is either solicited by the editor of a major media outlet or that is pitched to a major media outlet by an individual who is not a regular contributor) or, if I recall correctly, how you could learn how to make submissions to parliamentary committees. In any event, it was a class where I already had done all the things in my advocacy work seeking to decriminalize sex work. It was also work that I continued to do throughout law school. The unique thing about this disclosure is in the fact that I went to a law school where many professors supported the complete abolition of prostitution all in an effort to save women like me, poor little indigenous women. But, I didn’t and I, most certainly, don’t need saving.

When I was articling, I was living in Toronto, completing my articles on Bay Street (almost every little middle-class white boy’s wet dream, chasing after his daddy’s footsteps) in a space that prioritizes health care, especially mental health care. However, for the profession as a whole, this does not always mean that they prioritize health care, despite saying otherwise.

When I was in law school, I kept hearing or seeing these self-care narratives literally everywhere. What was missing from these messages was the trauma-informed approach where self-care originates. For example, trauma-informed approaches acknowledge that each individual responds to their own experiences, including traumatic experiences, in unique ways. This means that sometimes your friend may prefer to be alone after expending their energy in negotiating a difficult conversation or another friend may require immediate support in the way of bonding over your choice of substance to alleviate the anxiety from a traumatic experience (Note: I am not encouraging different kinds of substance use; rather, it is about supporting an individual’s choice). Now that I am in the articling process, I see these same messages, “Practice self-care”. What is missing from these conversations, again, is the trauma-informed approach. Yet, this begs the question, can a profession support individuals from a trauma-informed approach when it has historically excluded (and arguably, presently excludes) individuals who have been regulated and policed out of the legal profession bylaws?

During the 1950s, the laws that prevented Indigenous people from hiring lawyers were repealed. This means that, throughout the time of Canada’s colonization (and continued colonization), entire generations of Indigenous communities were left without legal representation—at a moment in time when colonial Canada was passing laws that infringe on their rights. Yes, the concept of justice and the nature of Indigenous law does not always align with those of Canada’s views or concepts. However, the effects of these laws mean that an entire generation of people were literally erased, silenced and ignored during a critical point in the making and shaping of colonial Canada. This is not unintentional. While this article is not about the colonial context of Canada, it is important to understand parts of this history when talking about trauma-informed approaches to mental health care.

Mental health care and self-care discussions in predominantly white spaces translate to discussions about how a bubble bath can make you feel safe and warm. These conversations do not mean that we have conversations about how institutional racism and everyday microaggressions impact your physical health.

Trauma-informed practice is about embodying a range of principles that centre the needs, experiences and expertise of individuals who have experienced or continued to experience trauma in their lives. Trauma can range from a single occurrence to intergenerational trauma. A trauma-informed practice, ultimately, centers an individual’s control, choice and safety. It means that the individual attends to what will make them safe in that moment, by making the choices they can and in a way that they can.

When it comes to self-care, most institutions that have taken up these narratives inadvertently appropriating these terms in a way that, as I mentioned, avoids responsibility. First, institutions, like law schools or institutions who have a history of excluding racialized or Indigenous folks, that adopt a self-care approach without a trauma-informed approach tend to cause more harm. When I was law school, I reached out to a professor in law school after another professor stated that there were only two kinds of laws in Canada. This idea that there are only two kinds of law in Canada means that Indigenous legal traditions are never acknowledged. This erasure, again, means that Indigenous law students are left arguing their own existence. Then, when you have certain experiences being policed and regulated out of the profession, we have a different kind of conversation happening altogether. The question is no longer how much needs to be done to improve the diversity and inclusion of certain kinds of people. Rather, the question becomes what needs to change at an institutional and systemic level in order to address the barriers created by having honest conversations about institutional and systemic discrimination in the legal profession.

Recently, the regulator for Ontario’s lawyers mandated all lawyers to adopt a statement of principles. The statement of principles is one of many recommendations from the Racialized Licensees Report. This specific recommendation, along with the others named in the report, is meant to address the barriers faced by racialized licensees. However, the Report outlines that Indigenous licensees face “unique experiences” (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 8). The Law Society of Ontario (“Law Society”), as the Report states, “has a duty to maintain and advance the cause of justice and the rule of law, to facilitate access to justice for the people of Ontario and to protect the public interest” (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 11). In order to fulfill this duty, the Law Society must also ensure its policies, practices and programs live up to the values and principles of equality and diversity (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 11). One such policy and practice, however, includes their good character form.

While I agree with the rationale behind adhering to the good character standard, I question whether the Law Society’s policy and practice of adopting a form requirement across the board for all licensing candidates is truly an equality and diversity practice.

For example, when a licensing candidate applies to the Law Society, this candidate must disclose a range of things, including criminal convictions. However, question one on the good character form asks, whether the candidate has “been found guilty of, or convicted of, any offence under any statute” (Lawyer Licensing Process Policies, Part IV: Good Character). You must answer yes to question one if you have been found guilty or convicted under any statute. (Canadian Civil Liberties Association, p 1). The consequence of this question is that it has a wide reach for almost any person. For Indigenous people, this is troublesome.

Indigenous people who are convicted or found guilty of any offence under any statute (which does not seem to be slowing down at any rate) will have to answer yes to question one as outlined above, including those who have accessed the Gladue sentencing regime. The question, then, is not whether the Law Society is adopting equity and diversity principles in its policies, practices and programs. Rather, the question is whether the Law Society is engaging in systemic and/or institutional discrimination with its blanket form, applied across the board to anyone, especially regarding Indigenous people. Again, my issue is not the rationale behind the good character form; it is the practice of assuming that this form is applied equally in a fair manner. Sadly, the Law Society released a report on a review of its good character practices in early 2019 (Professional Regulation Committee, 2019). The facts for lawyer-licensee candidates from this report are as follows:

  1. Over a six-year period, the Law Society received 14,000+ applications from lawyer candidates with only two hundred candidates self-identifying as Indigenous.
  2. 10% of the non-Indigenous candidates answered yes to a good character question.
  3. 18% of the self-identified Indigenous candidates answered yes to a good character question.
  4. The report does not provide numbers for the Indigenous candidates who had their good character issues resolved at an initial step, at an investigation or at a hearing. The report does state that 80-90% candidates of those who did answer a good character question in the affirmative were resolved at the initial step and only 1-2% candidates went to a good character hearing.
  5. Presumably, 10-20% candidates went to a hearing.
  6. Since the number of self-identified Indigenous candidates who answer yes to a good character question is higher by 15-25% (5%-10% estimate based on item 3 above), it is safe to assume that 20-30% of self-identified Indigenous candidates went to a good character hearing.
  7. Based on the above assumption, it could be assumed that 40-60 self-identified Indigenous candidates out of 200 went to a good character hearing over a six-year period or approximately 10 self-identified Indigenous candidates went to a good character hearing each year over a six-year period.

With the conversation around the statement of principles taking place in Ontario, I cringe each time I hear or read about another lawyer impacted by racism trying to justify why this mandated recommendation is essential in ending barriers to racialized licensees. I also cringe when people assume that this is a free speech issue. Free speech for whom? It is most certainly not for the racialized or Indigenous licensees now almost being forced to write their stories, trying to convince everyone who doesn’t believe racism exists…. that racism exists!

It was only in the 1950s where laws that excluded Indigenous people from entering law school, practicing law or hiring lawyers were repealed (See Constance Backhouse, “Gender and Race in the Construction of ‘Legal Professionalism’: Historical Perspectives” in Adam Dodek & Alice Woolley, eds, In Search of the Ethical Lawyer (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016) 126 at 133). Entire generations of Indigenous people were excluded from entering the profession. That is, people like my grandfathers and grandmothers prohibited from entering the profession—two generations ago. During that time, however, my community was surrounded by several residential schools. It is very unlikely that my ancestors would have even survived long enough, sadly, to enter law school. And, undoubtedly, Indigenous folks continue to be excluded from the profession for a range of other barriers.

But I survived and I am here.

I write this in the context of acknowledging this history of denying indigenous people the illusion of freedom to enter the profession. I also write to highlight the problems with the discussion around the statement of principles, as an alleged diversity and equity initiative.

These kinds of initiatives are a distraction from the issue of racism in the profession. Preventing people from having honest conversations about the real issue—racism—is how institutional and systemic discrimination works. They allow institutions and people to say, “Look at all the hard work we have done!” And, when you critique the initiative, you are the problem such as I have done in very public spaces and have been ostracized by more senior lawyers, including racialized lawyers.

As for the statement of principles, these initiatives are merely check box approaches to the problem. Perhaps, one day, we can all have a healthy conversation about institutional and systemic discrimination without racialized and Indigenous licensees and licensing candidates carrying the burden of retelling their stories.

Naomi Sayers is an Indigenous feminist and lawyer. She tweets under the moniker @kwetoday. Views are her own.

Histories

Illustration of many small flowers coming from one stem

by Finn Stuart-Seabrook

 Every time a new story unfolds
So many think they've heard it all before
The tragedy, the heartbreak, the suffering
The love, the joy, the warmth
But we are not one story on repeat
We are lifetimes, generations, eternities
Endless stories woven into the chronicles of our existence
Scrawling out the experiences of our lives not as fanservice for their pity, but as inspiration for those to follow

Yes, there is tragedy, heartbreak, and suffering

Yes, there is love, joy, and warmth

But we are not just a list of emotions meant to entice the viewers
We are a spider web of lives built to catch those falling from the pouring skies of society
We are teachers, keepers of history and tradition
Pillars of love and light in a building riddled with hate on the verge of collapse
They try to diminish our worth
Value us using language far too simple to encapsulate our otherworldly intricacy
But we are ethereal
Ethereal because our story is woven in the stars
Each lifetime adding to the intricate webbing of the
… Something

Filled sky
Stardust whispering our loses to the cosmos themselves
The sun tells our future, each ray of light kissing the gentle skin of sacred bodies
Sacred because each body is a temple

Host to history and future
Adversity and prosperity
Loss and love
Each body represents all that has been given by those before us
And all that has yet to come
Each body holds our horrors but also our hopes
And the sun follows each crack in the skin of this fragile temple as it maps out the way to our long-fought peace
Something that seems so untouchable

But when our history is held by the stars and our future written by the sun
Nothing is ever out of reach




Finn is a queer, trans, neurodiverse creator with a pension for whimsical but thought provoking language. They incorporate aspects of their experiences into their writing as both a method of decompressing and educating. They hope to create better spaces in society for marginalized folks through their work as a creator and educator.

Healing Through Connection to Land, Sky, Stars, and Ancestors

A black and white watercolour of a woman walking in water

By Stephanie Morningstar

Artwork by Zeena Salam

I wish I could say that I come from a long line of badass Onkwehonwe womxn, (which I do), but the image that statement evokes may be misleading in that there’s no legacy of deeply-held cultural knowledge in our story. In fact, our familial story has many fractures and deleted bits from the pervasive and seemingly universal interruption of colonization. There’s a lineage of cultural experience, but they’re dysfunctional experiences unique to Indigenous people- residential school, the 60’s scoop, loss of language and knowledge- experiences that alienated my family from our birthrights as Haudenosaunee. Those fractures informed my expression of healing, land, and body as a Haudenosaunee womxn in ways that are only now beginning to manifest and speak deeply to the resilience of my people. I want to share that resilience in my own story of deep healing that started where my people started- Sky World, and how that healing informs my life and connection to my ancestors and land today.

Sky World is all around us and within us, as we are all made of stars. It’s where our ancestors come from, where Awenha’i (Sky Woman) comes from, where she fell from. Awenha’i brought medicines and food when she came from Sky World. The first of these fruits was niyohontéhsha’ (Fragaria vesca/wild strawberry), known as the “Big Medicine” because of its powerful healing properties- enough to warrant its own ceremony, enough to welcome the beloved dead as they walk the pathway along the Milky Way, lined with niyohontéhsha’, back to Sky World.

The other reason I love the name “Sky World” is a little more personal. My mother’s parents lived far from the reserve our family comes from (Six Nations), having emigrated to the United States (Buffalo, NY) in the mid-1940s. My family didn’t have the connection to “traditional” Haudenosaunee culture, so there aren’t stories of aunties teaching me beading and dancing at the longhouse. In fact, they saw traditional culture as a backwards, mysterious, and dark history that we were told not to look into too deeply. My mom and aunties may not have taught me how to bead or make corn soup, but they did however teach me how to laugh- and survive.

My family wasn’t raised “traditional Longhouse,” because of the legacy of harm of the residential school system. My mother’s father attended the residential school known as “The Mush Hole” in Brantford, ON, and his experience there, along with the looming threat of the ‘60s scoop, informed my understanding of my identity in that he discouraged connections to our Indigeneity out of a necessity for survival. Because of this legacy, my family had to create other traditions to express our spiritual connection to each other and the land.

One of my favourite ways to spend time with my mother when she was still here on Turtle Island was to climb the one-story set of steps up to the top of a stone building at a nearby state park and Star Watch. We lovingly call this place the “Stone Tower,” because, well, it was stone, and a tower. One of the traditions we created was to designate the space of the Stone Tower as sacred, a place for rites of passage like blessing new babies and honouring the women of my family before transitions, and most of all, Star Watching.

It was my mother who taught me how to Star Watch and sparked my passion for learning about Sky World. Star Watching is a practice in patience and presence- the trick was to soften your focus just enough to let the periphery of the sky encompass your vision, and scan back and forth searching for anything that seemed to move, shine brightly, blink, or change colour. I was around 10 years old when my mother started becoming more active in her passion of exploring the possibilities of the universe and questioning the reality we are conditioned to believe. That curiosity and questioning led me down my own garden path as an herbalist/

I’m a western trained herbalist and trained a bit with traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe medicine helpers, experiences that helped me understand more about myself and medicine ways than I can ever begin to share. When I decided to start my own practice as an herbalist, I was indecisive at first about what to name my apothecary. I come to this name, Sky World Apothecary, the product of a childhood that was filled with what others might consider abnormal or strange, but to me was a vector for mystery and connection to something larger than myself.

As I have grown more familiar with my culture I began to recognize my own passion for inquiry, especially regarding Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of which Star Knowledge is a facet. When I heard the Sky Woman story, the Haudenosaunee creation story, I knew I had to pull that thread and see what emerged. I wanted to honour my mother’s memory when naming this new path in life, making medicine for those still here with us, while honouring my ancestors in the Sky World.

Ultimately, Sky World Apothecary finally came to me after a long day of hiking and learning and picking medicines with some fellow herbalists. I came home sore, sunburnt, and bug-bitten, full of bliss and scratches on my legs. As I lay in bed I felt something click open in my heart centre, something activating inside me. It felt pink and soft and vibrant. As I lay there, drifting down to sleep, I saw nothing but strawberries. Big Medicine from Sky World. I felt the call to honour my ancestors and my dream of healing people through (re)connection to the land started to grow.

I recently stepped into the role of the Co-Executive Director of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), a new organization dedicated to advancing land and food sovereignty for BIPOC folks in the North-Eastern region of the U.S. I knew this was my dream position when I read the Vision statement: “Working to advance land sovereignty in the northeast region through permanent, secure land tenure for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian farmers and land stewards who use the land in a sacred manner that honors our ancestors dreams — for regenerative farming, sustainable human habitat, ceremony, native ecosystem restoration, and cultural preservation.” Win!

NEFOC’s work is essential not only because our vision is dedicated to advancing land sovereignty, but because it’s doing it through a healing lens. One of the most insidious forms of colonization is the manifestation of lateral violence. We know the project of colonization is successful when the colonizers no longer have to expend energy to disrupt our relationships to each other and the land — when we do it to ourselves. This “divide and conquer” piece of the colonial project is exactly what we aim to collectively heal. Both Sky World Apothecary and NEFOC’s vision embody this at their cores. NEFOC is dedicated to repairing relationships with the Indigenous communities of the Northeast. Our goal as an organization is to restore right relationship to each other and the land, starting with listening to Indigenous leaders and people to hear and co-conspire with each nation on how to establish sovereignty.

I often go back to a statement made by Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal elder and activist from Queensland, Australia, who says it way better than I ever could: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We need to establish solidarity as BIPOC earth workers and land stewards. This work isn’t about centering any one way of being, doing, and knowing. It’s about picking up our universal responsibilities as Indigenous people (and we are all Indigenous to somewhere) to steward the land as a relative, to remember our ancestors’ dreams and pick up our roles as future ancestors, and to do this, not just for the next seven generations, but for all generations to come. I want to acknowledge the work of those who have come before us and paved the way for what may seem like a fairly idealistic and radical concept: advancing sovereignty and transforming the concept of “ownership” of land to a collective agreement to pick up our responsibilities to the land as a relative requiring respect and careful, intentional, mindful, and sustainable stewardship so that all Faces to Come have equitable access to home, health, and happiness. To me, that is what achieving healing looks like.

Stephanie Morningstar (She/Her) OnΛyota’a:ka – Oneida, Turtle clan, Lotinosho:ni/Haudenosaunee & German/English ancestral lineages. Herbalist, scholar, student, and Earth Worker dedicated to decolonization and liberation. She is the founder of Sky World Apothecary & Farm, serves as a Leadership Council member for the New England Women’s Herbal Conference and the International Herb Symposium, and is the Co-Director of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust.

Black and White portrait of Zeena in a black hijab and fur hooded coat. She is smilling with a closed mouth.

Zeena is currently living in her home town Najaf, Iraq. She is studying accounting at the University of Kofa along with pursuing an art career on the side. She enjoys painting and drawing pieces that relate to Arabian culture, nature, and landscapes.

We Are From Africa

A blue illustration of the African continent

By Donat and Lidia

We are from Africa
A continent yet so a country
The land of all
A mother of all
The land of lands
A temple for harmony
So peaceful yet so rightful
A continent that craves beauty
Yet filled with so much aestheticity
Garnished with abundant gold
Enthroned with ivory and silk
That’s our Africa
 
I am from East Africa
Where we love and cherish
Where our blood
Is a reflection of our flag
Where I am my brothers keeper
Where our anthems are blessings in disguise
Where I am from
The forbidden fruit
All of a sudden is not so forbidden anymore
East Africa! The jewel, the pearl
East Africa! Our golden trophy
 
We are from the horn
We are like lions
The pride of our own
The little star of culture
Shining deep in the heart of the continent
We seat strangers to the seas
Just as told by our Mediterranean
Just as told by our Red Sea
“The land of the barbarians”
Our peninsula…
The blessing you offer
Is the blessing you are
Shine no less brighter
But yet warmer.
 
I am from the south,
Amidst the greatness of Rustenberg
I dream of you at night
I dream of your light,
Your warmth,
Your compassion,
Is it still there?
The spirit of Ubuntu that captured our hearts
Is it still there?
Your rich soul that leads me through the road of Jozi
Oh my South Africa!
I dream of you at night.
                                                                                               

Donat and Lidia are grade 11 students at Our Lady Of Lourdes Catholic High School. They both left Eritrea at the age 4 and 5. Lidia went to Uganda and Donat went to South Africa. Donat immigrated to Canada on the 13th September 2018 and Lidia on the 24th April 2017. They are both cousins who love each other so much.

Reconciliation Means Making Things Right

Black and white drawing of an indigenous person with their fist raised holding a traditional shield-like object in their other hand. They have a checkered cap on and behind the image reads "matriarch Camp 4 ever".

An Interview with Christi Belcourt

by Katherine Nixon

Artwork by bitty

After moving away from the city in 2000, Michif artist, Christi Belcourt, began to paint full time. Over time, she says the plants and land became her teachers and she began to understand the interconnectedness of everything in a deeper and more profoundly spiritual way. Her love for the earth and her people can be seen throughout all her work.

Currently, Christi working with the Onaman Collective to support the resurgence of language and land based practices.

Recently, I was given with the opportunity to ask her some questions about her work and how she sees moving forward.

Katherine: How has art helped you express your culture?

Christi: The worldview, which is commonly shared by many different indigenous nations across the globe, is that there are laws (which are natural laws) of the earth to which human beings must adhere to and be respectful of. And those observing those natural laws, and living in, as people would more commonly referred to, as living in balance with the earth, is what has sustained human populations and the earth and every other species since the beginning of time. But what has happened more recently is that we are seeing that, especially since the advent of the industrial age, is the human species has begun to believe they contain it, and control, the natural laws. And we are seeing the consequences of breaching that very sacred and spiritual balance that we have with the earth. And so this worldview is still held within Indigenous communities of common belief and practice, of the act of walking softly with the earth and needing to really be respectful and mindful of the spirits that exist all around us, in the land which we are privileged to live upon. And that we are dependent on everything else in the earth, and that nothing, absolutely nothing is dependent on us. And so the idea that we’re at the top of the food chain is actually quite opposite in reality, where we’re really at the bottom. And we are dependent on everything, and therefore it’s incumbent upon us to walk softly, and be respectful and gentle in the ways that we approach the earth. Which is in direct contrast to the systems that are governing the earth at the moment, which are based on capitalism, and basically taking from the earth and not returning anything; really believing that human beings are meant to be dominant over the earth. Which is a really predominantly Judeo-Christian belief, and a belief of other religions around the world, that have formed the belief systems of governments that are basically destroying the world. So combined with the capitalist system and the corporate structure of the world, we are seeing a rapid climate change and things that are happening that are creating poverty and suffering around the world through the capitalist model which is mostly disguised as democracy. So my paintings now are a reflection of the belief system that we need to be in balance with the earth and we need to respect things that sustain our life system on this planet, and the ecosystems in which they live. And so, I paint what some people might think are simply pretty flowers, but what I’m trying to really say is let us exalt the beauty of the earth and the way that she sustains us all, and let us respect that beauty as if it were our own son and daughter.

K: I know you were one of the inspirations for the Valentino designs. How was that for you? When the non-Indigenous populations of the world are watching and seeing your designs, how did that feel for you to get the message out there-through your artwork?

C: I think the message that was carried forward with Valentino was that the vast majority that would have seen the dresses, or the collaborative work, would not have also necessarily read the messages about the work, and they wouldn’t have necessarily understood that was what they were seeing. For the people who did the the time to maybe look a little bit further, or read some of the interviews that happened, they maybe would have got some of the messages. Y’know, people’s attention spans are very limited nowadays. And we’re oversaturated with media, and it’s hard to get messages out in a really deep and meaningful way.

But that said, it was fun to work with Valentino. Valentino: not the Valentino, but the designers within Valentino. And it was a pleasure to work with them. As far as fashion houses go, they have been rated #1 by Greenpeace for a number of years for their consciousness, I suppose, for wanting to move towards having all of their materials sourced sustainably. And they are conscious of that. They have been, unfortunately in more recent years, accused of appropriation of Indigenous designs, and this is really very sad and disappointing for me. Because it was one of the very clear, distinct questions that I had at the beginning; and I had made it clear that I didn’t approve of fashion houses who appropriated Indigenous designs. And I find that most of the big fashion houses that appropriate on a regular basis, seem to be completely tone deaf and ignore the concerns that are being brought forward by fashion designers that are working themselves in a more conscientious way.

K: What would be your hope for the future in terms of moving forward and looking more towards real and true reconciliation?

C: For me, reconciliation cannot happen without the return of stolen Indigenous lands. And it is that simple. When we look at what colonial governments did in the 1800s and into the 1900s, is they systematically went about the earth and removed Indigenous people from their lands. Not just in North America, but in so many other continents as well. And they wanted their resources. They wanted Indigenous people out of the way so they could have a free-for-all in the resources, and make themselves rich in the process. And over time, a lot of those colonial governments, such as the British empire, the countries themselves moved towards independence from England, but they left their colonial governments behind. So although they may have gained independence, it is the fact that Indigenous peoples were removed off of their land for their resources was never resolved. And it is most the issues that we face, as Indigenous people, are a result, a direct result, of those purposeful, tactical efforts to move us off the lands and to assimilate us, or in some cases outright eliminate us. And were are and still are experiencing and live everyday with the fallout of that reality. And we cannot fix it without having what was taken be fully restored. Which to me is our lands, and complete control over our lives and over our lands. And that would mean, perhaps, that I’m talking about separation. Maybe I’m talking about other countries. Many people get up in arms when I talk about that. They say “What do expect us to do, divide Canada up into 70 different little parcels?” And other people get quite hostile when I bring this up, they say “What do you expect us to do? All move back to Europe? We’re Canadian!” And of course, Indigenous people have never, ever been unreasonable. On the contrary, Indigenous people have been welcoming, they have been accommodating, and they have taken 400 years of abuse and genocide and still, they turn around and say they’re interested in reconciliation. So I think Indigenous people have proven through their actions how exactly peaceful and beautiful they are and how willing they would be to discuss models whereby we would have our land back, but there would still enough for Canadians to be able to survive and thrive. So to me this is what reconciliation truly is, is to put us on equal footing. Whereby our nations are equal with the Canadian nation. And then we can then begin to discuss a true relationship that is reciprocal. Right now we are not anywhere near a reciprocal, equal relationship; and this has very huge consequences on our lives, and on our children’s lives. And so, when I think about reconciliation, I think about land immediately, and what I would love nothing more than to see everyone who lives on this continent live in a way that has protections and where their children are able to thrive; where our languages and our people are really able to regain everything that was stolen and lost to us over time. So that, to me is reconciliation; is you return what was stolen, and you fix it and you make it right; and then you back off.

K: You mentioned about children being affected. I wanted to ask you about the Onamoan Collective that you started with Isaac Murdoch. Could you maybe go over some of the stuff that you guys are doing?

C: It is an initiative that is being done by the elders and some of the youth in the region; Isaac and I might be the more public figures but people mistakenly think that this is our thing, when it isn’t, it is really being driven by the youth in this area. And they are actively trying to regain and learn their language. It’s a language of community that’s trying to also regain some of the traditional knowledge around land-based living and practices. And so we started to build camps and put the infrastructure in place so that we could have space on the land in which we can dedicate more time to learning the language and learning the traditional skills. One thing that is a hardship on Indigenous people that are trying to do these practices is that 80% of the land mass in Canada has been deemed Crown land, and when they try to build camps, it’s really an issue of trying to have some land on which to do these things that is outside of reserve boundaries and in their traditional territories. And there are many examples of people being persecuted by provincial laws for trying to build camps within their traditional territories. For example, right now, Sylvia McAdam, who is a co-founder of Idle No More, built a camp with her brother on their traditional territory on their dad’s traplines; the province moved in a destroyed their buildings and took everything off the land, and have now charged her. And she is to appear in court in the coming weeks, for trespassing on her own lands. And this is the common treatment of Indigenous people when they’re trying to move back to their own land to exercise their rights on their lands and to be together with their family doing traditional practices. And this is the more common treatment than not. Again, it goes back to land, that we have the issue with the land, always. And this would alleviate a lot of problems, if we could have control of our own land without being imposed upon by the provincial and federal governments.

K: That’s so important, just acknowledging the fact that this land is Indigenous land and not Settler land.

C: Can I just say one thing there? I think that land acknowledgements are nice, but they are not enough. And I believe that as more people are sort of adopting land acknowledgements into their practices of their educational institutions and within governments, I think that if anybody reading this is currently doing land acknowledgements, I would also encourage them to begin to talk and push for their local and regional First Nation and Métis people to actually have physical land. So it’s not good enough to just acknowledge the land that we’re on, but we must also move towards giving the land back, and taking action in that direction; otherwise acknowledgements become nothing more than just empty words.

K: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

C: I think that a way also that we can move forward together in the spirit of reconciliation is to join forces against corporations and governments who are trying to ruin our water. So it means not turning a blind eye to areas in other regions where their water is threatened, but offering our support. Whether it’s financial, moral, or physical support on the ground, to create connected networks of advocates and people who will take action to protect our water. This is the biggest threat that is coming in the next decades … water for the coming generations. The corporations are happy to continue to pollute the earth. And they will avoid cities and big centres where frankly the population is high of people who come out to vote. So they will avoid those places; but they have no hesitation to go through smaller towns and to go through Indigenous communities to poison their waters because they don’t have the physical numbers of support that is needed. So if we want to move forward together, then we need to unite for the water, and force governments to stop giving favours to corporations and force governments to turn to green technology and invest in that, and not ask; because they’re not listening to the people. The corporations are really running the show and they’re running governments, and we need to wake up, and unite before it’s too late for the next generations. And this is a way I see that we can work together. We always say that water has no flag and that water has no race and it’s just the people coming together to help one another, and to make sure future generations have something good and clean for themselves as we did when we were growing up.

Christi Belcourt is a Michif (Métis) visual artist with a deep respect for Mother Earth, the traditions and the knowledge of her people. In addition to her paintings she is also known as a community based artist, environmentalist and advocate for the lands, waters and Indigenous peoples.

Katherine Nixon is the unassuming attendant of St James highschool by day, but in her spare time is a hell raising humanitarian. She has spent a lot of her life volunteering and advocating for human and non-human animal rights. Her work includes organizing solidarity events, creating relief packages for Refugees, winter-survival kits for Guelph’s homeless, and spending time volunteering at Hope House.

Black and White portrait of Bitty close mouth smiling with arms raised in a black shirt. They have on glasses and dark lipstick

My name is Bitty. I am two-spirit and I make art. I have maternal Coast Salish roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed Irish, French and Euro ancestry. The art I contributed about Matriarch Camp is a piece I drew to fundraise to sustain camp and out of a deep respect and gratitude to Ma’amtagila grandmother Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas and the young matriarchs, warrior womxn and salmon protectors who hold the space that is Matriarch Camp.

This is How the World Keeps Going

Black and white print of woodblock carving. Image is of a lady of liberty in black dress holding a feather and candle. It reads "lady (parts) liberty's ground swells

by Daniella Robinson

Artwork: Lady Liberty by Leigh Brownhill

The impacts of colonization are insurmountable. It is impossible to totally quantify and qualify the damage that brutalizing colonial processes continue to do to Indigenous peoples and communities, both in Canada and around the world. When I close my eyes, I try to imagine what it would feel like to know that Indigenous lives are valued by the Canadian nation…this is a struggle for me.

I am Bigstone Cree and Italian, was raised in an Italian Catholic environment and learned about my Indigenous heritage through work and volunteerism with Indigenous organizations. Prior to beginning my undergraduate degree, I had little knowledge of Indigenous culture. I visited my Cree side of the family in Western Canada yearly, but we never really talked about ‘being Indigenous’ or what this meant. When I started my undergraduate degree, I connected with the Aboriginal Resource Centre on campus and began my journey to learn more about my heritage. I learned about numerous topics: the history of residential school, the 60’s scoop, relationship-building between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous allies, racism and sexism built into Canada’s Indian Act and its impact on communities, the creation of the reservation system, educational discrepancies between on and off-reserve schools, and Indigenous experiences of poverty, food insecurity and poor housing infrastructure across Canada. I was inundated with information about issues faced by people I was really beginning to think about as kin, and I began to feel a rage and sadness that I wasn’t sure how to navigate. This feeling continued as I got more involved in community-driven work and volunteerism.

How can you possibly be accountable to the First Nations, Métis and Inuit families who were torn apart in the name of ‘progress’? Or to the communities who never saw their children again after the 60’s scoop and residential schools? How do you quantify the effects of linguicide? Cultural genocide? What can we do to protect Mother Earth when we have pipelines being pushed through unceded territories? How can we heal with our communities when we know Indigenous women are overrepresented as victims of sexual violence, human trafficking and homicide?

Still, we persist and we resist.


I am a survivor of sexual violence. I pursued a PhD in Human Sexuality to work through my own experiences of trauma and to hold space for imaginings of a better future. Though I am by no means an expert on healing and recognize that everyone is on their own path, I know that I would be nowhere without my support systems. Even during the darkest parts of my journey, I had safe places to stay, a good education, shoulders to cry on, and friends that lit my cigarettes when I was too shaky to do it myself.

My heart breaks for all the women and girls who have to contend with the awful feelings that come with being violated, abused, and taken advantage of because of their open and trusting hearts. I get angry knowing that when women try to escape this violence, they are often turned away from overcrowded and underfunded shelters that are already full. My heart breaks again when I read about what some of our women have had to do in order to support themselves and their families because the options available are so scarce.

It can be difficult for us to move away from the traumatic narratives we are attached to, but we do. I am inspired by brilliant Indigenous artists who produce beautiful pieces on decolonial love and sexuality (check our RJ Jones. They’re amazing!), producers who spend hundreds of hours creating beautiful messages of affirmation and strength (shout out to Jason Jenkins of Going on Dreams!), and writers who name systems of power and shout them down (The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline).

I want to end this submission with a quote that speaks to the beauty of gratitude and community. Braiding Sweetgrass is a beautiful book and Robin Wall Kimmerer is a phenomenal storyteller.  

“Of all the wise teachers who have come into my life, none are more eloquent than these, who wordlessly in leaf and vine embody the knowledge of relationship. Alone, a bean is just a vine, squash an oversized leaf. Only when standing together with corn does a whole emerge which transcends the individual. The gifts of each are more fully expressed when they are nurtured together than alone. In ripe ears, and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship. This is how the world keeps going” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

I lean into these inspirations in awe and with wonder, as they gently but firmly remind me to be less self-critical and to be the strong kwe I know in my heart that I am.

Black and white selfie of Daniella Robinson. Daniella is smiling with closed lips.

Daniella Robinson is a Bigstone-Cree and Italian sister, daughter, partner and student. She is completing a PhD in Human Sexuality through the California Institute of Integral Studies, and intends to write an intervention-focused dissertation that centers the needs of Indigenous women. This article is an adaptation of a paper she wrote for her program.

Black and white headshot of Leigh Brownhill with a closed lip smile

Leigh Brownhill is a writer, editor and teacher who makes and uses art in her scholarly books, journals and articles. Both art and research have in turn deeply informed her lifelong anti-colonial ecofeminist activism.

Violence as Healing; Not All Will Agree

black and white sketch of regan de Loggans

By: Regan de Loggans

Above artwork by Grace Insoga

Pisa Aiukli
 
Okhissa tiwwi, Okhissushi akammi
Okhissushi tiwwi, Okhissa akammi
 
Ish Haklo ho? Sa Haklo ho?
…………….Chi Nukshopa ho?
 
Keyu, sa tikabih. Omba sa banna.
 
Okhissa tiwwi, Okhissa akammi
Sabbak acheefa sa banna
 
Open the door, Close the window
Open the window, close the door
 
Are you listening? Do you hear me?
…………….Are you afraid?
 
No, I am tired. I want rain.
 
Open the window, close the door
I want to wash my hands.

When considering legacies of healing, I become bitter and resentful. I do not find it fair that I am expected to heal myself and my community because of things done onto us by foreign bodies. I know that my reaction sounds selfish and righteous, but I expect better. I know resentful behavior can only lead to anger and sadness, but it is how I feel as an indigenous person forced to navigate a colonial world.

I am angry as I write this. Not for the opportunity but rather because the opportunity exists in the first place. I cannot be alone in this anger-But I might be. As an academic, I want to be reasonable and respond with intelligence. And hope that my intelligent rebuttal will empower others in their healing. But honestly, I’m fucking tired of that feeling. I resist colonialism everyday when I wake up by being alive in a world that was not meant to see my survival. But that is not enough. Waking up in a colonial and capitalistic world is still my reality; and it’s a reality I did not consent to.

Legacies of healing can be just as traumatic as colonial violence; It takes everything in all of us to function. And I know we are all exhausted. But spite keeps me going. I refuse to heel in front of the police who want my death or imprisonment, while on my land. I believe that resistance is inherently righteous violence against the oppressive institutions. And it is hard to live a violent life.

A past of violence and a reaction that is violent is my life and the life of any indigenous person who chooses to reclaim, resurge, and redefine. And I need others to acknowledge that healing is an act of righteous violence and reclamation of violence done onto oneself and others.

But violence against the colonial state is a tactic of survival, it is a refusal of heteropatriarchy, colonialism, possessiveness, and imperialism. “The Kwe Method” is what some have called it. And it is what I want my life to be defined by-The chosen refusal of oppression. I refuse to heal quietly or alone. MY legacy of healing is one defined by violence, done as an act of revolutionary violence.

It will be loud. It will be fueled by anger. And it will be uncomfortable for all that witness it.

Regan de Loggans (Mississippi Choctaw-Ki’che’ Maya) is a historian/art historian, curator community activist, and practitioner of radical witchcraft. They are one of the founders of the Indigenous Womxn’s Collective: NYC. They live in Brooklyn, on the traditional lands of the Lenni Lenape. Insta: @PhaggotPlanet

The Roma

blue and grey variation of roma flag which includes a grey sixteen-spoked chakra

A Legacy of Persecution

By: Ronald Lee

Unlike most other Indigenous and oppressed people of colour, the Roma (1) people are neither Indigenous nor victims of colonialism. Instead, we have been what might be described as perpetual refugees. Since our coerced departure from India in the early 11th century CE as a Hindu army and its camp followers(2), a virtual population including women and children forcibly removed from India by Ghaznavid(3) conquerors and sent to Persia as garrison troops, we have been without a country. Following the battle of Dandanqan in 1040 where the Ghaznavid armies and their Hindu ghulam(4) were defeated by the invading Seldjuk Turks, the surviving Hindu troops and camp followers fled west to Armenia. Here they remained until 1054, when invading Seldjuks again forced us to flee to Cilicia, an Armenian kingdom in the Byzantine Empire, where the Roma nation was born as the Hindu caste system disintegrated and a new nation came into being. Today we recognize this as the Romani people, colloquially known as “Gypsies”, a contraction of Egyptian in English. Europeans in general called us “Egyptians” in the mistaken belief that we had originated in Egypt. Another name was Greek athinganoi (“untouchables”) which gave rise to terms like Cigan, Tsigani, Bohémiens, Zigeuner, Gitanos, Zingari and many more, all created by outsiders to define us.

In 1071, the Seldjuk Turks defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikirt and the former Eastern Roman Empire in Anatolia now became the Turkish Sultanate of Ikonea, also known as Roum. What was left of the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans was later invaded by the Ottoman Turks, who replaced the Seldjuks as the ruling dynasty. Many Romani groups had left Cilicia to migrate across the Bosporus and more came with the invading Ottomans as artisans and sazende (military musicians) in the mid 14th century CE as the Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans. While the vast majority of Roma remained in the Balkans, some moved westwards through Romania and small bands began to appear in all European countries in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Wallachia and Moldavia, two Turkish vassal regions that later became Romania, Roma were enslaved because of their artisan skills by the nobility, the State and the Church. They were not freed until the Slobuzheniya (Emancipation) of 1865.

For a brief period the Romani groups that entered other European countries were seen as Egyptian Christian pilgrims who had fled Egypt to escape conversion to Islam by the Arab invaders, and were provided with alms and documents signed by kings and Popes giving them permission to travel freely. Following this period, while these groups were not enslaved like those in Romania, savage persecutions began when the Roman Catholic hegemony in Europe began to disintegrate with the Protestant Reformation. Roma were declared to be “cannibals”, “heathens” and “child thieves.” Rulers ordered Roma to be banished from their countries and in England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, even English people who associated with Roma were guilty of a hanging offence. The Catholic Church accused Roma of having made the nails that crucified Christ even though we had not yet left India at this date. Noblemen in the German States and Switzerland organized Gypsy hunts where we were hunted down like wild animals. Large numbers of men were hung and their women whipped and mutilated by having an ear removed. Roma children were taken away from their parents and given to Christian families. One of the most successful of these child thieves was Empress Maria Theresa of Austro-Hungary (1717-1780), whose program of assimilation for Hungarian Romungere resulted in large numbers of children being kidnapped and given to Hungarian families. Roma were forbidden to marry other Roma, to speak the Romani language and to wear their ethnic clothing. They were ordered to become Ujmagyar, or “New Hungarians.”

In time, the persecutions waned except in the German States where repressive laws and Romaphobia reached their zenith under the Nazi Regime. Well over a million Sinti and Roma were murdered during the Holocaust. The true number of victims during this genocide will never be known because too many victims were identified as Jews, partisans or hostages. Others were rounded up and shot by fascist elements in Hungary and elsewhere in the puppet States and never officially recorded as victims.

After the end of World War II, European Roma were confronted with Communism in the countries gobbled up by Stalin and referred to as The Communist Bloc during the Cold War. Since the traditional Romani economy has always been free enterprise, a symbiotic relationship with the non-Romani world as providers of artisan services and entertainment, the Communists saw this as “free entertprise” and it was ruthlessly stamped out except in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Roma were now forced to work in factories; Nomadism was forbidden for those who still travelled except, oddly enough, under Stalin in the Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia, the State bought the horses and placed the caravans without their wheels on sites which became sedentary ghettos. These are now reduced to third-world shanty towns like Swinia in the Czech Republic, the subject of a National Film Board documentary entitled The Gypsies of Swinia (1998). Despite The Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) which many Romani activists refer to as The Decade of Roma Exclusion, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Swinias in the former Communist countries and elsewhere in Europe like the Campi di Nomadi in Italy. Roma in the so-called “New Democracies” are living under what can only be described as “Undeclared Apartheid”. This has compelled untold numbers of refugees to flee to Western European countries and to the Americas, including Canada, where we have never been the preferred newcomer group, especially under a Conservative government. Jason Kenney, for example, our former Minister of Immigration under the Harper regime, referred to Hungarian Roma refugees as “bogus refugees”, and a previous Liberal government under Jean Chrétien set up an IRB kangaroo Court to prove that Hungarian Roma refugees had no need to come to Canada with the infamous test cases of 2000. These were later declared to be illegal by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Efforts at reconciliation have been instigated by some governments. Germany, under Angela Merkel, has created a monument to the Sinti and Romani victims of National Socialism. The government of the Czech Republic has finally agreed to get rid of the pig farm that has occupied the former site of Lety, a concentration work camp run by Czechs from 1939 until 1943 where thousands of Czech Roma died from brutality, malnutrition and disease. After the Germans took it over in 1943, it became a transit camp for Auschwitz. Today, the pogroms continue. Roma have been firebombed and murdered in Hungary. In the Ukraine, Canada’s current pet democracy (sic), thugs are murdering Roma and burning down their camps with impunity. As more and more European countries fall under the sway of right-wing governments, Roma become the convenient scapegoats of the ruling demagogues like Donald Trump’s “Mexicans”. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the walls are built around Roma ghettos to “protect” the non-Roma living nearby.

To this day, there are many hurdles to overcome. Since the Harper government refused to officially recognize Roma as victims of genocide by the Nazis and their collaborating puppet states, we have been lobbying the Trudeau government to do this to no avail. We would also appreciate an apology for the more than 500 years of Roma slavery in Wallachia and Moldavia, the two Principalities that became modern Romania. Finally, we would like to see an end to cultural appropriation of the Roma culture and music where non Roma performers can piggyback on the popularity of genuine Romani artists. One of the worst offenders is Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello among many others. Finally we want to see an end to the use of the word “gypsy” with a small “g” when reference is made to the Romani people. We are Roma, not “gypsies.”

On the positive side, numerous Romani NGOs and other organizations have sprung up all over the world. The Toronto Roma Community Centre was registered in 1998 and has worked to assist Roma refugees with social integration and combatted prejudice and hate crimes like the Skinhead trial and the hate charges against Ezra Levant for slandering the Romani people. The Western Canadian Alliance in Vancouver was founded in 1997 to assist Czech Roma refugees in that city and now there is Romanipen in Montreal, a sister organization of our Toronto NGO. Many young Roma are attending university, graduating and entering the academic world. We are producing authors, lawyers, teachers and an educated elite which will hopefully lead our people to a better tomorrow.

Footnotes:

  1. I am using the word Roma because this is known in Canada and used by the media as an adjective. It is actually a plural noun and refers to the Roma of Central/Eastern Europe. The proper adjective is Romani, not Roma, and refers to all Romani groups (an English spelling of Romany is no longer used by us). Romani people in Western Europe do not use the word Roma as an ethnic marker but have their own identity markers like Romanichals (UK), Sinti (Germany, France, Italy), Manouche (France), Cales (Spain), Kaale (Finland), etc.
  2. Ancient and Medieval armies needed a lot of camp followers to support an army in the field composed of cooks, butchers, fletchers, religious leaders, veterinarians, washerwomen, medical staff, sanitary workers and other skilled people. In a Hindu army, these people would have belonged to many jatis or sub-castes.
  3. Ghaznavids, a Muslim dynasty of former Turkish slave soldiers who overthrew the Arab Caliphate in Afghanistan in the 10th century CE and expanded their kingdom into North-Central India, forcing the local rulers to submit to their rule and pay tribute.
  4. Ghulam, slave soldiers. The Hindu rulers were forced to provide tribute as vassal states to the Ghaznavid conquerors consisting of precious metals, food, elephants and their handlers and what were called client soldiers, or ghulam, from the military caste (Kshatriya). Like all Indian and other armies of this period, the army consisted of fighting troops and camp followers which included their wives and children.
  5. This is still happening today in Canada. Children’s Aid services are taking children of some refugee Roma families away and placing them in foster care with non-Roma instead of giving them to Romani relatives or to another Romani family. This, like the same practice with our Native People, is cultural genocide.
  6. Romungere, the major Hungarian Romani group
  7. Sinti are Roma who decided to live in the German States in the Middle Ages. They distance themselves from the Roma groups of Central/Eastern Europe even though they speak a Romani dialect. Their name is probably derived from German Reisende (“Travellers.”)
  8. An initiative undertaken by twelve European countries to work toward improving the conditions of Roma in Europe. Unfortunately, conditions are worse now than they were in 2005.
  9. This is not just my opinion, it is also that of numerous civil rights organizations and academics who have studied the situation first hand.
  10. The Romani population of Bohemia and Moravia, about 7,500 people, was effectively wiped out during the Holocaust. Those in Slovakia, a Nazi puppet state, survived for the most part.
  11. In one of his outbursts of verbal diarrhea, Levant referred to the Romani people as a gang of criminals like the Crips and the Bloods. He was forced to make an apology in 2013. He would have been convicted of a hate crime if he had not been protected by his friends in the Harper government.

Ronald Lee is a Romani activist, author, lecturer, translator and founding member of the Roma Community of Toronto (1998). He taught the only course on Roma in Canada at New College, Uof T. (2003-2008). He has lectured widely including Harvard and Colombia. His publications can be seen at www.kopachi.com

The Mug

watercolor leaf

by Amir Al-Azraki

Edited by Sharon Findlay

(Um Kalthum music. Majeed enters. He sits on the same table holding a glass of Arag in one hand and a cigarette in the other.)

Majeed:

A poet’s tears, a glass, a story…

The residue of memories distilled in his drink.

Chugs it till he chokes,

the story spews forth…

A lifetime on the stage, for decades I have performed for crowds, the multitudes, for you! (indicates the audience and takes a drink from a mug)

I have embodied the grief and loss of Hamlet, the anguish of Othello…I sang for the revolution in Marat/Sade (2) (Sings)…and danced with Mack the Knife in The Three Penny Opera.(3) (Dances and sings)

Yes, I have been poor, destitute, in Ba’e Al-Dibs al-Faqir (The Poor Date Molasses Salesman), and also played a King in Al-Fiil Ya Malek Azzaman (The Elephant, Oh King of All Times). (4)

I have breathed life into these roles for audiences around the world…

Underneath it all…below the surface of these great roles…underneath these facades, I ask…who am I? (pause)

(sarcastically) “Son of Sumer and Babylon,” lost son of the “Cradle of Civilization…” Ruins!

Grief, loss, anguish…these are not strangers to me…they are my familiars…my closest companions…

Yes, over the years I have enacted the lives, the trials, the tribulations of others, of characters, but… where do I find my own voice?

Who hears it? Who cares? Who am I?

I am! I am…? (takes a slow drink, followed by a pause)

A fraud! A compilation of obsolete, worn out memories. (drinks) Memories and grievances…

After the war, I arrived in Canada hoping for, for…something better. If not happiness, happiness may be too much to ask for, then something…something stable, a place to build a foundation, a new future for what was left of my broken and battered family… (drinks and continues on in a reflective voice)

Yes, I arrived here…well, my body did; my heart, my mind, my soul crippled by the war we were fleeing. My hopes and happiness stamped out, crushed by the oppressive regime and by the American invasion that murdered my two dear sons (beat) …a father’s heart can never, never be whole again after such a loss.

Even so, to tell the truth, a tiny shred of hope did remain…a tiny spark in the depth and darkness of my despair. Yes, hope… not for happiness but for a measure of peace, quiet, for the possibility of building some kind of future for my remaining children…was I a fool? Am I?

Yes, an old fool. What followed after I landed in this ‘free’ country attests to my foolishness, my naiveté. Let me tell you how stupid I was…(pause and continues slowly) how I sold what remained of my pride, my soul, to the vultures and opportunists who used my tragedy to line their own pockets.

My life story, my deepest pain, become fodder for so-called artists and academics. Rich material to exploit at conferences, workshops, universities…they used details of my life to peddle their art…used me! I was used, disposable…another caricature like Hamlet or Othello, an imitation of life! But I? I? where was I located in their projects, their seminars…where was I when they held my story up for the analysis and dissection of students and academics and so-called artists? Exploiters who appropriated my life and my terror and my pain and my dead boys and made it their own! Deceivers! Who take for granted their own peaceful mundane existence, who’ve never feared for their safety and who know nothing, nothing?!? Where was I? Lost! Buried alive!

(deep silence, trying to collect himself)

Without realizing, fool that I am, I was tricked into performing a caricature of myself, of imitating my own life!

For my trouble, for my contribution, they presented me with a coffee mug, see it has the university logo on it…sold my soul for a mug. (Points to logo on mug)

I fill it with Arag, at least it’s good for something. (tops up mug from bottle of Arag and drinks)

I am alone. Night after night I sit with my mug, and try to make sense of it all. Everything is gone. That tiny last spark that I carried over here, that precious shred of hope imported all the way from the ruins of Iraq, hope for a better future, is now snuffed out…it wasn’t for me. I find no solace in my work or my family…

I contemplate my mug, fill it with Arag…fill it with my tears…I repeat the same stories, count the same losses, bewail the cruel injustices of this world until I think even this mug is tired of my lamenting. Who wouldn’t be? I am tired of myself! My family and friends have heard it all before a million times but still I cannot stop telling the story…of my imprisonment…imprisonment then, in a prison…and now in ‘free’ Canada…the internal prison of isolation and hopelessness.

(takes a slow drink)

I sleep sometimes. Sometime I have vivid dreams…they’re not nightmares exactly although they are confusing…scattered impressions of a past life; the voices of the south birds’ singing, explosions in the distance…the scent of myrtle and ambergris in my mother’s scarf…the smell of gunpowder…the swirling dabka dance and the dance of torture…What a life…

Sometimes I am overcome by nightmares of violence and destruction that pursue me relentlessly through the night…I wake disoriented, weeping, cursing it all. Then I ask myself, how long can I carry on? How long? Even my family…my wife, my children are becoming strangers. “You always smell of Arag” she complains… disgusted. Our children don’t even speak Arabic any more and I refuse to learn English. why should I?

I thought I had already lost everything but there were still a few things left to go…

Of course they all think they know what is best for me: get busy, get a job, go give a seminar, do a play, learn English, do a monologue about your pain and inner conflict….! Ha! (laughs ruefully)

I am an actor, this is my craft and sullen art. I will play my part.

Cheers. (holds up mug)

“I dreamt I was a fugitive
Hiding in a forest.
The wolves in a distant country
Hounded me through black deserts and over rough hills.
My dear, our separation was torture.
I dreamt I was without a home,
Dying in an unknown city,
Dying alone, my love, without a home.”

(Majeed exits. Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’)

Footnotes:

  1. The play is inspired by a true story of an Iraqi artist who lives in Kitchener, Waterloo.
  2. Marat/Sade was written in 1963 by German dramatist and novelist Peter Weiss
  3. The Three Penny Opera was written in 1928 by German playwright Bertolt Brecht in collaboration with Kurt Weill
  4. Both plays were written by Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous.

Amir Al-Azraki is an Assistant Professor of Arabic language, literature, and culture (Renison University College, University of Waterloo), lecturer of Arabic language (SOLAL, U of G), Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner, and playwright who works seamlessly across cultures to highlight and facilitate discourse and interchange through his work. Among his plays are: Waiting for Gilgamesh: Scenes from Iraq, Stuck, and The Widow. Al-Azraki is the co-editor and co-translator of Contemporary Plays from Iraq.

Reconciliation Can Only Be Achieved by Action

grahpic of black plants with red flower buds on yellow background

By Katherine Nixon with Justin Boehringer

Artwork by Bitty

“I still remember the smell of the cold metal inside the float plane. It took me far away from home and I was never the same after that”. There was a long silence. In a broken voice, the speaker went on, “They took my culture, they took my language, they took me from my family, my people, the animals, my land, everything I knew and loved.” In a sharing circle of other residential school survivors, this man spoke his truth for the first time in a room filled with family members, health supports and the public.

“There is not a human being on this planet that does not yearn for the deep reconciliation of the human spirit” – Chief Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation

Residential Schools were government- sponsored institutions run by churches with the primary purpose to integrate or assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream Christian, Euro-Canadian culture. It is estimated that 150,000 children were brought to residential schools, and 6,000 died as a result. Children were isolated, their culture disparaged, and removed from their homes, parents, and siblings. The school separated them by gender; many times the children were pulled apart from their siblings and friends. They were forced to speak English and punished for speaking their native tongue, even when writing letters to their family. The agenda to “kill the Indian in the child” and to colonize every aspect of their being began from the very moment they stepped foot into the schools.

Residential schools violated the children by cutting their hair, taking away a very crucial part of their identity. Traditional clothes were also taken, the children were given uniforms and new colonial names. The children of residential schools had their whole identity stolen by colonialism. They were forced to observe Christian practices while being told that their own traditional practices were savage and that their family was going to hell. Children were subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, causing decades of intergenerational trauma that is still seen today.

Truth and Reconciliation was a buzz phrase created by the government as a measuring stick for their attitude toward Indigenous people. We see the government constantly vocalize their apologies; but when it comes to reconciliation, actions speak much louder than words. While Justin Trudeau has Indigenous art and headdresses hanging in the background of his speeches next to the Canadian flag, the government is currently embattled in a lawsuit for denying survivors of residential schools reparation money as they only attended during the day. Known as Day Scholars, First Nations, Métis and Inuit who were forced, as children, to attend these schools say they suffered atrocities similar to those who went full-time. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, has paid more than a total of $5-billion to residential school survivors.  Claiming it was “never that Canada never intended to ‘eradicate Aboriginal languages, culture, identity, or spiritual practices’” through the institutions. Denying experiences and harm caused by the colonial government and cherry picking who they deem worthy of their meaningless apologies. In this so-called “era” of reconciliation, it is quite troubling that Indigenous people are still being told their experiences weren’t valid or real and that a colonial government is going to dictate if their experiences at a residential school were traumatic or not.

Now, Indigenous lead organizations across Canada are actively leading initiatives to help heal their communities post-cultural genocide.

Spear-headed by Jo-Anne Gottfriedson, who was sexually abused by a priest as a child during her time at Kamloops Indian Residential School, Justice For Day Scholars is an initiative that is helping Day Scholars to be acknowledged as survivors and to validate their experiences, by moving forward to try and heal by getting some compensation and recognition. They want Canada to provide a large enough settlement for the bands where that money is put in trust. Then the bands decide what specific programs it needs to help their community. Over 100 bands have joined  the lawsuit, and it is set to go to trial in April 2019.

In British Columbia, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society has provided services to survivors for over 20 years. Originally focused on assisting with litigation processes for residential school survivors, the IRSSS has expanded to provide education services to Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks alike. The IRSSS is governed by a board of direct or intergenerational survivors from six regions of BC, and is supported by a staff of 20 professionals and 17 Elders who provide Cultural Support, most of whom are either Indian Residential School Survivors or Intergenerational Survivors. They provide culturally appropriate counselling and traditional healing done by a team of 17 Elders, as well as having a hotline for Residential School Survivors to call 24/7 and offer counselling services.  

Chanie Wenjack, misnamed by residential school teachers as Charlie Wenjack, was an Anishinaabe boy born January 19, 1954 in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve. In 1963, at the age of nine, Chanie was sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school in Kenora, Ontario. In 1966, at 12 years old, Chanie ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey in an attempt to reunite with his family, 600 kilometers away. Nine other students ran away the same day, but were all captured within 24 hours. Chanie’s body was found beside the railway tracks on October 22, 1966, a week after he escaped the school. He had succumbed to starvation and exposure. He had nothing but a little glass jar with several matches in his coat pocket. He fell victim to Canada’s legacy of colonization of Indigenous people; this was the end for Chanie but a birth to a legacy of healing.


Justin Boehringer, the Education Associate, who is a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation at the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack organization, said that the foundation is an Indigenous-led non-profit organization whose main purpose is to educate about the true intergenerational trauma caused by the schools. They use Chanie’s story as a way to show what has taken place to the children of the First Nations. When asked about how Canadians are doing in terms of Reconciliation today, Justin  said, “I always like to say in terms of Reconciliation, Canadians are doing much better than yesterday but not as good as tomorrow. We’ve come a long way but have so much further to go. Right now, too many people see reconciliation as something that is optional or just a trend; in fact, it is every Canadian’s responsibility. It needs to become something that is normalized and not just an event. So, to get where reconciliation is a part of everyday life, we still have a long way to go.” He was then asked, “How can we create reconciliation?” and responded, “The Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s definition of Reconciliation is: ‘Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.’ In order for that to happen there has to be an awareness of the past, an acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.” He listed some examples of what real Reconciliation looks like:

i) Honouring Treaties

ii) Acknowledging and letting go of the negative perceptions and stereotypes

iii) Acknowledging the past and ensuring that history never repeats

v) Learning about Indigenous history

vi) Recognition and support of the deep connections Indigenous Peoples have to the land

vii) Supporting the reclamation of identity, language, culture and nationhood

Chanie’s story is representative of the story of thousands of other residential school victims. His death in 1966 sparked national attention and the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools, prompting ethical and moral questioning of the institutions’ culturally oppressive and abusive environments. Wenjack became a symbol of resistance to the power of Colonization in Canada.

In conclusion, Justin’s message to others is to realize that we can move forward in the right direction from this story by understanding that, although this is just one story of one boy at one school, it is representative of thousands of Indigenous children and each of their own unique stories. Learning about Chanie’s story is a great first step towards reconciliation that can inspire people to learn and do more. They ask people to not stop there; let Chanie’s story open your heart to more learning and action. The right direction is different for every person because everyone is at a different spot on their learning journey. The organization is always open to educate and encourages others to look into the tools they provide to help create the change they wish to see.


Justin Boehringer is a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation.  After having completed the Indigenous Teacher Education Program (NITEP), he worked as a teacher in the Surrey School District in BC teaching English Language Learners and taking on the role of Aboriginal Advocate teacher. He is now an Education Associate at The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund as an Education Associate.

Katherine Nixon is the unassuming attendant of St James highschool by day, but in her spare time is a hell raising humanitarian. She has spent a lot of her life volunteering and advocating for human and non-human animal rights. Her work includes organizing solidarity events, creating relief packages for Refugees, winter-survival kits for Guelph’s homeless, and spending time volunteering at Hope House.

Black and White portrait of Bitty close mouth smiling with arms raised in a black shirt. They have on glasses and dark lipstick

My name is Bitty. I am two-spirit and I make art. I have maternal Coast Salish roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed Irish, French and Euro ancestry. The art I contributed about Matriarch Camp is a piece I drew to fundraise to sustain camp and out of a deep respect and gratitude to Ma’amtagila grandmother Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas and the young matriarchs, warrior womxn and salmon protectors who hold the space that is Matriarch Camp.