Relationship Tools

blue illustration of old school key

By Erica Horechka

Alot of the content of the ideas behind this comes from resources used in the groups I run it is somewhat specific to romantic partners but can be applies to any kind of relationship. Its pretty practical but for me I cant start thinking about it without contemplating some of the above stuff. Also, I suck at this shit, and usually fall for people who also do, but I can tell you the consequences are dire if you don’t think about this stuff/develop your own tools around conflict etc, Obviously these tools aren’t the only or best but upon reflection, I know if I could use them more often, or if my partners did, my relationships would look allot more healthy.

Self talk

Self talk is extremely important in every aspect of life, especially in relationships. Self talk is the little (often BIG) ‘voice’ inside our heads (or hearts or where ever), and doesn’t always communicate in words. Self talk isn’t simply feelings, or reaction. It does however lead to feelings and actions, but also can be in response to feelings. It’s what you tell yourself about what’s happening, about yourself about others or about an interaction. It makes up your inner dialogue. It affects how you communicate with others, how you experience events/situations/other people’s actions, what actions you take, and what conclusions you come to. You can communicate with your self-talk, learn to hear it, learn when your self talk is throwing you ropes, and when to avoid picking them up. Interventions and communication with your self talk is always possible, but rarely easy.

Conflict

In every relationship there is topics that are conflictual, there are things we need to say to each other that are going to cause fights, that are going to be triggering, cause defensiveness and just all around suck.

When having conflict, it is very important to think about your ‘goals,’ intentions and hopeful outcomes. This will guide how you act, how the person you’re in relationship with will act and how both of you will experience the conflict, and obviously the ultimate result of the conflict. It also shaped your self talk. This will also effect the ‘dance’ or dynamic of the relationship in a broader context.

If your goals/intentions or hopeful outcomes of a conflict involve winning, being heard, getting your way or proving your right, your going to act in abusive ways. These are often goals we have in conflict, be honest with yourself, it is okay if those are your gut goals, it’s common; but not helpful. Even a goal like ‘I want my partner to know they fucked up and I am so hurt’ can be problematic. It’s very common for folks (I do it ALL the time) to feel the most important thing in that moment is having your feelings heard, (sounds reasonable enough, I know) but it leads to allot of abuse. Take time and space in that moment your partner may have more urgent needs than hearing your feelings. Here is where you need to learn to locate your container, your partner is NOT a vessel to hold your feelings and its not on them to alway be there to listen or take. I have been emotionally abusive because I felt like my partner was that..

There is all sorts of other intentions in conflict that can get in the way of healthy dynamics, for example avoiding conflict! Be gentle with yourself though!! Don’t beat yourself up if this doesn’t come natural. There is lots of reason why this doesn’t come natural (see earlier article). Be careful to not fall into the trap of self hate.

A helpful tool that I have learnt which has aided me in processing conflict, through the acronym PADESI:

Prepare – Engage yourself

Figure out what it is you want to communicate, what you feel and why you feel that way. In order to do this, you have to sit with some of those feelings and notice if they change, splash around in the container inside us that holds are feelings, don’t let it spill out into the other person, get to know the content. Set the stage for conflict inside of you. Note your self talk and engage with it in loving, kind, and reflective ways. Figure out your needs, why those are your needs and what feelings and thoughts go with your needs? Sort out your bottom line in the context of the conflict and what you are and aren’t okay with and why that may be. Also consider if what you’re asking for/communicating is reasonable, take into consideration the other person’s feelings (dont assume or take responsibility for them, but think about them) and prepare to communicate without the intention of winning. Note that you may hear things that you don’t want to, or are prepared for and try to prepare for being angry/big emotions.

Ask

Ask if this is a good time to chat, or just let the person know you need to make plans to chat and be prepared to hear no, don’t push if they say not right now. They may act defensively and remember that they haven’t had time to prepare yet, let them do stuff from step one. If they say not now, but then you two end up talking about it anyways, try and stop! Stick true to your and the other person’s gut boundaries; don’t work out of desperation.

Describe

Try and be somewhat objective here, talk about the facts, and try not to be loaded i.e “you don’t want to spent time with me, you went out four times this week without me, I’m so fucking hurt and sad.” vs “you say you’re going to go out tonight, this week you went out three times with out me” remember the goal here isn’t to just have your feelings heard/find evidence for the story you have told yourself (in this case that your the person doesn’t care about your feelings/doesn’t wanna spend time with you) it’s to let them know what the conversation is about and to present the facts. The idea here is present the facts (avoid words like always/never) first and then emotions next.

Express

Tell them your thoughts, feelings and hopes. The other person isn’t in your mind. But still don’t be accusatory. I.E “I miss you and like spending time with you. I get scared/feel like you don’t wanna be around me when you go out all the time without me, it’s hard and I feel neglected. whats up?” vs “You always go out without me, you are neglecting me, your making me feel hurt, you don’t miss me or care.”Own your feelings and as basic as it sounds use I statements. What kinda self-talk goes along with the above two examples? if you dont prepare for this, and enguage with your self talk before expressing, it may not work that well and may lead to fights/abuse.

Specify

Say what you would like to happen, but make sure you ask, be clear and intentional and not vague. Again be prepared to hear no and compromise. i.e “I was hoping we could spend tonight together”

Invite

Invite the other person to respond. Ask; what do you think? not threatening, but opening it up for feedback/comprise.

This may sound idealistic and basic, but it is a useful framework when and it is useful when you want to bring something up try to go step by step with this. You have to check yourself talk at every stage in conflict and listen to where your thoughts are going – challenge your thoughts. Your thoughts and feelings are not a run-away train, as soon as you name them and talk to them, they often become more manageable.

A few other tips for yourself;

  • You may not understand the other person’s reasoning, ideas or what they need to do, but don’t be critical of it, don’t tell someone their way of thinking is wrong.
  • Remember you can learn from them, there is lessons they can help you find; even if the reality is they where in the wrong/they caused you harm.
  • Ask for clarification if you don’t understand/think you do but aren’t sure
  • If you don’t get the response you want, don’t push for it. (member the goals and intentions of conflict)
  • be aware of how your body feels, our bodies tell us allot. Are you hot, cold, shaky etc. what’s your body telling you, do you need a break? to eat? to cry alone?
  • set a time to fight that both people are happy about and STICK TO IT
  • keep to the subject, don’t bring up past differences in the middle of a conversation. its ok to say I am triggered or reminded, but why are you bringing that up, talk it out with yourself first and be intentional.

Time Outs

This may seem incredibly obvious, but I think it’s something a lot of folks don’t practice, or at least don’t practice well, as it involves some often ignored pre-planning. Knowing when to take a time out involves being aware of your cues of anger/big feelings (not every escalates manifests as anger right away, I escalate in sadness/abandonment/fear so i’ve learnt my cues for those big feelings before they move to anger or before i start saying things ina  unhelpful way. On a side note I hate the saying; ‘don’t say things you don’t mean’ cause honestly you often mean the shit you say, i.e I AM PISSED THIS RELATIONSHIP SUCKS, YOUR A ASSHOLE you sure as hell may mean that, doesn’t mean you should say it). You learn your cues to use time outs. We all need space, and time to engage in our own self-talk. The saying “don’t go to bed angry” leads to a large amount of abuse. It is a sentiment of desperation centered in the inability to sit with your own stuff. It’s actually very harmful to think you need to in that moment when you are angry or upset, deal with it.

  A very important part of time-outs is setting a plan ahead of time, decide how you’re going to communicate you need one. Do this now, not when in conflict/escalated! It can be a hand single, a word, a sentence, whatever. Just make sure its pre-planned. Discuss ahead of time what a time out means; how long you’re going to be taking a time-out for, where you are going to go/what you’re going to do so no one is left guessing/fearing what is happening/feeling abandoned. Make sure you set a time for when you’re going to talk next. A time out is NOT punishment for either person; no one should be left wondering when or if they are going to hear from the person again. It’s fine to decide you need more than a hour but if you say you’re going to check in after a hour, make sure you do! When you leave for your time out do not do any verbal or physical gestures, don’t say anything, or slam the door, if you know you need a timeout end of conversation; no more points to be made or emotions to express! It’s ideal to not use substances (alcohol and other drugs) to distract yourself or call any friends during this time, and if you’re going to call someone make sure it’s not someone who isn’t going to challenge you/isn’t just going to console you/confirm the other person is a asshole.   

Things that are damaging to relationships

All or nothing thinking: Often we are fast to respond in conclusions, we struggle to sit in uncertainty, we struggle to not make huge conclusions, finding meaning is hard and sometimes we can’t immediately understand our own or other people’s actions so we grasp using all or nothing thinking. This happens fast, and it happens inside our head and also out loud to the people we are talking to, sometimes it involves our own ideas about ourselves (i.e we fuck up once and decide we are a total failure) or in regards to other people’s actions and the conclusions we draw based on our own feelings. The more in tune though we our feelings, where they’re coming from and so on, the less likely we are going to do this. Try and catch yourself in this, check your thoughts/conclusions and words, are they statements or ideas/feelings and are you interacting with them as facts? We all struggle to hold our fears, triggers feelings or assumptions as just that, but if we validate them as feelings. Also using absolutes like: “you never do this, or I always do that” outloud or in your head is always going to cause strife and is probably not true and just makes the other person want to prove us wrong.

Mental filter

Obviously we aren’t objective in the way we experience our relationships, that’s fine. But it’s important to note what kinds of filters we often have so we can check them and maybe expand our experiences/interpretations. Do you only hear or remember the negatives or the positives? Do you focus on one details of an event instead of the lesson at hand? It’s like a single drop of dye in a clean glass of water if we do.

Our own stories

This is a BIG one . When we are listening and talking (both to the others and ourselves) are we merely trying to find evidence to support a story we think is true? Do we have a hypothesis i.e my partner loves someone else more; and constantly try and find proof for that, or twist events  to fit that story? What alternative stories are we blocking out when we do this? How are we treating ourselves and our partner with respect when this is what we are up to? What are we protecting when we do this? It becomes very hard to learn a new dance when we do this. Obviously it’s important to note themes, and watch out for hurtful behaviour, but the goal is to create new stories and dynamics!

Involved in this is mind reading  and fortune telling; you fear or think something is going to turn out bad/the person is going to act in a certain way, so you decide that’s a fact rather than a fear or possibility.

Emotional Reasoning

You take your emotions as facts, don’t get me wrong trust your heart and your gut, but try not assume: you feel, therefore it is. You feel abandoned, therefore your partner abandoning you.

Should statement

You can not motivate yourself or another person by saying ‘you should have, you must have, etc. This just results in guilt, anger and resentment.


Personalization

You see yourself as the cause of a negative outside event which you were not responsible for. i.e your partner doesn’t call, moves away, drops out of school, doesn’t cook dinner, falls in love with another person. Shit, it’s not always about you.


Erica is a high femme white queer lady living her days out in Guelph. She spends her time navigating her too big feelings, learning to support folks in unhealthy relationships/folks with abusive tendencies and trying to get to the bottom of things people say,do and think. You can find her nattering about joy, deep pain/unwellness and how cool it is that people have capacity to find new stories for themselves!

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.

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.

Handling the Unpredictable

a illustration of the left and right brain. the right side is more free flowing and made of swirls and the left side is more rigid with straight lines. the background is blue.

Loss, Grief & Taking Control of Your Emotional State in a Masters Program

By Rose Conlin

I have been working on a Masters degree for the last two years, and it has been a great experience. I say this because I am automatically inclined to love school. The goal/success oriented structure of it, though trying at times, has always provided me with enough stability to go on about my daily life fairly easily. Unfortunately, as many colleagues of mine tend to do in post secondary education, we begin to perceive our education as the only facet of our lives. Performing research for and writing a thesis is a big obligation; however it doesn’t need to be all consuming. Especially when there are so many other facets of life that are uncontrollable and can throw themselves at you chaotically without any warning.

We arrive to a common struggle among Masters students, students; really anyone who is set upon a particular long term task and has difficulties finding balance with the other aspects of their lives. Last year (2018), the first year of my Masters program, was continuously plagued by personal life crises that were completely out of my control, for which I will present a brief and efficient list because that appears to be my best method of communication for this matter (as there is truly no way to accurately portray my feelings for this unfortunate series of events in any form of communication): in the beginning of the year my grandfather (closer akin to my father) passed away; my eldest brother attempted suicide for the first time around that same time, and again, and again, later throughout the year; my horse fractured his leg and I eventually had to make the decision to have him put down, after twelve years of having him in my life; the night before he was put down, I almost died in a car accident. After he was put down, I discovered another brother was attempting suicide and making reckless life choices. Surely you can see that these life events were an immediate distraction from my task of writing a Masters thesis.

And yet throughout this, I continued to try to work, research, and write. I continued to grow more deeply rooted in this systemic disappointment with myself and my inability to produce good work. I was so obsessed with grinding away at academic success that when each of these events took place, the levels of depression, anxiety, and this constant dread for terrible news, death, and dismay grew and grew. Eventually I snapped, after the events of my car accident and my horse’s passing.

There is an excellent way that people have described intense depression and loss: before you lost whatever it was that was dear to you, the world was colourful and vivid… but after loss, you lose any notion of the colour that makes that world so vivid. Your presence is physical, and you are aware of your surroundings but only at a basic level of function; engagement, enjoyment, and energy… they are all gone. Attempting to write a Masters thesis while this snap from life happens is truly a feat that I don’t think anyone could effectively accomplish- at least I know that I could not. I stopped my writing, I stopped my research,  I contacted my advisor and asked for an informal break from schooling to prioritize my mental health.

Unfortunately, even when I did begin working again, which was only a month after my accident, I was not mentally prepared to tackle the task ahead of me. The best way to describe this is that I was still in that discoloured state of mind. Yet the pressure that I perceived was upon me to perform constantly ate away at my confidence, self-esteem, and overall mental state. Because of this, the depression and anxiety became more and more consuming as time went on. Why? Simple- I wasn’t allowing myself to heal. I wasn’t giving myself lenience in the steps that I needed to take to heal. I wasn’t recognizing the validity of my emotions. It is truly incredibly the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to succeed academically.

Fast forward three months later. It was November and I was sick of feeling horrible and worthless about my inability to meet my academic expectations. I began to recognize the cycle that I was a part of – grieving over my losses, attempting to perform while being consumed by that grief, and grieving more over my perceived “inability” to perform effectively – and I broke it. Or at least the part related to school. That is the funny thing about grief; it never goes away, but you do learn how to manage it with time. However, the unhealthy cycle that happens when you are unable to fulfill your own high expectations is something that can be worked with. I began to recognize where my disappointment and depression was stemming from, and addressed it head on. I set a lighter schedule for myself, and more realistic deadlines so that I could ease back into research while addressing my own grief. To start this all on a positive note, I scheduled my tentative research trip to the Netherlands and used that as a great opportunity for a fresh start.

In the last three months since recognizing my cycle with depression and creating a realistic plan to resolve the issues that were in my control, I am proud to say that I have been able to focus once again on my research. Mind you, I often have minor episodes of doubt, insecurity, or ill thoughts towards my productivity. However, I do not allow them to consume me as they did before.Without such high expectations for production, I have found that my work is steadily improving in quality and quantity as time goes on. Being able to regain control over the academic facet of my life after my high expectations doomed me to such crippling depression and anxiety is a feat of strength that I can very easily say I am proud of.

What I learned from this experience is that life has a tendency to throw curve balls from every and any angle, and they will always be unexpected to some extent. I have also learned that in our daily work, goals, hobbies, and passions, we often hold ourselves to unrealistically high standards that we could never possibly succeed in reaching because they are created by us as a means to constantly improve. This perception can be very unhealthy if not kept in check; especially in times when loss, trauma, or tragedy happens and you must now juggle ten pressures instead of one, it is better to recognize your high expectations and inhibit their ability to tamper with your emotions more than life already is. School isn’t everything, don’t let your inability to perform in it while you are grieving or suffering in any way further consume your wellbeing.

Rose Conlin is currently enrolled in an MA in Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Guelph. Although her life goal is to become a professor, Rose also enjoys spending her time reading fantasy novels, painting, playing the Legend of Zelda, and having bubble baths.

A Journey Home

painting of a silhoutte of person rowing in a lake. the skies are pink and redish and the lake is purple and blueish

The Decolonizing Work of Nancy Rowe

By Xicohtencatl Maher Lopez with Nancy Rowe

It was with this idea that Giidaakunadaad, or Nancy Rowe, a Mississauga, Ojibwe, Bear Clan Kwe of the Anishinaabek Nation, founded Akinomaagaye Gaamik, also known as the Lodge of Learning. Akinomaagaye Gaamik is a grassroots initiative with a mission that began with the intention of bringing back culture to the people living on the Mississaugas of the New Credit reservation and other Indigenous peoples. The lodge also strives to educate not only Indigenous people, but all peoples who are interested in learning about Indigenous ways of knowing, of doing, of living, of history, of health and the environment. Akinomaagaye Gaamik began in response to a lack of access to cultural knowledge and teachings on her home reservation of New Credit, but stems from a twenty-five year journey of coming home to a culture that, thanks to colonialism and assimilation, was taken from her as it was from many other people on New Credit reservation.

“The lodge is all about decolonizing. Learn our language, our history, so we can defend our grandfathers and grandmothers. Learn how to live a good life. The big philosophy and principles in Anishinaabe is to live a good life. We have laws that say this is what you do to live a good life. You be honest, be kind, you share, you be loving. You incorporate this into your life. It’s not a poster on the wall called seven grandfathers, its something inside your being that says this is how to conduct yourself, to be a good human while you’re here. The other big piece of that was bringing Creator. Nowhere in that western way did they bring in Creation as that ultimate teacher.”

New Credit reservation is a small reservation, and in Nancy’s words is “about 5 concessions big, it’s not much land at all. There’s no water here either.” Located in a far corner of it’s neighbour reservation, Six Nations, the Mississaugas of the Credit have lived on this reservation since 1847. When speaking on the reasons why Akinomaagaye Gaamik was built, Nancy told the story of Rita Montour, a woman from her reservation who was nearing a hundred years old before she passed. Nancy said, “Rita, did you ever go to a traditional funeral? Did you ever hear Anishinaabemowin? I was asking her all these questions because she’s a hundred years old, and she can tap another 100 years through her grandmother and great grandmother. And we moved here in 1847, so her memory could go back that far. And she said she had never witnessed any kind of ceremonies here at New Credit.” She explains how there are two lodges built, one that was built eighteen years ago in the form of a large, stretched out tipi in which ceremonies are often held, and the other a wooden roundhouse, and that these lodges,  together, bring culture and knowledge that has “never been seen here on New Credit.”

Nancy Rowe decided to do something about this lack of cultural knowledge on her home reservation. Six years ago, Nancy, her husband and other collaborators built the lodge with the intention of attracting Elders of the highest caliber to New Credit in order to provide a direct knowledge transfer between the Elders and those who came to learn. “People were so excited for the lodge they would come and work for food. I would cook all day and the carpenters would build all day. We started in February and had it [the lodge] up and operational by April.”

Akinomaagaye Gaamik attracts many different people— from young school children to deputy ministers from the Government— all seeking to learn more about Anishinaabe ways of life, of seeing, of doing. The lodge hosts programming such as cultural workshops, Moccasin project workshops, and traditional ceremonies. Nancy says, “With permission from elders I share a little culture with them [settlers], not to make them Anishinaabe but to show them just how intelligent Anishinaabe is … We have been working to really position Indigenous knowledge at a higher level.” According to her, education revitalizes ceremonies, and the lodge “gives people exposure to this other world … people call it ceremonies, but it really is education.”

When asked what other kinds of work needs to be done in order for Indigenous people to heal from colonization, Nancy stressed the importance of education being brought to Indigenous people once again. “When I was done my degree with poli-sci, I was pissed, man … I have spent 48 years living under colonial rule. I’m a card carrying Indian, every day of my life is determined by Indian affairs, so I was mad … My teachings say you can’t stay angry, you’ll get sick.”

“If 99% of them [canadians] are ignorant to our issues, I want to bring them out of that [ignorance]. I didn’t want to be aggressive and say hey you’re a colonizer, did you know? You’re reaping the benefits of my land that my grandfathers shared with you. My strategy was I’m gonna teach them the truth … There’s an entire body of people here, suffering.”

Nancy Rowe is also one of the founders of the Da-Giiwewaat (So They Can Go Home) Moccasin project, which seeks to “bring attention to the contemporary genocide that’s happening right now in this country”. Nancy is referring to the canadian child welfare system, and how nationwide the child welfare system disproportionately targets Indigenous families. She says, “The operating policy of the government of canada is genocidal. They still wanna get rid of the Indian … They are after the bigger picture, which is the land.” She then references the statistics in Manitoba which show that 11,000 children are currently in care, and 90% of these children are Indigenous, or statistics such as the one that says forty Indigenous babies are taken from Manitoba hospitals each month. She explains that when one reads these statistics and analyzes the way the system is structured, one realizes quickly that “Indigenous children in the welfare system are basic income units, they keep that ministry operating.”

“I don’t want child welfare to be like residential school. Residential schools operated for 175 years. Child welfare has been around since 1945.” she explains. The destructive, oppressive nature of the child welfare system is what lead Nancy, along with other Indigenous women like Colinda Clyne, to start the Moccasin project. Nancy’s idea was that if Indigenous children in the foster care system were gifted baby moccasins as something to take with them on their journey through foster care, that when they grew older they could begin to question why they had these moccasins, and that this curiosity could spark their journey home. Thus came the name, Da-Giiwewaat, So They Can Go Home. In foster care, very few Indigenous children are able to retain their culture, as it is a system likened to the residential schools, and is a continuation of the Sixties Scoop, seeking to severe the ties Indigenous children have with their culture, their traditional ways of knowing, their language, their land, and their family.

The Moccasin Project, like Akinomaagaye Gaamik, is a shining example of what true action towards reconciliation can look like. Nancy says that the project works closely with educators who seek to highlight the issues of the canadian child welfare system by bringing Moccasin making workshops to classrooms and even to entire schools across the country. The project also fosters new relationships with community based organizations who wish to also support the project, such as friendship centers or community health programs. “It’s doing what it was intended to do, which was raise awareness for child welfare,” says Nancy, who made a promise to Cora Morgan, a First Nations Family Advocate from Manitoba who showed Nancy the grim statistics from Manitoba, that “wherever I go, I’ll talk about this”.

The final question asked of Nancy was on what futures and possibilities she saw for healing in the wake of colonialism, to which she stressed the utmost importance of Indigenous people learning their language and culture. “We can’t even understand our own world yet without our language.” To Nancy, true reconciliation means “putting back what was taken. Period.”

“Everything was taken from us. Our land, our culture, our language. In education, the job of educators and the system is to create opportunity for native children to access their culture and language … Those priests and nuns didn’t have any pity when they were taking that language from our children. We should have no limitations on how much it is gonna take to put that back.”

The importance of education plays a big role in true decolonization and reconciliation according to Nancy, who says, “If one child in the whole school wants to learn their language, then we must do whatever it takes for them to learn.” Assisting each and every individual Indigenous youth is where the role of educators and of the school system appears, and Nancy says that educators should do everything in their power to fully support Indigenous children on their journey home to their culture.


Through her impressive work throughout her own 25 year long journey home, Nancy exemplifies the actions that are necessary to begin the journey of decolonization and reconciliation on Turtle Island. Akinomaagaye Gaamik, the Da-Giiwewaat project, and her own personal convictions and actions are what is desperately needed across the continent to achieve these goals of decolonization and reconciliation to birth a healing legacy. She says of reconciliation, “I really do not see the level of reconciliation that we are going to require in order to put things back to the way they were”. To put things back to the way they were is to heal the traumas, to bring back as much knowledge as possible that has been lost over the centuries, to support future Indigenous generations by building the structures that will be necessary to help each and every individual Indigenous person on this long journey home to their land, language, culture and self- all of which the work Nancy has accomplished has assisted. “Put it back the way it was- that’s reconciliation. Put it right.”

Giidaakunadaad (The Spirit Who Lives in High Places) n’dizhinikaaz (is my name): Nancy Rowe is a Mississauga, Ojibwe of the Anishinaabek Nation located at New Credit First Nation, ON. Nancy holds an honors BA in Indigenous Studies and Political Science. She is an educator, consultant and a Traditional Practitioner of Anishinaabek lifeway’s, views and customary practices and is currently completing a Master’s degree of Environmental Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo.

Xicohtencatl Maher is a 2spirited Tlaxcaltecan Nahua and Newfie, born in Mexico and living currently on Anishinaabek territory. He is an activist, artist, writer, escuincle and shit-disturber, and in his free time enjoys mixed martial arts and going out on the land.

Reclaiming myself within a sea of systemic sabotage

By Danielle Boissoneau

We didn’t just end up here. It’s taken hundreds of years to create the conditions that leave us drowning in our own fear and sorrow. The seas where we step on each other to get some air and relieve the drowning sensations of being in over our heads are slowly drying up.

We were thrown. Tossed aside fitfully from our places in the pines, where we would sit under shady stylings of trees, hundreds of years old, because our bodies are the land. They picked us up and tried to move the earthly beauty from its roots. They had to pull hard, you know, because roots like ours aren’t easily removed.

So, they started to call us names and turn the men against us and tell us that parts of our people weren’t people anymore. But that still didn’t work, so they started to steal our children. Sometimes our children are our mothers and sometimes we have to work even harder to reclaim the spaces between then and now, but every day is a site of intervention in the act of reclamation.

Because this sea has waves and tides that flow with violence and hurt. The systemic sabotage that we are living with are deliberate creations meant to drown us while we struggle to survive. Because we float with deliberate levels of care and compassion, because the currents that direct the seas are actually ours, let’s choose to reclaim our divine connections to the waters. With a breath of life-giving power, I’ll dive deep down into the sensuous sea that has been systemically designed for my demise.

These currents are ours, you know. And when I wind through the water with whispery intention, the flow of the water, the seas become mine. No longer, can the empty storms created by systems of sabotage control the way the waters flow. They’re ours again.

And when I hold that power in my hands, I know it’s not actually mine, but it’s something that I’m a part of, so with every sense of my being, I’m reclaiming my power by directing the currents of change. Refusing to wash ashore, I’ll ride the waves of discontent until it’s all swirled away and we can swim in harmony with each other once again.

It’s quite simple, you know. But not in a simplistic way because these systems are so strategically set in place. It’s when we know, and feel, and harmonize our power in connection with ourselves, with each other and with the land and the water that we become inextricably alive. When we dance, when we sing our lives into existence, when we rage against tumultuous tides, it is then that we reclaim our power and our freedom. 

These systems have nothing on us, let’s be real. Since my first ancestor descended from the skies, thousands of years since then, that power has run through our veins. So, don’t forget who you are. You come from somewhere. Hold the land and let the power run through your fingers and reclaim the erotic, life-giving power with dimensional grace and strength.

It’s already inside of us, We just have to do it.

Reclaim.


Danielle Boissoneau
Danielle Boissoneau is Anishnaabe kwe from Garden River, Ontario. She currently resides in Hamilton, Ontario where she enjoys smashing hetero-normative patriarchy while decolonizing her heart, mind, body and soul. Danielle is a walking contradiction.

The Crows have lots to talk about

dark line illustration of a crow mirroring itself.

by Joce Two Crows Tremblay

I am a Two Spirit Transgender-blender and I come from a Land of Crows.

I am a Great Lakes metis of hybrid ancestries, including Kenienke’haka ~ Mohawk, Odawa, Migma, French and Ashkenazi, that we know of.

I am white appearing. My body is a battleground of colonization.

I am also a lifelong E(art)hworker and Land/Water Defender.

My Spirit name is Tékeni Tsó:ka’we Mashkikii Bimosewin ~ Two Crows Medicine Walker, a name in Kenienke and Anishnaabe moen. When Elder Blu Waters saw those Two Crows that day in the Sacred Fire held at Six Nations of the Grand River, her Tobacco offering yielded a name true to my core. So too, when Elder Ma-Nee Chacaby gifted me the Responsibility of taking on Medicine Walker, though scared to Hold it, I carry the significance with me deeply.

I was born (with my identical twin) a few minutes away from the place where Chief Tecumseh was slain in his final “rebellion” to resist land theft, and where the river of Crows flows incessantly. It might be the GMO, conventional industrial “Corn”, growing as far as the eye can see, that draws the Crows from far and wide. But they are also Birds of Death, respected (if feared) among many First Nations, as communicators with the Spirit world, and South Western Ontario is a Ghostland. The Ecocide that erased the Great Woodlands and Wetlands of the Great Lakes basin, as well as the Onkweonhwe, has haunted my life.

So the Crows have lots to talk about.

For one, our Relative O:nentse ~ Corn, the eldest of the Three Sisters of our Sustenance, for which the Haudenosaunee have held seasonal ceremonial dances and songs, has become a zombie like plant in the monopoly of Capitalist Agri-business. Adding insult to injury, these Longhouse people whose Ancestral bones lay beneath the ground, also brought O:nentse to this territory.

Who is singing to that Corn now?

This is an example of how the Land is held hostage within the dominating empire of settler “property”. Indigenous peoples once had freedom of movement like the seeds, flocks and herds. Colonial thought conditioned many to believe that relationship to the Land is dirty (in a bad way), stigmatizing the Peasantry aka peoples of the Land. In the so-called nation of Canada, only .01% of the total landmass is held in Reserve for Treaty Indians, which combined, cannot even fill one Navaho reserve (Bonita Lawrence). This reflects how much the state depends on stolen Native Land for its economy, all the “Free” Trade agreements considered, for the extraction and export of our natural resources. Severance of connection with Land, has been an insidious tool of colonial oppression, employed across the whole planet.

 

“Sell a country? Why not sell the air, the clouds, and the great sea, as well as the earth? Did Great Spirit not create them for the use of all our children?”

– Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

Europeans had already 700 years of blood on their hands, for the recorded torture of 11 million Witches (The Inquisition), primarily of women and non-conforming peasantry. This approach to implementing dominion through Christianity, was applied here on Turtle Island via the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, used similarly to disempower our Clan Mothers, Medicine & Two Spirit peoples (‘Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture’, Arthur Evans). Suffering from displacement, epidemics and all out warfare, First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples showed incredible resilience in retaining their Spiritual Teachings. That said, it cannot be underestimated how severely intergenerational traumas are still grieved. From broken Treaties to the Indian Act, the Stolen Sisters to the Residential school system, Sixties Scoop to MMIW (Missing Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls & 2S)… Native youth have tremendous weight on their shoulders, leading them to be among our most vulnerable. Loss of connection to Land, is also loss of culture (Cultural Genocide), as our Indigenous Knowledge base, languages and Ceremonies are all derived from relationship with the Land.

I had the Blessing of being raised on a working multigenerational small-scale family-run ecological farm, but didn’t realize how rare an upbringing it actually was. My mother and her Migma metis father both grew up there. Nearby is my father’s family farm. A descendant of rebel-rouser Chief Pontiac and of longtime Paysannat (French peasant) heritage, his father, my Pepe, is a proud farmer. His Mohawk metis mother is a bad-ass gardener, crafter, fisher-woman and bingo player. A Medicine woman in her own right, I learned a lot from her.  As a young Queer, gender non-conforming farm kid, in a fairly strict Christian society, wandering on the Land was literally my escape from suffocating alienation. My most favourite playground, on the Land is where I observed some of the most critical teachings in my life, such as diversity, inter-relation, synthesis, cycles, humility, transformation and Majïk in general. These experiences gave me the space to believe I deserved to exist in my body. Not to mention the true wonder of being held by a tree. The thing is, I’ve never felt judged by a tree, insect or any Relative, other than humans (though a squirrel or two have seemed to jeer at me). I recognize the blessing, all the more now that I live in the big city of Tkaronto.

 

“They came with their religion, stole our Land, crushed our spirit, and now they tell us we should be thankful to the lord for being saved”

– Pontiac, Odawa Chief

 

In the Creation Story, Atahensic ~ Skywoman fell from the sky, to the water world below, and in the ensuing heroic work of our animal friends, Turtle Island came to be. I’ve learned to respect through the various tellings of this story, that we humans are the youngest of all the Relatives. There’s of course Grandmother Moon, Brother Sun and all those Elder Relatives of the Cosmos. We owe a great deal to those oldest on Earth, the minerals, who over millennia were eroded by the elements, namely the great Winds of the Four Directions (East, South, West, North) and became the life providing substance we now know as Soil. Then came the micro-organisms, the plants, the animals (two & four legged, winged and finned) and lastly we Humans. In the Original Instructions which we adopted as the youngest, human people are meant to be Stewards of the Land. While we cannot eat oil-petrol, most adults today are aware of the term peak-oil, yet few have grasped the urgency of peak-Soil. Industrial malpractice has caused vast desecration/degradation of soil ecology, resulting in the loss of fertility across large tracts. Disturbed soil tends to be taken up by opportunistic non-native plant volunteers, who easily become noxiously invasive “weeds”. But one person’s weed is another’s salad, or Medicine, and pushing back gently against those dominant, out of balance plant Relatives, is a great metaphor and practice. As Treaty People, which we all are, we are subject to upholding those agreements. One of the earliest such on this territory, between the Haudenoshaunee and the Anishnaabe, was the Dish With One Spoon Wampum belt. This covenant illustrated that the Land and its resources are to be shared by all, and that when the bowl comes around, you take what you need, but always be sure there’s enough for others. Also, always keep the Dish clean. This is one of the ways I understand the concept of Right Relations, and not just with regards to our human relatives.

On my family farm we’ve been working for 30 years to leverage what resources we could, towards ecological restoration, with slow, but ever growing success. We’ve seen the return of hundreds of plants, insects and animal Relatives, most notably Osprey, Badger and Beaver. These might seem like little accomplishments, but healing overflowing grief is a life’s work. Elsewhere in the region, the few remaining Relatives are in a constant struggle for survival, trying to retain their habitats, under threat of ongoing human “developments”.

I’ve often pleaded with Humanity, into the night sky, “for the love of all things Sacred”?!

Our stories have been silenced, but not fully taken from us. When we practice our Ceremonies, especially on the Land directly, we can download with our Ancestors, our Blood Memory helping us to potentially channel our inherent Gifts, live in Right Relations and find our path in Bimaadiziwin ~ The Good Way (Zainab Amadahy). As a young adult I came to this city to study art, a vehicle to break the silence and come out of the closet. My transferable skills were tied to agrarian experience, so I worked in urban and near-urban ecological agriculture. I put in 5 years with a Holistic Master Gardener, co-created intergenerational community gardens across the city, stewarded the Spiral Garden with kids of all divergent abilities, studied permaculture and became a certified Organic Master Gardener.

Though I frequently found that it harmed my social status to identify myself as an E(art)hworker especially in the Art world, my social location did improve greatly. I’ve found a wondrous chosen family among QTBIPOC community, specifically those witchy ones who also find Sanctuary in the Natural world.

For the past 3.5 seasons I’ve been Stewarding Mashkikii;aki’ing ~ Medicine Earth, a Medicine Wheel Garden on an old Oak Savanah ridge, known as Gete Onigaming ~ Old Portage, running North along Davenport rd. There’s a real presence there. Primarily I’m digging into Indigenous Land Sovereignty with community members from organizations such as NaMeRes / Sagatay, Anduhyaun / Nekenaan, the Native Learning Center, Native Women’s Resource Center and Naadmagit Ki Group, to name a few. We grow Native food crops, like the Ancestral Three Sisters (Corn, Beans, Squash). Various  Medicinal plants, like the four Sacred Medicines (Tobacco, Cedar, Sweetgrass, Sage). We wildcraft / forage. We also grow seedlings that we distribute into community for Medicine gardens and for Native plant eco-restoration. This community based work has revealed the threads of an extensive spider web of Spirit. Aiming towards inclusive, accessible, safer and culturally appropriate E(art)hworking, with some of our most marginalized Indigenous people, I’ve seen just how Restorative this field of work can be. We practice Honourable Harvest (Robin Wall Kimmerer), share Stories, Knowledge, Ceremonies, Ancestral seeds, meals, Medicines and subtle strategies for shedding grief.

Decolonizing the heart and mind is no simple task. ReIndigenizing the Land, returning Native plant Relatives in order to create the habitats conducive to greater life, is the work of those who wish to Hear the Land, even the hungry ghosts. Collectively and collaboratively, through Indigenous governance, self-determination and non-pyramidal power structures, we can reclaim space. In fact, the more this work takes place, the more interest there is in restoring Land into Indigenous stewardship. I fully agree that ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ can only go so far, if Land isn’t Returned (Taiaiake Alfred). I hope in my lifetime to see Manoomin ~ Wild Rice growing in the re-established wetland borders throughout our extensive watershed, but until that time, we’ll know the waters aren’t healthy, because the rice will only grow where the water is clean enough, a marker of how far our work must go.

If any of this has resonated with you, please make an offering of Sema ~ Tobacco, our first Sacred Medicine, to the Land, in exchange.

Nia:weh, chi Miigwetch


 

joce tremblay
Joce Two Crows Tremblay is a two spirit, Great Lakes métis, artist, activist, night walkers, wonder wanderer, tree holder and lifelong e(art)hworker, co-creating in Tkaronto communities for nearly two decades.

Dear Inninew: A Birth Story Across ‘Indian Time’ and Space

from the series: On Birth in the North: Reflections of Healing and Reclamation

by ᓂᐱ (Alyssa Gagnon)

Above: Moosehide vulva; culturally appropriate teaching tool for midwives educators across the spectrum. 

Dear inninew,

I’m combining modern clinical practice and traditional setting. Letting go of divides, solidifying my ability, and registering my capability in the eyes of governing body and adhering to institutional policy. But what about our actual bodies? Scarred. Brown. Lighter brown and white because of travelling men and a lady with a crown across the sea. Birth belongs on the aski (land). But the norm is evacuation between 36 & 38 weeks gestation and neglect of sacred location.

Flying out like niskwak (geese) only to leave other awasisak (children) with who? The pass system forced you to stay, confinement for birth takes you away, residential schools took the Indian out of the child, now CAS takes children away from the Indian. Currently caught between grannies and professors.

I’ll show you and them that I can make this better. A responsibility to protect the water – both outside on the land and inside of the wombs across reproductive spectrum. Proper risk assessment and ceremony – including medicines and the drum. I promise our conversations about ab[use] and substance use won’t drag on; I’m supposed to tell you that it’s poison, but how can I tell you that when the water you drink can’t be purified by boiling? Leaving for confinement – isn’t that prison? You sit there silent and compliant, while I write shit down [document] and make some calls because it’s a requirement. Well *@$& that. Let us be peacefully defiant because inninew you now have a choice. Our parents, grandpas and grannies didn’t though. Dragged to those schools and promised a good life, inninew please listen to my voice. Let’s get through this one together. It will build and then it will go. Just like those schools got built on land that we call home. Your cervix will open and memories of doors closing and schools burning will fly. Let’s get this baby to cry. Create our body parts out of moose hide and practice beading (suturing) on foam so that I can impress my preceptor and that kookom (grandma) who lives and breathes beads, and waves her bingo dabber in the air as she screams. I’m trying to plant seeds, restore and amplify our Cree laughter in this cold room. Our families aren’t broken, but the land I am learning on is still stolen. Remember that people are trying, and I’ll try to respectfully be outspoken. Somewhere along the east coast of the James Bay, my voice was ripped when bodies and minds were stripped. We still aren’t their prey and they don’t get to have say. I’m through with that shit. I’ll keep talking. I’ll keep listening. I’ll keep praying too – but not with my hands together and down on my knees like so many black robes told us to do. Inninew I’m telling you, just keep doing you. It’s your life. I’ll just palpate and auscultate the fetal heart rate, and call myself a midwife [one day].


Alyssa Gagnon
Alyssa’s spirit name is nipi (water). Her family is from the James Bay and she grew up on Taykwa Tagamou (New Post) territory. She is a First Nation Studies graduate from Western University, a third year student in the Midwifery Education Program here at Ryerson, an artist, and a mother to two young children.

Speaking the Ancestors’ Names: An Interview with Obeah Opera

By Savannah Clarke 

Obeah Opera is a hand clapping, foot stomping, spirit lifting, magical musical sensation. Steeped in Black music, sung entirely a cappella by a powerful all-female cast, Obeah Opera is a retelling of the legendary Salem witch trials from the fascinating perspective of Caribbean slave women. It is a ground-breaking dramatic work that redefines the traditional opera form by moving away from its European classical standard and using an array of different musical genres mainly found in what is termed ‘Black’ music such as spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, traditional African, Caribbean Folk, Calypso, ska, R&B and reggae (taken from www.obeahopera.com).

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of hearing some excerpts of Obeah Opera. After feeling connected to the stories I watched on stage, I caught up with Nicole to hear more about the Salem Witch Trials, what inspired her to do Obeah Opera and the spiritual aspects they entail.

Nicole: A few factors were happening, it was around 2008 where I was investigating my spirituality. Since I work in film and television, I was on the road with a crew and a crewmember came to my room to ask something and he saw that I was burning a candle and that I had incense and water. So when he saw all of that, he went back and rumors spread that he called me a witch. Instead of freaking out I said to myself: that’s really interesting. In this day and age, people are asking me “are you a practicing witch?” So, that was one of the stems where I thought it was really interesting. Also, at that time I was investigating African spirituality and looking more within my cultural roots and/or the Caribbean and/or African spirituality. Just learning and discovering.

I would say that was the catalyst for me, outside of a few people encouraging me to write for stage. I am really committed to telling Black women’s stories. I’ve always said it’s really important we have writers. Creators of content, [who are] creating work. So it was a combination of things and with all of those things happening it was very serendipitous for me to stumble upon researching witches more and of course eventually the Salem Witch Trials came up, which was the most famous witch trials in the America’s. As well, the name Tituba came up. Tituba was made famous through the play The Crucibles by Arthur Miller. She was the first Black slave accused at the Salem Witch Trials. She was from Barbados. I thought that was huge! How did we just bypass that? It’s written in history. It’s referenced a lot but then she’s forgotten. So I started to do more research and what I discovered was, yes indeed Tituba was a slave from Barbados who was brought to Salem and that there were more Black women in the Puritan town. This is real historical facts… Although, there weren’t that much written about them, TItuba had the most information and her testimonial was also transcribed. The testimonials of a couple of Black women were also there such as Mary Black and Candy. I thought it was fascinating because people never thought this town had slaves in the late 1600s/early 1700s. It’s amazing to not only “stumble” onto Tituba and realize that there were other black women from the Caribbean who were brought as slaves but were going beyond 100 years plus from where slavery is usually popularized in the 1800s in America. So, it’s really interesting to see the different factors that brought me to this story but also realizing the different facets of what I’m dealing with in regards to Black women’s history and Caribbean history. Now the question in writing this story is not about the first crossing of slaves coming from Africa, it’s the second crossing of slaves coming from the Caribbean to America. What’s that story? We don’t talk about that. What was the stop from Africa to the Caribbean and then from the Caribbean to the America’s?

The other thing that really excited me was the word Obeah, which I found in some of my research. I asked myself how are these white men referencing Obeah? Which was another indication to me that certain practices from the Caribbean really stayed in this Puritan town. For me, I didn’t realize at the time how controversial it was to use the word Obeah in our communities because of the negative connotations it holds and because of slavery, how we were told if we practiced anything or used our drum, anything that represented us, we would be lynched and killed. So, we have literally inherited all the way up to present day that Obeah in itself is evil. Without investigating what it is and I’m not saying that people don’t use Obeah for bad but I’m saying similar to any practice or religion, we have both sides. In Obeah Opera, I definitely look at the positive, which included having grandmas who knew how to use herbs to heal and midwifery. We were women who knew of these things and that true power threatens men, especially white men.

This is all to say that a whole bunch of factors contribute to how Obeah came to be. I can say the base of it is based on claiming back my story. Which includes the Black woman’s story, stories of the Caribbean and Africa. My people, and I’m not ashamed to say that. I’m very committed to the vantage point of the women’s story and retelling/rewriting history from my people’s lens after being excluded from history for so long.

When I saw you do your performance in Guelph you also mentioned that a lot of the knowledge and stories you gathered came from a very spiritual place of trying to evoke the energy of your ancestors. Can you touch on what that was like for you?

Nicole: Yeah, it’s not a secret that it’s based on the Orisha spirituality practice. When looking at the play you will see that each of the main female characters represents an Orisha and have those characteristics. I also show in the play that slaves, which is known, would go at night into the forest to practice Orisha or celebrate who they were. In there, I wanted to really show the strength of the slaves to not only survive the middle passage but also have the innovations and intuitiveness to preserve themselves. Such as hiding their practice in Catholicism because a lot of the Orisha practice is blended in with the Catholic religion. Also, what’s written in the script is paying homage to our Caribbean methodology, which is based in carnival. In the script, each character represents a carnival character and holds those respective characteristics. As I develop as a storyteller, I am beginning to realize that my components of storytelling are evolving to be based on history and telling Caribbean folklore and spirituality.

When I saw you perform, it was really powerful for me especially being from a Trinidadian background. It was beautiful for me to see those stories be brought back to voices of Black women and it was incredibly healing for me. What does it mean for you to be able to reclaim and explore these stories?

Nicole: I think it’s taken me a long time but I think that I am fulfilled in my practice. I realized that I am extremely privileged to have been afforded the opportunities that have been given to me. For example, it’s not easy to mount a play and the fact that I’ve had the opportunity on more than one account to mount this work is more than incredible. And that means a lot to me. I’m really happy that earlier on in my life I knew exactly what I was put on this earth to do. Now, it just continues to manifest and evolve as I evolve. I am a storyteller. That is what I do. Outside of this privilege, I also see my responsibility in being able to create stories for my children and my children’s children…Right now I am fighting the good fight of not moving away from the stereotype and heralding who we are and our history. Not being ashamed. Embracing our culture and our music in all of it’s glory.

I would love for Obeah Opera to debut in Salem so I can honor the women and the ground they were on because the women were real, these aren’t characters they are real people in history that were ignored. When you speak the ancestors name that’s what keeps them alive. If I were to sum it up, that’s what I do. I speak their name. To hold that mantle up, it’s an honor. We have the responsibilities to keep and tell our stories.

The more I work with other Black folks to help in the liberation of our people the more I realize this work needs to go hand in hand with spiritual healing and connecting with our storytellers. How do you feel social justice movements can incorporate this type of work and bring about the healing necessary so we can feel grounded in moving forward?

Nicole: Wow, that’s a deep question. I think that inherently the work (storytelling) in a social movement in itself. Obeah Opera is that. The reason I say that is that I’ve been told on more than one occasion, not only from Black women but from women period, the fact you’ve put us on stage in this positive light infuses, induces and demands change because you’re shifting perspective. The work that is on stage has ritual, so in fact, you are healing. So that’s Obeah Opera and through this we are liberating ancestors because they’re being showcased and they’re able to tell their story. The whole thing about not being silenced anymore; Obeah Opera or anything through the arts becomes a vehicle for voice, so that in itself is a vehicle for social justice, because social justice deals with voice and demands justice. Obeah Opera, as I see, demands justice. That’s why I’m saying before Broadway, I’d love to go to Salem and just honour the women and what they lived through and what they survived through and let them know that they are not forgotten. The biggest thing, what has happened to our people, to Black people, they erase the history and if you have no history, you are nothing. That is part of the genocide. that is why people burn documents, because they don’t want you to exist anymore. So when you realize that when you claim back history, claim back things that have happened, claim back your religion or your heritage, that in itself is a social justice act. When you remember your ancestors and your history and bring it to the forefront, that is a social justice act. When you remember and step into who you are, that inherently is healing. So my message is that even just being is part of social justice, in the sense that acceptance is part of social justice, in the sense that speaking the ancestors names, claiming the history and demanding you are not forgotten is social justice.

Obeah Opera loves #blacklivesmatter because the women in Salem’s lives matter and they will not go down in vain and neither will we because we’re standing up and taking responsibility. Even the hashtag #oscarssowhite and the hashtag #broadwaynotsowhite is interesting because this year is an interesting year. The Color Purple was back on Broadway, Fela! was there for a very long time, we have Hamilton, we have Eclipsed, which is the first ever Black woman written, Black woman directed and all female Black women cast on Broadway. I look at that as a paved way because I’m like “I’m coming!”. You know what I mean?

Media and the arts play a huge role in social justice. It brings awareness, it propels the message. I even say that television is the greatest propaganda tool of all time. So being able to see the messages and hear the stories is social justice too. Nina Simone once said that “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times” and that quote changed my life. Or even Billie Holiday when she wrote “Strange Fruit.” Look at what art has done to propel the movement. Even beyond Malcom X, the people involved with Black Lives Matter and other people standing up; the music, the tools of media, all of those things play a huge impact and it also deals with healing.

Spiritual healing comes in ancestral acknowledgement. Spiritual healing come from acknowledging and understanding your history and claiming it. I think in particular with Obeah Opera we have to have a town hall meeting in a version of the play because people people were ripping down the posters saying thing was a devil ting and we called in the community to talk about it and I realized how it transcends what we were taught. We were taught that we had, what we believed in, what we practiced, our cultural practices, our religious practices we wrong and we were told Christianity is the only way. I’m going to be very careful because some people might get offended and say “Christianity is very important to me”. What I’m saying is that the healing comes into saying that who we were was not evil, we were not evil. We were told we were evil.

I want to end with a quote from the play. A quote from a song called “My Mother’s Name” and the words go “So I stand in my mother’s name and those before her who took on the blame, for all the daughters who inherited the shame, for all the women who will never be the same, I’m gonna stand”. That’s healing.


Nicole Brookes
Nicole Brooks is a Toronto-based filmmaker, director, performer, singer, playwright, composer, curator, teacher and ‘art-ivist’. She has developed the concept of “harmonized storytelling”; blending media and performing arts, Brooks has spent over 15 years envisioning narratives that illuminate the peoples of the African Diaspora. Through her company Asah Productions Inc., founded in 2005, Brooks has generated an impressive body of work for both stage and screen.  To learn and follow Brooks’ latest work, please visit www.obeahopera.com; Twitter: @obeahopera; YouTube: obeahopera.

Within & Beyond The Sugar Bush

by Jayal Chung

Over the years, through participation in a few sweatlodges, ceremonies, and in paying attention, I have learned about the practice of offering semma (tobacco). It has been foundational to my sense of being grounded, my connection, and understanding my relationship to this land as my birthplace in Thunder Bay on Fort William First Nation Robinson-Superior Treaty territory as a Chinese Canadian woman. It is being in friendships, and connecting with resilient Indigenous women who have shared generously with me that I witness and find so much healing and community with.

I have learned to set down semma or give it as an offering to say meegwetch, especially when loved ones?? or something feels hard in the community. I offer it when traveling or when I’ve returned, for myself or for others. I ask questions, I ask for guidance when especially when I do community-based work around sexual violence, like campaigns such as Take Back The Night. I remember once, Helen Pelletier put it so clearly, “Tobacco connects you”. From medicine walks and being in ceremony with Jazmin Romaniuk and with folks participating in Walking With Our Sisters, I feel a tremendous sense of community and connection. There is exciting momentum for Stephanie, Helen, and Jazmin. Their personal growth since the time that I have met them is profound, seen and felt, and physically tangible in the healing work they do and what they share in creating community.

These relationships, the stories, my memories and reflections layered upon each other in my mind’s eye, fully before me as I joined classmates in the Indigenous Governance and Leadership class to visit the sugar bush in April.

To give us context for our visit to the sugar bush, Damien Lee came to speak to our class. He disclosed that he was adopted and claimed by the community of Fort William First Nation and acknowledged his whiteness, giving us as students the opportunity to accept what he was sharing with us as bullshit or a perspective to work from. Stephanie MacLaurin was our guide, as we stepped gently along sticky snow to arrive and be part of the sugar bush process. Before this, Damien’s mother met up with us at the top of the mountain (anemki wajiw) to give us bannock and tea. In class, we discussed some initial thoughts as a class when it came to approaching the sugar bush and I shared that my question is: “How can I prepare?” “What are my responsibilities?”

This is a question I keep returning to, beyond the classroom. I think about it when consultations with stakeholder groups of people are discussed in media. As Damien highlighted, Europeans believed that Anishnaabe people had no laws, no governance. Anishnaabe have been seen as ‘inferior’ and ‘savages’. Christians themselves broadly viewed that their mission was to save.

This past year, I thought about my responsibilities as a student and the space I would take as for most students, this was their first experience in the sugar bush and I have a connection with Stephanie and Damien prior to this class.

With Damien, our class openly discussed how we approach the sugar bush and he offered us history, theory and a perspective to really help us understand the sugar bush as a form of governance. I reflected on our class discussion, my intentions with taking this class, and my friendship with Stephanie and reminded myself that if I make mistakes, I would hold myself accountable. I brought a tobacco offering; Stephanie shared about the mother tree that is wrapped in cloths of different colours, which ceremony took place for the tree and trees being tapped. She showed us how to tap and the collecting process. I allowed myself to be present, and I appreciated the morning as it unfolded.

‘The Land Is Ceremony’—Erin Marie Konsmo, Native Youth Sexual Health Network. This quote sums it up for me. The land tells us stories. The maple trees, as Damien and Stephanie share, tell us when they are ready and show us; there is natural law if we acknowledge it. Leanne Simpson references Basil Johnston and windigo stories to talk about hunger for natural resources and over-exploitation. With the sugar bush, it’s so amazing to see that this is a grassroots, community-driven initiative. Leanne Simpson captures this when she says that the “real gift was in the making, and that without love, making just wasn’t possible”. Resurgence.

This year, visiting the sugar bush felt even sweeter. I see the women and two-spirit teachings and leadership. I hear about and see how collective is growing, how the process is in making mistakes, owning up but giving yourself kindness, how skills-sharing is constantly happening and how dedicated and caring people are and all the gifts of the sugar bush within, and beyond it. With leadership, as Damien shared—its’ an emergent style. No one person is the leader. Each person has opportunity to learn, practice and acquire ongoing knowledge and sap is medicine.

Through individual and collective effort, the work of chopping, collecting dead wood, values, teachings, stories and ziiwaagmide— sweet brown syrup is possible and is shared. It is undeniably good, as Damien said. This was the starting point for him—its goodness.

It felt really peaceful, relaxing and good to go to the sugar bush as a class. For me, I had visited prior with invitation from Damien Lee to assist him in collecting. I also visited during the boiling process, on a few occasions. For example, one time I remember Ash had taken two fat Canadian geese and he started to process the geese by taking feathers, scraping the skin, revealing the roughness and roasting a bit. I heard stories about Ryan and Stephanie hunting geese and then folks with knowledge of roasting, sharing that in very organic way. I also recall from Damien’s blog Zoongde where you can find his writing piece titled “Indian in a Jar” on settler colonialism and about boundaries being broken between an instructor, Damien and Gail who had been working hard in the initial stages to revitalize the sugar bush and sap production for future generations.

As Damien makes the point, writing sugar bush as just culture negates the leadership and governance of what I observed, participated and experienced over the two years. Damien sharing his framework was a powerful moment that I felt in my body. Treaty constitutionalism: he drew a diagram and posed what kind of permissions, process, protocol would one go through when it came to mining or fishing as examples.

In this moment, as he drew – I could sense in an unexplainable way what he was referencing. e.g. drawing information from the land, the wisdom of ancestors, from clan, from Aadzookuazag sacred stories, from Confederacy, Creation and observing natural laws versus hunting and fishing regulations which would start with regulatory assessment, consultation, land, education training, sector agreement/direction, ministry of mines, Parliamentary province of Ontario section 92 constitution jurisdiction and the Canadian state.

There are dimensions beyond the page and the economical system that is different from the Anishnaabe way of governance. Competition doesn’t work. Being present is paramount to relationships and requires work and commitment. Values and intentional decisions matter.

What is a community? How did I come to feel so connected and why did I take this course? Some of the answers came through as I read Chapter 4 of Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back. I think I will start with learning the ‘nish word, mino bimaadziwin. Living a good life.

How do we do things in a good way?

How do we take up more space?

How is sugar bush source of governance?

I have shared my reflections, observations and personal experience at this time. I feel like through creative process like making art with other people I will learn next, Chibimoodaywin – spiritual visioning. Leanne Simpson highlighted Nishnaabeg mobilization. What part can I play in reconciliation? What individual commitment and actions going forward can I step into even though I might mistakes? What vision can I tap into?


Jayal Chung
Jayal Chung is a queer and Chinese woman, born and raised in Thunder Bay, ON. A self-taught visual and spoken word artist, she is passionate about arts, community organizing and community building, advocacy, making zines, and co-hosting Queer Radio Hour on CILU 102.7 FM.