Cultivating Food Justice

cheyenne standing in a greenhouse between raised beds with her hands up

An Interview with Cheyenne Sundance of Sundance Harvest

Interview by Shabina 

Over the last decade, I have worked to build my food growing skills. Being able to provide fresh food to my loved ones has always been important to me for several reasons: growing food is financially accessible, environmentally friendly and connects me to my ancestral knowledge. While I am so grateful for what I have learned, one thing always stuck with me; the question of why so many of the well paid “leaders” of the food movement were always white and from wealthy families. Every organization had mandates around anti-racism and being “community-led”, however, they were unwilling to do the work of transferring power to where it belonged.

This frustration led me to search for people working near Toronto to feed their communities and what I found was both inspiring and beautiful. Black-run farms, Indigenous seed savers, community gardens run by immigrants, all run on almost no funding – only a deep love for each other and the earth. This is how I came across Cheyenne Sundance; a 22-year-old, mixed-race, Black farmer, living in Toronto.

Cheyenne is the founder of Sundance Harvest; a youth-run urban farm rooted in food justice and eradication of systemic racism in the food system. She runs all sorts of workshops and programs in her greenhouse, including a Farm School in 2020 which I decided to sign up for. So, when I was offered the opportunity to interview her, I was more than game. 

So, what got you into farming?
Food is essential to any type of justice work, because food is essential to life. It is often the first thing to go when poor or working-class people are struggling to survive. When they have to pay static bills that they can’t budge on, they have to decide if they can afford salad this week. Food is something that is pushed aside because it’s often the only expense that people can see living without. Paying people minimum wage, which is not a reflection of  the true cost of living, often translates into food insecurity.

Food is attached to almost any oppression. Globalization and colonization continue to disrupt traditional farming practices and healthy foods and replace them with conventional foods like grains and chocolate products that are farmed by underpaid and slave laboured children and women. Here on Turtle Island, and beyond, food is the glue that holds together a community and allows people to be independent. Food systems that have been violently fractured due to things like slavery, environmental racism and colonization cause the most marginalized to become the most dispossessed from land and food. The conventional food system is an extension of these histories and ongoing acts of violence. The system is working exactly how it was planned; with the goal of continuing to suppress us. 

I never wanted to farm but the government and people with privilege in the food system aren’t doing anything to help make our communities for food secure, and so I decided I needed to do it myself.

What made you decide to start your own farm?

I noticed how glaringly white urban agriculture and farming is, yet the people who are most affected by food insecurity in Canada are Black and Indigenous people.  I was frustrated at how often urban farming in Toronto is led by people who have race and wealth privilege, who use their privilege to lease public crown land or to lead a non-profit in predominantly Black neighbourhoods, yet had no connection to the communities they claimed to represent. 

The food justice framework has been laid out to help Black and Indigenous peoples, or even other marginalized people- yet we are only given community gardens instead of true leadership to create change. Non-profits are often complacent in white supremacy because they only hire BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), mainly women/femme folk, in entry level positions but the director is always a white person. 

I couldn’t see any examples work to promote food security led by those most affected. So, I had to create the Sundance Harvest blueprint from my heart. I hope that in a few years I can foster more urban farms that are rooted in justice and that they can be carried on in leadership by people like me. I shouldn’t have to be fighting access to healthy food, I shouldn’t have to be the one who is filling the void that white supremacy and colonialism caused. Those in power should.

What are the struggles you have faced in starting this project?

I have had  no support. Sundance Harvest has not been supported, despite our calls for assistance and partnership, by any other non-profit or organization with the exception of Foodshare. I truly think it’s because 99% of non-profits and urban farms in Toronto are complacent within this system of white supremacy in the food system. They constantly try to solve food insecurity by doling out community gardens or donating to food banks. They never contribute to sustainable change that removes them from the equation. We are consistently made to rely on them.  We need urban farms run by people who look like me and who are actually facing the issues we are trying to solve. 

These organizations are not radical and I learned early on that I cannot expect them to be. I’m happy that Foodshare recognizes racism and colonialism in the food system and strives to do something about it. 

How has the rest of the community reacted to the farm?

I’ve received a lot of support from them! From those who understand that food justice is a real thing of course. From those who have been profiting off their privilege, backlash. 


What motivates you to continue this work?

That I need to teach the next generation to become farmers. The next generation being my community who will be hit the hardest the climate crisis as the cost of food soars. I know there’s a demand, I’ve noticed that when people see me farming, calling out profiteers of colonialism, and building on this simple idea of liberation; they can see themselves. I don’t expect everyone to become a full-time farmer. I do think that more and more people are starting to understand that they have power within the food system. They understand that something is wrong with our current system.

How can people get involved with Sundance Harvest?

My farm school is starting next March 2020. It will be an anti-oppressive farm school. I won’t be teaching you how to build urban farms or agricultural systems that utilize exploitation of the poor and BIPOC people Instead I’ll show you exactly how I created Sundance Harvest. It will cover practical skills and theory and will take place both in my greenhouse and outdoors. There will be field trips and explorations of yourself and your place in the food system. 

Supporting a Partner on Deportation Notice

Close up line drawing of a woman's face

An Interview with Latoya and Kimora

Interviewed by Felix

Note: Both of these individuals supported their partners while they were in immigration detention pending deportation. Both partners endured long-term immigration detention ie. in detention for more than 6 months. Although one partner was released, the other was deported to Nigeria where he currently lives.

Can you explain why your husband was on deportation notice and why he got detained?

L: A deportation notice was issued due to non citizenship status paired with a low record. As a result, he was given a time to be removed, but he was actually sent to immigration detention until his actual departure. In fact, he was incarcerated in a correctional facility as the immigration detention was too full and he remained in the correctional facility

K: My husband was detained because he came into Canada without authorization. He was a resident of the United States and when he came to live in Canada, he filed a refugee claim, which was refused because he was deemed to be inadmissible. After the failed refugee claim, he was given a chance to file a pre-removal risk assessment, which he failed, as do 98% of applicants. He was then deported from Canada. He filed several applications to return to Canada on a temporary visa, all of which were denied. Finally, he came back to Canada and was subsequently arrested by CBSA for entering the country without authorization.

Did you talk to your friends and family about what was going on with your partner? If so, how did you talk to them about it?

L: I didn’t really talk about it to my friends but I did talk about it to family. The family was aware definitely because it would’ve impacted them. But regarding friends, no, because of the stigma, I felt like it wouldn’t be well received. I didn’t think people would know how to take it. Deportation still has stigma associated with it. So nobody in my professional life or friends knew what was going on. 

K: In terms of our family members, we were very upfront about what happened. My husband’s family resides in the US and they were very helpful when he was going through the situation. I think everyone understood that him being detained was unfair and that it was no fault of his own. With my kids we didn’t talk about it initially. When my husband was detained, I did not tell the children where he was. I did not know how long his detention was going to be and I didn’t want the children to view him as someone that gets arrested and goes to jail. After about a month or so, they kept asking where he was,. I told them that he went away to work and that he was coming home soon. I think they started to figure it out because whenever he would call I would take his phone calls in a separate room. I believe that sometimes they heard me talk about his situation with his lawyer or with him. 

Finally, I explained to them, after eight months, that he was detained and it was not because he was a criminal, but because he came back into the country so that we could be a family. I don’t think they understood the enormity of the situation but they did understand that he was in a bad predicament and that he needed help. They came with me when I attended the Alvin Brown court case and they were there when I spoke to the reporters. At that point, I think they started to understand. I did not allow them to visit him while he was in maximum detention because I did not think that that would be a good way for them to see him. However, when he was transferred to the immigration detention center in Rexdale, we did go and visit him together.

We did not tell friends. We do not want people outside of the family to know what was going on because we felt that naturally they would start to pass judgment or draw their own conclusions as to why he was in jail. So, for the entire time, or up until the time we did media, no one knew where he was or what had happened. I just told them that he was working out of town. After the media coverage however, I did hear from some friends that they saw the news but even then, no one offered to help so I didn’t feel badly about my decision not to let them know

How did you maintain your relationship while your partner was in detention? 

L: I couldn’t call him, he could only call me. Often I would talk to him through the Detainee Support Line run by the End Immigration Detention Network. That line was very integral in keeping the lines of communication open. I mean, when you’re going through something like this, having the lines of communication open is so needed, but they make it so that you can’t talk to people. The line was very good for my family to speak with my partner because there would be no other way for us to communicate. I mean, sometimes we could talk when my husband had calls with the lawyer, but the lawyer wouldn’t let me talk. So yeah, it was a really beautiful gift to have that. 

K: It was not easy but we made sure that we spoke every day he was able to call. I wrote him letters and I went to visit him whenever I could. The visitation was extremely difficult because initially he was two hours away and I did not have a car, nor did I always have childcare. I didn’t want the children to be there. But for the most part we spoke all the time. When I wasn’t able to afford phone calls he would call through the End Immigration Detention Network Detainee Support line. That was an extremely invaluable resource which I’m very grateful for.

When it came to their legal proceedings, how involved did you get? 

L: I was pretty involved. When it’s your partner, you have to get involved even though you’re not going through it, it affects you too. With legal stuff you might feel that your legal reps are smarter and more knowledgeable than you but they’re all human and they are not perfect. So for me I would make sure I knew what was going on in every part of the proceeding. I would do research if I didn’t understand everything and made sure to ask a lot of questions. I was always communicating with the lawyers. At the end of the day though, the immigration system is corrupt. When my husband was detained, long-term detention was at an all time high. They weren’t releasing anybody; it didn’t really matter what you did.  

K: I was really involved from the very beginning. I coordinated with the lawyers. I wrote to the director of CBSA frequently, I wrote to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, I wrote to the Public Safety minister, and I was very vocal about how unjust the situation was. Even when the lawyers were handling his situation, I was very diligent about them and getting everything right so I would read over their briefs and everything that was submitted to ensure that no important fact was being left out.


You’re gonna have to make some difficult decisions. But just talking openly with each other as a family is gonna get you through it.


How do you deal with the stress of having a partner in detention? 

L: There is no real way to deal with it. You just kind of go through it. You just have to keep going and not give up especially with all of the processes which ultimately causes you to become. Most importantly, you have to be comfortable with being okay if what you hoped is not what actually happens. So decide to expect the best, but also be okay to accept that if what you hoped for doesn’t happen, it’s gonna be okay and that you can get through it. You just have to be realistic with what’s possible.

I know for me, organizing and connecting with others in the beginning also helped to give me momentum and education. I think we need to find connectivity in those who are facing the same things and to try and build communication with each other. I did have to take a break after he was deported. Not initially though. Right after he left I kept organizing but it wasn’t up until maybe two years ago, I had to take a break for my own health. I got tired and I couldn’t carry the load. It’s tough you know. But I would say initially when things happen, it’s good to connect with people. You never know what information and resources people have that can be helpful to you. 

K: As with anything that is stressful you just have to make up your mind that you want to see the end result and hope that the end is a successful one. I can’t say that I did any one thing to deal with the stress. I mean I didn’t go to yoga, I didn’t meditate, but I made up my mind about halfway through that I was going to deal with every day one at a time if I was going to survive. At some point I stopped expecting what I wanted and focused on what I could do at the present time to help the situation, if only a little bit. That meant not focusing on his release from detention as much but instead focusing on his mental health, by keeping him in remembrance that there were people on his side. It meant talking to him as much as I could and visiting him every single day when he was moved to the immigration detention center in Rexdale so that he knew I was there for him. It meant showing up at every event that concerned him and doing the things that he couldn’t do for himself which he thought would help i.e. faxing things, talking to the minister, talking to the media, just fighting in general.

What are some things you feel are important to share with someone else who is the partner of someone who is going through a deportation notice or is in detention? 

L: There’s hardly anything good in this situation. It’s basically like a physical tear. You’re tearing two people apart and sometimes it’s a whole family. But the one thing that I’ve taken is that to build something tall, you have to build from the ground up. So they tear you down, but it can be an opportunity to build a stronger foundation. You’re gonna have to make some difficult decisions. But just talking openly with each other as a family is gonna get you through it. They make it so negative that you’ll feel tempted not to talk about it at all. Not talking about it is not building any bridges. It’s not going to create any change. 

K: The thing I kept in my memory while I was going through everything was what our relationship meant to me. That is one of the things that kept me pushing through each and every day. I reminded myself that he did not deserve to be in the position that he was and that he was a good person and mostly that he deserved a chance to be with his family. And I also thought that it was important for me to believe that if I were in the predicament, he would be there for me as well.

You’ve decided to keep your relationship going, even though your partner ended up getting deported. How have you managed to stay together since he left? 

L: I feel like the chips are gonna fall where they lay you know. So you just have to take one step at a time. The thing about it is that he gives me hope and I give him hope. Like when I feel like it’s too much, he’s always there you know? So, how we’ve been able to stay together is always communicating, talking with each other and sometimes when one is down we lift the other person. It also comes down to individuals and how you are as a couple, if you’ll make it work, cause it’ll be very, very, very hard, and if you don’t have it within you, it won’t survive. 

I mean I still have to go see him because he can’t see me and that has its own issues. Nigeria is so far that you can’t just go there for a week long trip. It doesn’t work like that. I mean it takes almost two days to get there and the tickets are expensive. Financially this situation impairs you. There’s just so many factors you need to consider. I mean even for me I’m not sure if I’m gonna make it out, but you have to be hopeful that things can change and that’s where I am at. I am both hopeful but realistic that the situation might not change. 

Is there anything specific that you would suggest to someone who is the partner of someone either on deportation notice or in detention?

L:  The system is so broken. If there’s no justice in the system, there’s no hope, and you have to create that for yourself. Essentially the government is saying come to this country but they want you to figure it out with no tools. I feel like that’s where we all get frazzled. Realistically the bigger picture is that we need to fix the system from the beginning. Once you have the tools, educate others.. 

And above all remember that nothing is forever and you can get past this. Just do your best and set up support systems so you can get through it.

K: Specifically, I would say don’t give up. I know that is a very cliché thing to say but it is the truth. There are definitely days when you do give up and you don’t feel that you have the energy to even pull yourself into another day. But if your relationship is strong and the person you are with truly is a good person, you continue. Secondly, my advice would be something that I didn’t even do myself, and that is don’t try to handle it on your own. Surround yourself with people who are sympathetic and who genuinely care about what is happening because it can really break you down mentally. Find your networks. For me, getting contact with the End Immigration Detention Network was life changing. I feel the support that I got from them is what brought me to the end of our detention battle, because there were days when I just couldn’t go any further and there was always someone there would call me and ask what I needed and delivered that need. And lastly, take care of yourself. Take yourself out, take your children out, even when you don’t want to, because it is so depressing and so very easy for you to sink way into depression going through this shit. Believe in your strength, that’s what I did.

Abdel-Kader Belaouni’s Story

black and white illustration of lungs

Interviewed by Olwen Fowlie

Can you share your experience leading up to receiving a deportation notice?

K: Deportation is not great; deportation is not nice. Imagine after years living in this country you get deported. You have to leave everything behind and go. Some people leave children, some people leave families… I don’t wish it on anyone. I was in the country for 10 years before I received my notice. It was stressful, I lost sleep and I couldn’t eat. I felt like I had no morale.

 A lot of people sell their houses to come to Canada. They sell their cars or they leave their jobs – they leave everything. Everything to go to the new life. How can you go back?

Why was it important for you to stay in Canada?

K: I left Algeria in 1996 during the civil war and went to the US to find safety. It was not easy in the U.S, but after many years I started to work, I started to study and I had my business. In 2001 after the (cannot hear what was said), everything changed for me because I had no status. They US government wanted to put me in jail and eventually return me to Algeria.

In 2003, two years later, I left the U.S. and to Canada. However, in 2005 I received a deportation notice.

What were the steps taken to try and stop your deportation? 

K: Alone I had no power; however, I was volunteering with community organizations. That year there was a march from advertises from Montreal to Ottawa. It was a seven-day march to ask the government to grant status for all. I decided to go with them and I met a lot of nice people. After I received my notice, the people I had met at the march offered to help me. They called the government and asked them to stop my deportation. 

Were they part of an organization?

K: Yes, a lot of organizations. Solidarity Across Borders/Solidarité Sans Frontières was the main organization supporting me. After sending letter to the government asking them to grant me status and receiving no answer, they asked me what I thought about seeking sanctuary in a church.

Before that point had you gone public with your case?

K: Not yet. We were just going to meetings at that point and not talking to the media. I did eventually go public when I was accepted to take sanctuary at a church near my house. Getting sanctuary was not a simple process, but I was glad I could stay in my neighbourhood and Father MacDonald, who took me in, was an amazing man.

Did you know him previous to this?

K: No. I’m Muslim and he is Catholic, and so we never met before. I had just one meeting with him and he accepted me.

What made you decide to go into sanctuary?

K: I am blind and have diabetes. Staying in a jail is a very difficult thing some someone with my health conditions. My choice was to either go to jail or stay in a church and I preferred the church.

How did you choose this church and how did they decide to accept you?

K: I chose it because it was my neighbour church. They accepted me with condition that I support myself – they would only provide me with a room to stay. 

Did you have much interaction with the people at the church?

K: No, I was upstairs and the administration was down stairs. Sometimes I would have discussions with them; they were always nice – very nice people. They respected me and I respected them.

Did CBSA ever bother you while you were in sanctuary? 

K: No, never. They never knocked on my door. They never bothered me. They never tried. There were even a few times I was on the balcony and no one bothered me.

How did you access healthcare and other services while in sanctuary?

K: I had a lot of doctors and nurses involved in my case. They volunteered their time to help me. A pharmacy I didn’t know offered to give me medications – I was very spoiled. I had a social worker and even a music teacher come to me. His name was Bob, he was American, and he taught me how to play the piano and the flute and I eventually launched two albums from the church.

How were you able to get status while in sanctuary?

K: I stayed in the church starting in January of 2005 and in 2009 I began to be in contact with immigration officers. Eventually Quebec granted me status. I was very happy at that moment. Imagine that – now I am a citizen, after so many years. I had two lawyers; (names inaudible) and over 250 organizations supporting me.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience talking with the media?

K: The media was 90% sympathetic with me. They were not my friends, but they were sympathetic. I had no problems speaking with the media, but in the beginning it was stressful.

Did you have some help from people?

K: Yes, I had help from friends but after a while I started to do it all by myself.

Do you have any suggestions for someone who has to deal with the media?

K: You have to know they are not your friend. The media is there to question you and they want an article. Uou have to be short – short and sweet. Don’t go very deep, it won’t help you.

What advice would you give to those considering going into sanctuary?

K: Sanctuary is not a first choice. You have steps to take. Call immigration and talk to your lawyer to see what options are available. You have to be ready to be in sanctuary; if you have health problems, I advise you to not go to sanctuary. If you are healthy and your case is strong; go for it. It’s not easy to get accepted into the church. Additionally, you can’t have any problems with the police. If you have had problems with them, they can take you from the church. Overall, don’t think it will be easy.

Beverly Braham’s Story

A black man and woman holding their four month old child

Interviewed by Felix

Above: Beverley Braham Thompson, her Canadian husband and their four- month-old son. Photo by Toronto Sun.

Can you share your experience leading up to receiving a deportation notice?

 B: I had come on a visa but it had expired. I got an immigration consultant and he told me he would get my papers through a refugee claim but I didn’t know much about making a refugee claim. All he told me was that I was going to get a work permit and a health card and I was excited. But he tricked me; he didn’t give me all the information and made me lie on my refugee claim. Now I regret lying because I know I could have gotten status without lying. In the end the claim didn’t go through and he got a lawyer to appeal the decision but lost. 

Eventually I was told to leave, but I didn’t go. Which led to a warrant for my arrest. I decided to go into hiding. I moved away from my address and stayed at various locations. The immigration consultant told me that he would do a humanitarian and compassionate claim for me. He told me that with a humanitarian and compassionate claim they could not deport me. This is not true. He made the arrangements to take me to CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) but when I got there, they detained me.

Now I realized, from what he was saying, and how the officers were acting, that it was a set up. At the time I didn’t know. Bert, my husband, called my immigration consultant but he went from asking for $1,500 to $2,000 to get me released. He was really bad and he just stopped talking to us after that point. Eventually I had a removal order and a date set for my deportation.  I spent about two weeks in detention. I was pregnant at the time and was with a bunch of ladies. I got a new immigration consultant and I was released. He was really good.

Why was it important for you to stay in Canada?

B: I mean you come here for a better life. I came to Canada because I wanted to better my life. I wanted to establish myself, go back to school, to work. Jamaica is hard right now. I went to school there and there is nothing; no opportunities. 

 Canada is where I want to be so I decided I would stay no matter what. 

What were the steps taken to try and stop your deportation? 

B: The first thing we did was get good legal representation. I want to highlight to people that are going through this kind of situation that they need to be careful who they choose to represent them. There are a lot of people out there that will take your money and do nothing for you. They know your situation; you’re facing deportation and you’re vulnerable. They will take advantage of you and will take as much money as they can.

 Good legal representation is expensive, but don’t be afraid to reach out to people to help you. I am so thankful that I had my cousin, my girlfriend and fiancée to help pay for my legal bills.

 I am now married to a Canadian citizen and, at the time, I was pregnant with our son. We’re still married, but the Canadian government said that our marriage was not genuine. That was a huge part of the case they had against us. When I was in detention, I wasn’t married to my husband yet. When I was in front of the judge for a hearing, they asked my husband questions. The judge’s response to his questions was that my husband was more into the relationship than me. That he loved me more than I did him and for that reason it wasn’t genuine. 

I decided to start reaching out to organizations because I knew what they were doing wasn’t fair, but I needed a platform. I needed a network. I reached out to Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) because I knew that they could help. I am so grateful for what they did for me. 

Did you go public about your case? If so, what was that like? Is there anything you would suggest to others who may have to talk to the media? 

B: I went public because of BLMTO. We held a big protest and a lot of media channels that showed up to interview me. Before the protest, I didn’t prepare. I didn’t know that it was going to be so big! I wasn’t even expecting media to show up; I was shocked.

I remember being in the plaza and asking where everyone was. I called my husband and he said “you need to see this”. I got there and was shocked. So many people cared about my story. 

 That’s when my story went international. Before this, many people had no idea these things were happening in Canada. People think that the Canadian government is always there to welcome you. I know the protest helped because afterwards the Minister gave me a stay of removal for three months. I had complications with my pregnancy, but before BLMTO got involved, the government didn’t want to do anything about it. They had already purchased my plane ticket. 

 I would encourage other in similar situations to go for it because when you don’t have people to speak up for you; you don’t get what you’re really looking for and you don’t get the support. When you have organizations come together and bring your story forward, it will benefit you.

 Since my experience, I’ve seen articles in the Toronto Star and CBC News that they have made a lot of changes. For one; when I was in detention, they detained me with my son. I saw something in the news talking about how they no longer want to put mothers and their children in detention. They want to try and keep them in the community. Campaigns like mine help put pressure on the government to make necessary changes. 

Did you have a support system throughout this process?

 My husband, he was there with me right through, he never gave up. There were a few other people who knew about my situation who supported me. I mean you were one of my biggest supporters. You kept in touch with me. You met with lawyers. You did a lot for me when I couldn’t come forward anymore because I was in hiding. You would go to meetings and relay the information to me. I really appreciate you. Thank you.

BLMTO got the media to pay attention to your case which led to the grant the stay, but it didn’t stop the deportation. What made you decide not to show up for your removal? 

While everything was happening, I had submitted a spousal sponsorship application. I decided that I would go underground while my spousal sponsorship was being processed. 

M: How did you stay safe while CBSA was looking for you after the warrant was issued?

 B: The first advice I’ll give you, based on what I did to stay safe, is if you don’t want to leave then move away from your address because they will come to check your address. When you get a deportation date and you don’t show up the airport for it they issue a warrant for your arrest. Some people may tell you that they might forget warrant. This is not true. They will issue that warrant. So, if you’re not planning to go; leave the day before and find somewhere to hide. Do not tell people where you’re going because you cannot trust many people fully. CBSA does not have the resources to track you down, however, change your number. Because they have your number and they will call you. Change your address, change your telephone number. Move away from the audience because it’s hard for them to really see you on the street. 

 I had access to the internet when I got another phone and I used an app called Text Now to get a phone number that wasn’t registered to any phone company so it was harder to track. When I called my husband, I would call from a blocked number so they couldn’t track it. 

Did you change your appearance at all? 

 B: I didn’t change my appearance. Keeping where I was a secret from everyone was the most important thing to do. When I first moved, I stayed inside for about a month just to stay safe. At the time I was really worried. Overtime I became more relaxed about it but they did try to find me. They called my friends. They showed up at my husbands work and they went to my friends’ house. But luckily my friend didn’t know where I was. I didn’t tell her because if I had told her she would have cracked. 

 For six months my husband didn’t come around me. We had a middleman and my husband used to give him stuff to bring for the baby. The whole time this was happening I had my baby with me.

What about employment?

B: If you’re working somewhere and you need to keep working then change jobs as well. They went where I was working. They went there looking for me and there was another girl there without documents. She lived in the apartment upstairs from the restaurant. They searched her, took her passport and told her to come to 6900 Airport Road. She ended up getting deported. 

 The best thing is to try and avoid trouble. Try and avoid areas you know the police will be profiling. The best thing is to stay indoors. If you have to go to work just go to work and come back. 

 I used to put myself in the mindset of acting like a citizen; like I belonged here. At one point I was doing customer service for the TTC and sometimes the police would be around and we would talk. I would say to myself “if you guys ever knew I had a warrant”, but they didn’t know and I just had to act normal because sometimes we can give ourselves away with our actions.

What was it like to be restricted to where you were staying? What did you do to stay busy? 

 I’m church person, so every Sunday I would go to church. I’m not a party girl; I don’t go to the club. So that aspect wasn’t an issue but I would still go to small things. BBQ’s and things like that. For the most part I would stay in as I much as I could. I would go to work and then come home and I stayed home. I tried to keep out of the public eye as much as I could even though I knew that no one could find me. The didn’t have time to look for, but prevention is better than cure so I kept things low key.

For others who might be on deportation notice, what are the things that you would like to share that might be useful for them? 

The first thing that I would tell people is that it’s okay to just not leave. They make you feel like it is the worst thing in the world to do, but if you feel like it’s right for you to stay then go for it! 

Another thing I will tell people, is that if you want to take the risk of dragging things out there are so options. When they reject your claim, CBSA will usually send you a letter to let you know and let you know of the date you need to go to Airport Road to report and sign in. These are usually the first steps to getting deported. Eventually, if you don’t respond, they will call you. You can always pretend that you never received the letter.

 Even when people are in hiding and have a claim, the fact that you are in hiding doesn’t affect the claim. They have to process your application. That’s one thing that kept me going. My lawyer said to not let CBSA know where I was. They have to process the paper. CBSA and CIC (Citizen and Immigration Canada) have nothing to do with each other in terms of looking at your documents. This is what kept me going. 

 Generally, I would say that when you are going through something like this, you just can’t give up. I’m a praying girl. Reading my bible and praying is the first thing I do when I wake up and the last thing I do at night. I would always tell myself don’t give up, don’t give up, fight on, fight on, fight on. You will overcome. 

 Like I said, when I was in hiding, I had a sponsorship application in. I knew it could only take 26 months to process the claim. Because I had a timeline, I would tell myself that eventually I would know either way and I just had to get through it. Now it’s approved and I am just waiting to get my permanent residency. The biggest thing is to stay smart. Be smart, have back up plans. If I can get my document after all of this so can you. 

Interview with Anonymous

Illustration of A older man holding a young child. It reads "Not one more deportation #not1more #niunamas"

Interviewed by Felix

Can you share your experience leading up to receiving a deportation notice?

 B: I had come on a visa but it had expired. I got an immigration consultant and he told me he would get my papers through a refugee claim but I didn’t know much about making a refugee claim. All he told me was that I was going to get a work permit and a health card and I was excited. But he tricked me; he didn’t give me all the information and made me lie on my refugee claim. Now I regret lying because I know I could have gotten status without lying. In the end the claim didn’t go through and he got a lawyer to appeal the decision but lost. 

Eventually I was told to leave, but I didn’t go. Which led to a warrant for my arrest. I decided to go into hiding. I moved away from my address and stayed at various locations. The immigration consultant told me that he would do a humanitarian and compassionate claim for me. He told me that with a humanitarian and compassionate claim they could not deport me. This is not true. He made the arrangements to take me to CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) but when I got there, they detained me.

Now I realized, from what he was saying, and how the officers were acting, that it was a set up. At the time I didn’t know. Bert, my husband, called my immigration consultant but he went from asking for $1,500 to $2,000 to get me released. He was really bad and he just stopped talking to us after that point. Eventually I had a removal order and a date set for my deportation.  I spent about two weeks in detention. I was pregnant at the time and was with a bunch of ladies. I got a new immigration consultant and I was released. He was really good.

Why was it important for you to stay in Canada?

B: I mean you come here for a better life. I came to Canada because I wanted to better my life. I wanted to establish myself, go back to school, to work. Jamaica is hard right now. I went to school there and there is nothing; no opportunities. 

 Canada is where I want to be so I decided I would stay no matter what. 

What were the steps taken to try and stop your deportation? 

B: The first thing we did was get good legal representation. I want to highlight to people that are going through this kind of situation that they need to be careful who they choose to represent them. There are a lot of people out there that will take your money and do nothing for you. They know your situation; you’re facing deportation and you’re vulnerable. They will take advantage of you and will take as much money as they can.

 Good legal representation is expensive, but don’t be afraid to reach out to people to help you. I am so thankful that I had my cousin, my girlfriend and fiancée to help pay for my legal bills. 

I am now married to a Canadian citizen and, at the time, I was pregnant with our son. We’re still married, but the Canadian government said that our marriage was not genuine. That was a huge part of the case they had against us. When I was in detention, I wasn’t married to my husband yet. When I was in front of the judge for a hearing, they asked my husband questions. The judge’s response to his questions was that my husband was more into the relationship than me. That he loved me more than I did him and for that reason it wasn’t genuine.

 I decided to start reaching out to organizations because I knew what they were doing wasn’t fair, but I needed a platform. I needed a network. I reached out to Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) because I knew that they could help. I am so grateful for what they did for me. 

Did you go public about your case? If so, what was that like? Is there anything you would suggest to others who may have to talk to the media? 

B: I went public because of BLMTO. We held a big protest and a lot of media channels that showed up to interview me. Before the protest, I didn’t prepare. I didn’t know that it was going to be so big! I wasn’t even expecting media to show up; I was shocked.

I remember being in the plaza and asking where everyone was. I called my husband and he said “you need to see this”. I got there and was shocked. So many people cared about my story. 

 That’s when my story went international. Before this, many people had no idea these things were happening in Canada. People think that the Canadian government is always there to welcome you. I know the protest helped because afterwards the Minister gave me a stay of removal for three months. I had complications with my pregnancy, but before BLMTO got involved, they government didn’t want to do anything about it. They had already purchased my plane ticket. 

 I would encourage other in similar situations to go for it because when you don’t have people to speak up for you; you don’t get what you’re really looking for and you don’t get the support. When you have organizations come together and bring your story forward, it will benefit you.

 Since my experience, I’ve seen articles in the Toronto Star and CBC News that they have made a lot of changes. For one; when I was in detention, they detained me with my son. I saw something in the news talking about how they no longer want to put mothers and their children in detention. They want to try and keep them in the community. Campaigns like mine help put pressure on the government to make necessary changes. 

Did you have a support system throughout this process?

 My husband, he was there with me right through, he never gave up. There were a few other people who knew about my situation who supported me. I mean you were one of my biggest supporters. You kept in touch with me. You met with lawyers. You did a lot for me when I couldn’t come forward anymore because I was in hiding. You would go to meetings and relay the information to me. I really appreciate you. Thank you.

BLMTO got the media to pay attention to your case which led to the grant the stay, but it didn’t stop the deportation. What made you decide not to show up for your removal? 

While everything was happening, I had submitted a spousal sponsorship application. I decided that I would go underground while my spousal sponsorship was being processed. 

How did you stay safe while CBSA was looking for you after the warrant was issued?

 B: The first advice I’ll give you, based on what I did to stay safe, is if you don’t want to leave then move away from your address because they will come to check your address. When you get a deportation date and you don’t show up the airport for it they issue a warrant for your arrest. Some people may tell you that they might forget warrant. This is not true. They will issue that warrant. So, if you’re not planning to go; leave the day before and find somewhere to hide. Do not tell people where you’re going because you cannot trust many people fully. CBSA does not have the resources to track you down, however, change your number. Because they have your number and they will call you. Change your address, change your telephone number. Move away from the audience because it’s hard for them to really see you on the street. 

 I had access to the internet when I got another phone and I used an app called Text Now to get a phone number that wasn’t registered to any phone company so it was harder to track. When I called my husband, I would call from a blocked number so they couldn’t track it. 

Did you change your appearance at all? 

 B: I didn’t change my appearance. Keeping where I was a secret from everyone was the most important thing to do. When I first moved, I stayed inside for about a month just to stay safe. At the time I was really worried. Overtime I became more relaxed about it but they did try to find me. They called my friends. They showed up at my husbands work and they went to my friends’ house. But luckily my friend didn’t know where I was. I didn’t tell her because if I had told her she would have cracked. 

 For six months my husband didn’t come around me. We had a middleman and my husband used to give him stuff to bring for the baby. The whole time this was happening I had my baby with me.

What about employment?

B: If you’re working somewhere and you need to keep working then change jobs as well. They went where I was working. They went there looking for me and there was another girl there without documents. She lived in the apartment upstairs from the restaurant. They searched her, took her passport and told her to come to 6900 Airport Road. She ended up getting deported. 

 The best thing is to try and avoid trouble. Try and avoid areas you know the police will be profiling. The best thing is to stay indoors. If you have to go to work just go to work and come back. 

 I used to put myself in the mindset of acting like a citizen; like I belonged here. At one point I was doing customer service for the TTC and sometimes the police would be around and we would talk. I would say to myself “if you guys ever knew I had a warrant”, but they didn’t know and I just had to act normal because sometimes we can give ourselves away with our actions.

What was it like to be restricted to where you were staying? What did you do to stay busy? 

 I’m church person, so every Sunday I would go to church. I’m not a party girl; I don’t go to the club. So that aspect wasn’t an issue but I would still go to small things. BBQ’s and things like that. For the most part I would stay in as I much as I could. I would go to work and then come home and I stayed home. I tried to keep out of the public eye as much as I could even though I knew that no one could find me. The didn’t have time to look for, but prevention is better than cure so I kept things low key.

For others who might be on deportation notice, what are the things that you would like to share that might be useful for them? 

The first thing that I would tell people is that it’s okay to just not leave. They make you feel like it is the worst thing in the world to do, but if you feel like it’s right for you to stay then go for it! 

Another thing I will tell people, is that if you want to take the risk of dragging things out there are so options. When they reject your claim, CBSA will usually send you a letter to let you know and let you know of the date you need to go to Airport Road to report and sign in. These are usually the first steps to getting deported. Eventually, if you don’t respond, they will call you. You can always pretend that you never received the letter.

 Even when people are in hiding and have a claim, the fact that you are in hiding doesn’t affect the claim. They have to process your application. That’s one thing that kept me going. My lawyer said to not let CBSA know where I was. They have to process the paper. CBSA and CIC (Citizen and Immigration Canada) have nothing to do with each other in terms of looking at your documents. This is what kept me going. 

 Generally, I would say that when you are going through something like this, you just can’t give up. I’m a praying girl. Reading my bible and praying is the first thing I do when I wake up and the last thing I do at night. I would always tell myself don’t give up, don’t give up, fight on, fight on, fight on. You will overcome. 

 Like I said, when I was in hiding, I had a sponsorship application in. I knew it could only take 26 months to process the claim. Because I had a timeline, I would tell myself that eventually I would know either way and I just had to get through it. Now it’s approved and I am just waiting to get my permanent residency. The biggest thing is to stay smart. Be smart, have back up plans. If I can get my document after all of this so can you. 

Jose’s Story

Black photo of leave-less tree

Interviewed by Felix

You had a very unique experience when it came to the government rejecting your initial claim for permanent residency. Can you summarize what happened to you? 

J: It was a unique experience, but this experience happens to many immigrants and refugees who come to Canada and are looking for a place safe to live. In 1997, my wife and I came to Canada from El Salvador. We were seeking refugee status. There was a lot of violence going on in El Salvador at the time. The war had ended when peace agreements were signed in 1992 but there was still a lot going on. At the time, I was studying at the University of El Salvador and I was very involved in activism. I was a student union member and because of my role at the university and my relationship with the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional), I felt that our lives were in danger. In 1997, we arrived at the Canadian border and made a refugee claim and lived in Canada as claimants.  

 In 1999, we had a hearing, and in 2000 it was rejected on the basis that (the peace process was consolidating) El Salvador was now seen as a democracy. We appealed the decision. While all of this was happening, my son who was born in 1997 in Canada. (my son who was born in 1997, he was diagnosed with autism in 2002) Eventually he was diagnosed with autism and we submitted a humanitarian and compassionate claim to stay in the province because of my sons’ situation. In 2004 our claim was approved in principle. This means that it was approved, but we still had to wait for initial paperwork to be fully recognized as permanent residents. 

We were so happy. What we didn’t know was that there were some issues with our claim being discussed by CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency). We waited and waited. 4 or 5 years went by with us being approved in principle, but no paperwork had gone through.  

In 2009, I got a phone call from a CBSA officer who wanted to interview me. I was so happy when I got the phone call. I thought that the purpose of the interview was to finalize the application. I got there and he told me that he was going to interview me and that it was going to be recorded. He started asking me a lot of questions about my association with the FMLN. When the interview was done, I asked him what was going to happen next. Throughout the entire time, we had no status, so we didn’t have access to healthcare. I wanted to know what the process would be to obtain that. 

During this time, my mother was in the United States and was really sick. I wanted to know if I could get permission to go visit her even though our papers were not officially granted, however the officer didn’t really answer my question. I left the interview feeling really weird. Months went by and eventually we were told to appear for a hearing. During this time, we received documents from the government stating that FMLN was a terrorist organization and because I was a member; I was inadmissible into Canada. It was implied that I was also a terrorist.  

My wife didn’t show me the documents right away because I was going through a really hard time with my mom. I couldn’t see her and she was terminally ill. I was in an emotional crisis and my wife didn’t want to add stress to my life.  

 Eventually, she told me and I was in shock. It didn’t make any sense to me. How could they deny my refugee claim? The FMLN was a political party at this time. How could they state that El Salvador was a democratic country yet claim that a political party was terrorist organization? I couldn’t believe I felt joy during my interview and now was being accused of being a terrorist. The officer didn’t even consider the information from the interview. He broke so many procedures but that’s another story.  

The purpose of the hearing was an admissibility hearing in January 2010. I couldn’t afford a lawyer so I decided to represent myself. I knew that they wouldn’t listen to me due to the fact that I didn’t have status; I had no rights. In the end, I asked my pastor if he could come and represent me and he did.  

We brought our submissions to the hearing. I remember I had a huge package of documents with me but I didn’t know that this wasn’t the procedure. They ended up hearing the information anyways and at one point, we actually thought they were going to rule in our favour but they didn’t and he issued a deportation order.  

When did you decide you were going to organize against your removal and the reasons why they denied your application?  

J: While all of this was going on, I spoke to a teacher from my sons’ school and she actually helped to put me in contact with a reporter with CTV who I spoke to about my issues. At this point I didn’t want anything published because I was worried it would influence the decision made by the minister.  

In May 2010 I went to Vancouver because a professor from UBC had arranged for me to meet with a lawyer that could potentially help me. During this time, I was taking my decision to federal court for what’s called a judicial review. I went but I was surprised that the lawyer had not even read my documents. I was panicking because I had to make submissions soon and didn’t know if what I was doing and so he was able to help me quickly. In a matter of minutes, he was able to summarize everything and point me in the right direction.   

By the end of August, my case was reviewed and dismissed. It was at that point that I decided no; there is no justice in Canada. I had to go to the media. Due to the media coverage, I got in touch with some students who were studying at the University of British Columbia. I met with them and they had great ideas. 

We decided to start a campaign by making videos to create awareness and get some sort of attention. That’s how the “We are Jose” campaign got started. We had a lot of influential people talk about it and spread the word. I reached out to many different organizations. Some were useful and some gave me advice that didn’t make sense.  

In 2011, I my son and I went on a cross-country tour to raise awareness on the issues I was facing. We hitchhiked from BC all the way to Ottawa and spoke with thousands of community members along the way. We wanted to deliver a letter to the ministers to let them know about the situation and for them to take action. Through the speaking tour, we got so much support from different communities. People helped us get from place to place. Our campaign reached many Salvadorans living in Canada and people donated funds. The donations were enough for me to retain another lawyer in Toronto to help with my case.  

In 2011, while we were in Ottawa, I was presented with the opportunity to meet with a man named Juan Jose Garcia who at the time was the Vice Minister for Salvadorans living abroad. He had a speaking event planned and we were scheduled to meet after. I decided to attend the speaking event. At the speaking event somebody asked him about my case and what the El Salvadorian government was going to do about it. His response was that the El Salvadorian government respected the law in Canada and then he said that if there were issues with any El Salvadorians, in terms of their rights, the government would intervene. However, he said my case was not an example of that. When he said that, the blood went all the way to my head and I stood up and I started to scold him. I said “What are you saying?” They are not accusing me of being a terrorist on my own! They are calling me a terrorist because I was part of the party that is now in office. They are calling the whole government terrorists!” I was so mad at this official! I couldn’t believe that he said my case didn’t have any merit for the El Salvadorian government to intervene. Needless to say, after this I did not attend the schedule meeting with him.  

After that, we went to the El Salvadorian embassy and spoke with the ambassador briefly. My son and I decided to continue with the tour. We didn’t end up being able to give the letter to anyone in Ottawa. At that time, the cabinet was found to be in contempt and Harper ended up having to call an election. Everything was a mess in parliament by the time we got there, so we just decided to continue to Montreal to keep speaking. After Montreal, we went back to BC.   

People didn’t really understand my case. It wasn’t just that I was being removed after being accepted; or even that I was being accused of being a terrorist. It was also that the group of people they had labelled as “terrorists” was democratically elected in El Salvador and was in government. In Canada, the FMLN is not listed as a terrorist “entity”, so none of it made any sense.  

 You ended up in taking sanctuary to protect yourself, what was behind this decision?  

 The reason I chose to go into sanctuary was because the CBSA was moving to enforce my deportation order. Sanctuary was my only option in order to be able to continue the struggle to achieve some justice for my family.  I knew that if I was deported the issue was going to be swept under the rug. The only way for me to continue fighting was if I was still in Canada so sanctuary was my only option.   

In September 2013, I drafted a letter that was directed to CBSA. The letter was asking CBSA to assign my case to an officer who could make a report to the minister so that he could make a decision on my application. This ended up being a mistake. When I gave the letter, I didn’t know that the report that I was requesting had already been made in 2010 and had been sent to the minister. When I submitted the letter to CBSA in Vancouver, they didn’t know what to do. The report had already been made so they couldn’t assign it to another office. I ended up receiving a phone call from my lawyer who told me that CBSA wanted to have an interview with me. I asked my lawyer to find out what the interview was about. He said that the interview was to fill out a travel documents request and to discuss removal. 

I told my lawyer that I would go to the interview but that I would not be answering questions, I would be the one asking questions. The lawyer told me it wasn’t good idea to try to turn the table around and start asking questions. That was the precise moment I decided that I wouldn’t go to the meeting and would go into Sanctuary instead. 

I already had a church I could go to. I had been attending the same church with my family since 1993. It was not a problem for them to decide to grant me sanctuary and to accommodate me. When I approached my pastor about it, he told me it wasn’t even a question. They had discussed it amongst the church years before when they found out about my situation and had already decided they would accommodate me if and when I needed it. 

I was fortunate to be in that situation. I know there are a lot of other people who don’t have a church they can go to. There are a lot of churches that may want to house someone but they don’t have the facilities or the space. Some others might have pastors who don’t have the vision of sanctuary. Many think offering sanctuary to someone is an illegal act, when in reality it’s not. Sanctuary has been a tradition for centuries. CBSA itself has stated that they won’t break sanctuary. 

In fact, when I went into sanctuary in 2013, CBSA stated that the only way they would break sanctuary would be if there was an issue involving criminality with someone’s case or if someone had an issue of national security. It’s kind of funny that they never came into the church because although they were accusing me of being a terrorist, they were also conceding that I was not a threat to Canada. They were basically saying that the allegations against me were unfounded. 

While some CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and CBSA members thought I was a threat, others didn’t. It highlighted that the immigration system is basically a lottery. It really depends on the officers you get and what their opinions are about your case. If the officer is close minded or doesn’t have any background on the social realities of the country that the person is coming from (like El Salvador), they will decide to deport that person. Once that decision is made there is no turning back. The person has to go through a process to remedy that decision. 

I went into sanctuary in October 4th 2013. Something interesting happened; I had a stay of deportation hearing on October 29th. I was in the church and I was negotiating with CBSA to go to the hearing. The hearing was five minutes long. When a deportation order is given it is supposed to be enforced right away, but they had been trying to deport me for years with no success, which did not look good on them. On top of that, they had no justifiable reason as to why they should be separating me from my wife and kids. So, the stay of deportation was actually granted. 

After the hearing, my lawyer contacted me and said that I could leave sanctuary. In order to leave sanctuary and officially cancel the arrest warrant, there were many requirements that I had to fulfill. This involved reporting to CBSA, paying a cash bond, enforcing the warrant and then releasing me. However, they were trying to also get me to sign a letter saying that I would agree to never access sanctuary again under any circumstances; which I refused to agree to. It made me not trust them. If I had signed that letter, I would be setting a precedent and messing everything up for future individuals who need access sanctuary multiple times. 

I didn’t leave the church. There were no guarantees that they wouldn’t deport me. In 2014, there was another hearing concerning my judicial review. The review was granted and CBSA came back to me and asked for certain conditions in order to cancel the deportation order. Again, they asked for the same letter saying I would never access sanctuary again. Both times the offers had been made orally. In 2015, they did it again. This time though I asked for the offer in writing but still did not go through with it. 

The whole time I was in sanctuary, they were watching me. One time, there was a person that came into the church and he pretended to be drunk. I found him lurking around and confronted him. Someone else at the church helped me walk the the person out and when we got to the entrance, he got violent. He started screaming and saying that people like me were criminals. I think he was hoping was that we would call the police. Had we called the police, we would have “invited” officials into the church and that would have given them grounds to arrest me. I also noticed there were strangers coming into the church. People we had never seen before. I knew they were CBSA officers trying to see what the situation was. 

Finally, in December 2015, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, John McCallum, made a decision regarding my application. It was hilarious. The officer who called sounded like a telemarketer saying that I had won a cruise or something. The call was all “Congratulations your application has been approved!”. I couldn’t believe it. This was in December 2015 and meant that I could leave the church. I didn’t actually leave the church right away. It was very intentional. For so many years so many people had supported my family and I. I didn’t think it would be fair to leave the church without everyone who had shared the burden of my case knowing what had happened. I let them know first and then I left the church. It was crazy. When it actually came time, my children actually had to push me out of the church. It was very hard for me to leave since I had been there for so long. The step that I had taken out of the church was the hardest step that I had ever taken. Once I left, I never wanted to go back. I think when I left, I said out loud, I never want to go back into that church again! 

It was such a hard thing. If you are making the decision to take sanctuary I want to tell you; don’t take it lightly. It’s important to think it over. First, do you have the strength to be in the church all the time. Do you have the support of the church? Is there going to be opposition to you being there? If there is going to be opposition, it might not be something that makes sense. If there are issues, explore other options; some people just go into hiding/underground. Sanctuary, as much as the option is there; is like a prison. I was in a little room and I had to be careful with how I interacted with other people. You are sharing the space with so many different members of the community because it is a church. Sanctuary, in essence, is a last hope for someone who is fighting a deportation order. It was my last hope. I understood that if I was deported, the moment I left Canada, my file would have been buried and no one would have done anything about it. Sanctuary was the last option and the only option I had to fight for my rights and the rights of my family. 

You’re now out of sanctuary but your case is not over. Can you summarize where everything is at now? 

J: As I said, the Minister made a decision in 2015, however CBSA didn’t make it easy for me. I know they wanted to give me a hard time because I refused to meet their terms for so many years. This all started in 1999 and now it’s 2019! I waited for my permanent residency and got approved in 2015. They were supposed to issue me a work permit and a temporary residency permit but they never did. When I got my permanent residency in 2016, decided that they didn’t have to send it to me because I became a permanent resident. However, now that I am applying for citizenship, having those documents matter, so I am still dealing with that. I am trying to make sure that none of these issues from the past resurface and affect me trying to get citizenship or anyone else in this situation. I have been litigating since 2013 regarding the issue of naming the FMLN as a terrorist organization as an entity and rendering me inadmissible on that ground. Hopefully it will get resolved soon. I’d like to go back to school and continue to study law. I was a student at University of Victoria for two years, but because I had been litigating with the government, it was impossible to do both. It was too much work. There were too many processes going on before the courts and for the most part, I was doing it all myself; learning how to draft affidavits and motions and appearing in court. So hopefully this will all wrap up, but of course the ministers don’t want to set a precedent against them on this issue, so they are fighting back. 

How can others follow up with your case? 

J: Since left the church, I tried to keep a low profile so that what is posted in the media doesn’t interfere with the case. However, at this point I think it is necessary to get back in with the media. Just recently, the attorney general brought a motion around me being a vexatious litigant and the federal court agreed with the motion. Basically, when someone is accused of being a vexatious litigant it is because that person is bringing forth an action solely to harass the other party through the legal action. They are saying this because I brought forth so many different proceedings. Right now, if I want to start a new proceeding, I need to ask for leave from the courts before starting something and if I want to continue with proceedings that have already started, I also have to ask for permission. Regarding the proceedings that are still before the courts; the party that needs to take the next chronological step are the ministers or the courts. So, it’s not on me to be asking leave from the court to continue now. Since they have submitted this, they basically want to finish the litigation without having to discuss the issue. The ministers have not complied with statutory provisions of the law. They don’t want to admit that they made a mistake so they just want to get it out of court any way that they can. 

Just recently, the Information Commissioner confirmed that a complaint that I submitted in 2014 about the Minister of Foreign Affairs withholding information is well-founded and a report was issued based on that. According to the law, I should have had the opportunity to file for a review of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to grant me access to information. However, because of the declaration of vexatious litigant, the court has decided to deny that I should start that proceeding even though I have been granted the right. So now I have to be thinking about how I am going to navigate all of this. I want my federal court case to continue and close so I can go on with it and pursue schooling and finally maybe living a normal life. 

#BlackLivesMatter’s Toronto Freedom School

Cartoon image of Marie Joseph Angelique in white dress with buildings behind her. Text reads "Because no teacher ever taught you about Marie Joseph Angelique. Donate to #blacklivesmatter freedom school to create humanizing, self-affirming, historically accurate educational opportunities for black children in the GTA."

Leroi Newbold interviewed by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

Shabina: What is the Black Lives Matter Toronto Freedom School?  

Leroi: #BlackLivesMatter Freedom School is a 3 week long summer program for children aged 4 to 10 years.  The program is designed to support children and families living and growing in a reality of witnessing police violence in our communities. The program is designed for children who have witnessed their siblings being carded in their neighbourhoods, were watching the news when two Scarborough children were held at gunpoint by seven police officers because they were “mistaken for someone else”. Our youth and our children hear conversations about when Aiyana Jones was killed inside of her home; when Tamir Rice was killed in a playground near his home; when a teenage girl was assaulted by a police officer at her desk at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina; when a 13 year old Toronto girl was prevented from entering her classroom because her hair was styled in an afro. But children don’t get the opportunity to deconstruct these realities in their classrooms, because the realities that Black children are forced to endure are often deemed “not age appropriate” for the larger population, or public school teachers are not sure how to engage with these realities in age appropriate and empowering ways.

Freedom school is a project of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto, but it is also part of a larger movement for community self-determination. We have the right and also a need to control the political education of our children. We have a need to teach our children that our communities are valuable, and they are sacred. We are grounded in the belief that Black children are capable of complex political thought and political analysis, and that they are a valuable part of our Black liberation movements. In our communities, people of all ages are affected by police violence and mass incarceration, and children are profoundly affected. We want them by our sides as we confront these realities, as we fight back, and we want to hear their voices as we imagine news was to shape our society.

S: Why is this kind of education and experience necessary for Black youth?

L: #BlackLivesMatter Freedom School is meant to be an intervention into the messaging that Black children receive daily about the disposability of their lives. Our children need a way to understand and respond to the political realities being faced by their families and communities. When we don’t understand something, we internalize it…and Black children are asking themselves: “Why was I kicked out of class?”, “Why was I suspended for a minor infraction like swearing, when non-Black kids do much worse and are not suspended?”, “Why do police treat us this way, and when the police take a Black child’s life, why is that not illegal?” We cannot shelter our children from these realities; all we can do is let them know that they are not alone in combating them. It is necessary to teach our children the value of their lives, and that we will fight for them with everything with have in us.

Beyond our public school system’s failure to academically prepare our children, our public schools are not invested in humanizing, self-affirming, queer positive educational opportunities for Black children in the GTA. Black parents do not feel that our children are being taught self-love, and a passion for justice and liberation through their formal education. Our public schools are not measuring up to our children’s transformative potential.

S: What kind of programming can people expect?

L: We will be teaching children that: your Black life matters, and you must demonstrate to your peers that their Black lives matter by protecting their dignity. The things you didn’t learn in school: The BlackLivesMatter Movement, Marie Joseph Angelique, Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Riots, the Memphis garbage strikes, Nanny Maroon and the Maroons, The Bussa Revolution in Barbados, The Haitian Revolution, Soweto Uprisings….global perspectives on Black Liberation. But they will learn about it all using engaging child friendly resources like claymation, video animation, augmented realities etc.

The children will also learn about Black pride. We are having Najla Nubyanluv come in to share her new children’s book, I Love Being Black. We are having people come in to teach the connections between capoeira and Black liberation, dancehall and Black liberation, drumming and Black liberation. We are having community artists come in to teach the kids about the Black arts movement and do printmaking with the children. We will be taking the children to 6 Nations and to the Black Farmer’s Network so that they can better understand the land we live on, develop a commitment to decolonization, and learn about our history as plant based healers. We are cooking for the children everyday…we are cooking with the children too. We are cooking Joumou soup that Haitians cook to celebrate their Independence from the French. We are also teaching the children how to plan and execute an action against state violence. In fact freedom school will culminate in this.

S: How does the Freedom School fit within a transformative justice framework?

L: One of the things we know is that our school system focuses obsessively on productivity. It teaches our children to be workers…especially our Black students. If our Black children’s personhood, or the things they are going through in their everyday lives interferes with that productivity or the productivity of others: they are suspended, they are expelled, or they are put in behavioral programs to “correct their behaviour” so that they can become productive as per the priorities of a Capitalist state. Our children are not encouraged to spend time checking in with themselves about their feelings and their needs. They do not have the space to be vulnerable or even emotional. They are not encouraged to demand that the conditions of their education transform to meet their needs.

Transformative Justice is the belief that we need to adjust systemic power to create space for transformative practices. Instead of dealing with student conduct using escalating punishments, we will be transforming the conditions that affect student conduct…for example engagement, appropriate cultural framework, and representation. The content of Freedom School programming came from parent and youth visioning, not from a top down process. Also, when we address conduct issues in Freedom School we will be asking questions like: “Why do you think you acted this way?”, “How do you feel you are treated by the person you harmed?”, “Do you feel you have everything you need to be successful here?”, “How can we support you to acquire the resources you need to be successful here?”, “In what ways do you feel powerful?”, “What can we do to add to that power?”


Black and White headshot of Leroi

Leroi Newbold is an artist, community organizer and an educator at Canada’s first public Africentric school

Black and white picture of shabina hand picking dandelions

Shabina is a community herbalist and organizer working towards the liberation of all people.

What You Wear

illustration of a moon with floral inside

An Interview with Riley Kucheran

by Ciana Hamilton

When we think about ways to create paths of cultural healing, we must not ignore the very basics of culture. Things like art, food, medicine and language need to be restored and brought back to a place of admiration if we expect true healing to occur. Clothing is no exception. Today, Indigenous fashion designers have begun to make a powerful shift in reclaiming pieces of lost Indigenous culture. Riley Kucheran devoted some time to speak with The Peak Magazine about his work around the revival of Indigenous cultures by honouring the legacies, and diversity, of Indigenous clothing.

Can you introduce yourself and tell me a about your current project, Fashioning Reconciliation?

I’m an Ojibway PhD student from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg studying Indigenous fashion design resurgence at Ryerson and York University in Toronto.

In 2016, I was hired by the School of Fashion at Ryerson to work on Fashioning Reconciliation. Initially it was a three-hour lecture and panel in an undergraduate fashion course open to the broader Ryerson community. The project has transformed into a community-based project to share truths about the role of clothing in colonization and to mobilize Indigenous resurgence with fashion design.

We still hold annual events at the School of Fashion that continue to uplift Indigenous perspectives on cultural appropriation and Indigenizing the fashion industry, but these conversations are now happening across Canada and around the world. 

Fashioning Reconciliation has grown to reflect and shape my PhD research based on the relationships I’ve cultivated in the Indigenous fashion community. It’s now an upcoming edited collection and symposium. The book will fill a gap in literature on the history and contemporary context of Indigenous fashion in Canada and beyond, and the symposium is going to coincide with Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto 2020.

This issue of The Peak is centered on Healing Legacies, with a focus on decolonizing and mending cultural trauma. How does Indigenous clothing shift from being targeted by colonizers to being a tool to create a resurgence of Indigenous culture?

To explore how fashion was used as a weapon during the attempted cultural genocide of Indigenous people, I did some archival research that shaped the core of my upcoming dissertation, “Decolonizing Fashion.” I found that the role of clothing was used as a tool for assimilation: children entering the residential school systems were stripped of their cultural clothing and made to appear closer to a Western ideal, if properly clothed at all. This process was carefully photographed and documented, and was used as propaganda to sell cultural assimilation as a “successful” venture in Canada. There is inherent power in telling this truth, in revisiting these archives, in finding examples of children resisting this process, in order to clear a path for counter-narratives and resurgence. By engaging with contemporary Indigenous fashion designers, who are often revisiting their own ancestry and history, we can begin to heal and move forward. Indigenous fashion is holistically sustainable and community minded, and when designers create from an Indigenous perspective, it uplifts everyone.

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto had its first year in 2018. Why is it important to create a platform where only Indigenous fashion is highlighted, celebrated and respected?

There is systemic inequity and a rigid hierarchy in the fashion industry that works to exclude marginalized fashion designers, particularly Indigenous designers. The exclusion is followed by commodification and appropriation of Indigenous designs; a direct result of the colonial framework we are living in. A counter-narrative was critically needed, particularly in Toronto. Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, led by Sage Paul, is about carving an alternative path to amplify these voices beyond the Euro-centric lens of the broader fashion industry. Gathering is so critical for the resurgence of Indigenous culture—for decades it was illegal for Indigenous people to gather under the Indian Act—but now we can gather, strategize, mobilize, and build our own Indigenous fashion systems.

Outside of the world of high-profile fashion design – how can everyday Indigenous folks reclaim lost culture through clothing?

Design and dress practices, whether customary or every-day, are generational in many communities. Clothing is passed down and it often comes with teachings that were typically lost in the process of colonization. I think everyone can try and reconnect this way—by going through our families closets and recycling or upcycling what’s already been made. I also think that purchasing less fast fashion and trying to be mindful of sustainability is also inherently Indigenous and reconnects us with our culture: dressing should be ceremony.

Reclaiming culture can mean anything from finding a way to relearn traditional skills and apply them in a new context, to buying and supporting Indigenous-made designs that you feel connected to. or even simply having conversations with the communities you have access to. You can share memories, stories, and feelings on clothing practices and making.

How does one, who is non-Indigenous, support Indigenous clothing/art?

Creating safe spaces for conversation, fostering long term reciprocal relationships, and understanding the work that goes into each piece is crucial. Supporting Indigenous designers and makers is number one. When purchasing Indigenous products, ask yourself: do you know the maker of what you are buying? Are the profits supporting the artisans or designers themselves? Luxury and fast fashion companies often incorporate Indigenous iconography or designs in their collections and outsource the labour to cut costs without considering Indigenous artisans that work tirelessly to make sustainably-minded garments or accessories that hold meaning in every stitch, shape, or bead. Support them, not multinational companies.

What do you hope to see as a result of your work around Indigenous culture and fashion?

I hope to continue working on structural changes and cultural resurgence, or providing the resources and opportunities needed for Indigenous fashion designers to receive the recognition they deserve. I’ve had many difficulties but also privileges in life, and I want to mobilize universities and education to the benefit of community. I hope to nurture and support the Indigenous fashion movement, and educate people about this crucial history and the beautiful future that awaits.

Riley Kucheran is an Ojibway PhD student from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg studying Indigenous fashion design resurgence at Ryerson and York Universities. He’s the Indigenous Advisor in the Yeates School of Graduate Studies and an active community member in Toronto. His research called #FashioningReconciliation is based in the Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change

Ciana Hamilton is a happy nappy freelance creative writer & journalist. When she’s not writing she can be found doing fun shit with her kids.

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.

Together & Alone: Recovering Family Histories of Healing

a photo of small area of greenery on a beach with small human statue

by Tina Zafreen Alam

trees
the dead
stand stark and defiant
among the living
twisted, pale
limbs stretched skyward
still
in seas of lush green
naked, bare
together and alone

I ask questions. If I were to think of the most notable thing about me, it’s that I ask questions and that sometimes, these are the questions that no one else around me thought to, decided to, wanted to or was prepared to ask.

In March, I went to a free workshop on herbal medicine for stress and anxiety in hopes of finding ways to cope with a violent and oppressive school environment. The facilitator/knowledge-sharer spoke about traditional and Indigenous practices in general and gave us information about Ayurvedic traditions in particular.

I left the workshop with questions. Though I have a very limited and basic understanding of Ayurveda, I didn’t know if it was the practice that my ancestors in Bangladesh would have been connected to. So, I asked.

First, I asked my Mamoni (term of endearment meaning mother, dearest and what I call my mother’s second sister) and she told me I had an ancestor that was a herbalist. I then asked my Khalamoni (term of endearment meaning dearest maternal aunt and what I call my mom’s third sister) and my mother about it and everyone gave me different answers. Finally, I asked my Nannoo (my maternal grandmother) and she told me about someone who practiced traditional healing. It wasn’t until I checked back with my Mamoni that I realized that they were speaking of two different relatives. I set out looking to learn about one healer in the family and ended up hearing about two!

What follows are interviews with two family members on my mother’s side, my Nannoo and my Mamoni. I sent them both the same questions:

What is your name and your relationship to me?

Nannoo: My name is Hasna Begum and I am your maternal grandmother.

Mamoni: I am your maternal aunt. I have been very close to you, having lived with your family in Canada for a couple of years. And you lived with my family for a couple of years, your junior and senior years in high school, in Montreal and in New Haven.

What is your personal relationship with traditional healing practices or traditional medicine?

N: I have almost no personal relationship with traditional healing practices or traditional medicine. I am science oriented.

M: I have no formal connection to herbal or traditional medicine. I do usually have a tube of Arnica that I apply to myself and offer to others for minor aches or bruises. My maternal grandmother used to have an old wooden chest of small bottles of liquids and sugar balls that she would open to treat our minor cuts and bruises when we were kids. I found this chest very intriguing and was distressed to find it gone when my grandmother passed away.

Is there a particular name for traditional healing practices and traditional medicine that is practiced in the area now known as Bangladesh?

N: Yes, traditional medicine is still widely trusted and practiced in rural areas.

M: Yes, there are terms for traditional medicinal practices in Bangladesh. The first is Kobiraji, strictly speaking, herbalism, and the second would be loosely termed as Ojha, who engages in “jhara/pura,” or spiritualism mixed in with some herbal prescription. This is when the medicine man or woman would do incantations as well as a blow on people as part of the cure. Probably more to it but I have not actually watched one. I would say that about ninety-nine percent of Bangladeshis will have gone to one or other form of herbalist/spiritualist in their lifetime (just guessing here).

I heard that we have a family member who was a healer and herbalist, can you tell me her name, how she is related to us and what you know about her practice?

N: Her name was Zohra, my mother’s youngest sister. She was a healer and herbalist too! She often visited my mother, Rabeya, sometimes along with one male healer. They sat on a mat. Lit candles in the middle and meditated for hours before starting any treatment. They chanted some unrecognizable words and brought out herbs from their bundles for treatment of the patient in front. My response to these activities is skeptical!

M: My paternal great aunt (my grandfather’s sister) was such a person. I know very little about her except that when some member of her family was really ill, some herbs were revealed to her in her sleep by an angel and when she procured and prepared these, it is said to have cured the patient. My understanding is that this happened more than once.I do not know her name but, she was supposedly very spritely and smart and picked up lessons when her brothers were being tutored. As a girl, she would not have been tutored. She married and had four children, three boys and a girl. She died at childbirth after her last child, the daughter, was born.

Did you ever receive treatment from her or through her direction? And if so, can you describe what your initial concern was, what the treatment was and how you responded to it?

N: I, myself ever received any such treatment.

M: She was gone long before I was born.

Can you let me know how her practice was received or perceived by the rest of the family?

N: Most of the family members thought that the whole affair was fake and senseless.

M: I believe her family appreciated that her herbs helped her family member. Also, I do not think that it bothered anyone that this was ‘alternative’ medicine. I believe she was very well loved and I get the impression that she was what we would call an engaging and happy young girl/woman.

Have you yourself ever felt any personal connection to her practices or have any of your children (or grandchildren)?

N: My children received such treatment and sometimes got healed!

M: Strictly speaking, I cannot say that I have. My experience has not been medicine oriented. I have had strange dreams and urges to call home when there was no particular reason to but I have not sought out any of it.So here are two or three stories when my connection to my family seems to have driven me to make phone calls to my family only to find that there was grave news awaiting me. The first instance was in 1986 when I was away in Harare, Zimbabwe, doing field research. I lived in Montreal and was a graduate student at McGill University. Most of my family lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In Harare, my then husband and I were renting a room in the suburban home of a Mrs. Jackson. She had a phone, but it was not one that we had access to. Also, this was a time when people wrote letters and phone calls were difficult – especially as it was still required to go via long distance call assistant to make the connection. Also, it was a relatively costly venture.

Anyway, I felt the sudden need to call home to Dhaka. Mrs. Jackson was reluctant. She only rarely used the phone to make long distance calls herself. In the end, she gave in when she saw how desperately I wanted to make the call. Also we gave her about Zim twenty dollars in advance. This was way more than the call would end up costing her.

When I called, my father answered the call and told me that a shadow had been detected  the x-ray of his liver the day before.

The second story was when I called my mother in Dhaka from New Haven on the same day that she found a lump on her breast. This turned out to be benign.

Do you feel it’s important to pass down and chronicle these stories and traditions?

N: My ignorance is responsible for not giving much importance to this particular method of treatment. But I think, it may be important to pass down and chronicle these stories and traditions for the knowledge of social and cultural heritage of a particular region.

M: Yes, I do feel that these stories are good to relate to family and let them deal with them in their own terms. I know my ex-husband completely downplayed the spiritual aspects of my dreams but my sisters do seem to value them.

How do you feel about discussing and sharing this information?

N: I find this discussion and sharing interesting enough!

M: I do not usually tell these stories to people other than to close family. Since these are about my close ties to them.

My Nanoo had aunts on either side of her family who were practicing herbalists, though she only knew of the one she told me about, Zohra.

My Mamoni only knew of the other aunt, whose name we don’t know, because her grandfather (my great grandfather, who I called Senior) told her stories about his sister. But, my mother and my Khalamoni didn’t know about these stories and thought I had misheard or misunderstood when I asked about them. So, I wonder if she, like me, was asking questions no one else was asking. I know that she, like me and like our ancestor before us, receives messages in her dreams.

The very process of trying to find this information has been a painful example of how I personally have been forcibly and violently disconnected from direct access to my ancestral knowledge through colonization, assimilation, loss of language, genocide, displacement, migration, and the valuing of certain man-made ways of understanding the world (science) through simultaneously devaluing other ways of understanding the world (everything else). Yet, traces of those traditions live on in me and in my Mamoni, and maybe in other family members as well.

Whose knowledge is positioned as truth and fact? Whose knowledge is revered? Whose knowledge is taught? Whose knowledge is passed down? Whose knowledge is shunned?

The barriers I am facing might have started out as overarching structural forces, but they are being perpetuated by many factors on a personal level as well.

The information that we are given is often directly tied to the questions we ask and who we ask them of. If we want ties to our cultural knowledge, especially as Black, Indigenous, People of Colour or diasporic people that might mean a lot of digging for clues and work as these disconnections are here by the design and intent of white supremacy. The traumas and traditions of my family are buried somewhere beneath the surface and I am trying to uncover them, one question at a time, following the wisdom that already lives in my bones.

Tina Zafreen Alam
Tina Zafreen Alam is a poet and a member of the Bangladeshi diaspora living in Toronto. She looks to name and illustrate the ways that transgenerational and intergenerational trauma have marked her life, while also affirming the wisdom that has passed down along with it.