My morning prayers rise like smoke. Yesterday’s living a burnt offering. I am grateful for change.
While many of us have heads swirling with the change this seasonal shift brings. From summer’s ease to September busyness. From having time to watch things grow – drawing in the summer’s heat – to not enough time to get ready – as the long slow exhale towards winter begins. Today, with the equinox shift, instead of being overwhelmed by so much change, I am appreciating the power of change.
Our guest at last wednesday’s “Subversive Faith” interview, Ann Naylor, started me down this path. Some of the things she said have stayed with me. Listening to someone’s story of faith can stir the embers of our own stories.
Ann told us about her grounding in a family where church was integral to their living. And I was struck by her description of her large blended-family of kids gathering every Sunday evening for a family council. It was a time for personal check-ins and a time to discuss and decide issues facing them all. What struck me was how this intentional process echoed through Ann’s life of justice and peace-making.
This same kind of circle process is key to the learning at the Centre for Christian Studies where Ann has taught for the past seventeen years. This co-learning process has shaped our thinking about what Bedford House might offer.
Ann’s stories were not just about going round and round but also full of progress made against the odds. How the sting of hate towards bi-racial families was an awakening to her childhood sensibilities of what was right and wrong and worth fighting for. How a church so ready to fight for justice in the world couldn’t deal with its own male-female power imbalances. How peace-making meant staying in relation with opponents and making the conversations not only political but also personally compassionate.
Ann held senior offices at the national united church during the 1980s when sexual orientation was the change at hand. At the same time she walked in solidarity with Latin American liberation leaders and stood between Quebec police rifles and first nations protestors at Oka.
When one of us asked how she keeps hopeful in the face of enduring opposition to change she quoted Pete Seeger, “Music surrounds hatred and makes it surrender.”
Ann teaches with music. It both feeds her spirit and is a way of sharing the messages of peace in a way that reaches all generations. Many of her best lessons, she shared, come from the children she teaches weekly in Sunday school.
When asked about her own endurance in the struggles, Ann spoke of how “the people of God” have always faced incredible odds and so often suffered violence. She is inspired by those who have lost everything to hatred and yet still work from the mysterious place of love. When the people of god have all else stripped away what endures is the vision for peace that love inspires and the ancient-core-heart-courage to go on.
The people of god. Not necessarily church people. Not necessarily Christians. The people who god calls together into the hope that is humanity’s divine destiny.
Ann’s stories rekindled that calling in me. I could feel it like a shared heartbeat in the room as our small group listened. People can change. Thank god. People can change the way systems work. Thank god. People can attune themselves to the ways of the earth – at peace with both living and dying, seeding and harvesting, plenty and want. In right relations with all life there arises a harmony that surrounds hatred and makes it surrender. Thank god.
Tuesday August 25th
As we race home, the kilometres clicking. stock markets dipping, politicians promising brighter futures in radio sound bites, Lynn reads from the Truth and Reconciliation’s (TRC) 388 page report “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future”. As an official document – it’s surprisingly digestible. As a record of Canada’s history – it’s deeply troubling.
I wonder how much of our trip will have a lasting effect on me? As we drive south the hills are surrounded by mists rising off the lakes. It has an other-worldly effect – making me feel like the world we’re leaving is unreal, distant, a dream that disappears like smoke once daylight arrives.
Passing through hour after hour of northern forests it might be easy to think there’s a limitless supply of timber. It could be easy to forget the living nightmare the people of Grassy Narrows have shared with us. Return to my routines. Return to my same old ways of getting by, consuming energy and natural resources without a thought to the true costs of my living.
I remember Larry Morrissette’s definition of Development. “You flush the toilet – and somebody else gets the shit.”
We have short memories when it comes to such things. The 1996 Royal Commission covered much of the same territory as the TRC report. It made many of the same recommendations. Most of which were conveniently disregarded by those in power and forgotten by the general public.
This TRC document however, is soaked in the tears of the Residential School survivors. The TRC heard over 6,000 stories. Many heartbreaking accounts are captured in the pages. In addition to the hard cold truths of how we made “our home on native lands”, it documents the human costs. The truth is that the “true north” is not strong nor free.
A chapter details the TRC process. The Commission had to deal with deliberate resistance from our federal government departments. If it wasn’t for the Supreme Court’s rulings, the government would have successfully withheld vital information about it’s attempts at cultural genocide. It seems that the courts are the only place First Nations can hope to receive justice. Our governments continue to spend millions trying to defend and preserve their own institutional self-interests.
On the other hand, our CPT visit to the Kenora district court revealed how our lower courts are awash with the side-effects of colonialization. In the two hours we spent there all seven cases were aboriginal people. Five of the seven were young women. Three of these were girls whose foster parents had called in the police after failing to control them.
For a culture that is essentially matriarchal, the current “missing and murdered” women disgrace tells a story of just how pervasive have been the effects of our governments attempted genocide. By tearing apart families, we have hacked away at the trunk of the tree that connects deep roots with the branches of future generations.
It seems that only our Supreme Courts are willing to address the root causes of indigenous people’s claims. The TRC has told the truth. Now we will see whether Canadians will begin the work of reconciliation.
What can I do to change things in Grassy?
It’s the same answer I came home with after visiting the Dominican Republic in 1976, Fiji in 1979, Peru in 1982. The poverty of those places is a direct result of the colonialization, corporatization, and “progress-driven” consumer society whose benefits I thoughtlessly enjoy daily.
“Be the Change you want to see in the world.” said Mahatma Ghandi and this truth still rings out. I hear it at Fleming College where I tell community organizing stories to students.
While walking in solidarity as allies with the people who live where the shit ends up – the changes needs to happen here – in the white man’s world.
“A learning journey can be a provocation that invites you to examine your beliefs and assumptions and how change happens and what becomes possible when we fully engage our communities.
Sometimes a learning journey that immerses us in a different context or way of looking that can be overwhelming or disorienting. It can create moments when we’re no longer sure about something.
When certainty collapses, it’s often replaced by curiosity.”
Margaret Wheatley from “Walk Out Walk On”
“Aren’t you Curious?” is a by-line we use to invite people into learning circles at Bedford House (the new community development learning centre we’re working hard to get off the ground this fall)
At Peterborough Dialogues we engage in forging relationships and telling a new story about the Peterborough we want to live into.
With Transition Town we celebrate our local food economy at the Purple Onion Festival.
At Greenwood United Church (where I start working part time in September) faithful followers of the Jesus-way commit to reducing their environmental footprint.
Did I find Jesus on my trip to Grassy Narrows? In my first blog about this trip I’d said I was looking for him on the front lines where Colonialization and the battle to save Mother Nature meet.
I found his strength dancing in the 32 degree heat of the Pow Wow.
I found his wisdom in the four directions teachings of the Bear Clan.
I found his anger in my fears that violence would prevail against justice.
I found his tears listening to the women’s drum songs of healing.
I found his courage to put his body on the line at the Blockade.
I found his humility in the prisoner’s dock preserving humanity in the midst of insanity.
I found his spirit deep in the cold waters I dove into each morning.
I found his laughter in the bread we broke and the jokes we shared.
I found his sisters and brothers everywhere as I looked into all my relations.
“Lo, I am with you always” he says.
May I remain awake to my privilege and the price of it.
May I remain on the red path of sustaining the circle instead of the bottom line.
May I keep my eyes, ears, hands and heart open to the teachers I encounter daily.
Monday August 24th
A cold northwest wind has dropped the temperature below 10C. Rain pelts the windows at Meg’s Hilly Lake home. No morning swim for me today. We’re packing up and heading out for the 1500K drive home.
The CPT team has said its goodbyes and shared individual commitments to remain allies of our new friends here.
I take with me a quote from one of our morning readings (that I’ve lost the reference for). It goes something like “Jesus made three promises to his followers: that they would know bottomless joy, that they would possess an unshakeable fearlessness, and that they would be always in trouble.”
Bottomless joy? One strong lasting impression I take away from my visit is the humour of our hosts. While their stories stir rage in me, they keep a twinkle in their eyes. They are quick to joke and tease while I get lost in an earnest search for answers. Their humour is like the water that crashes against the rock cliffs of white man’s hubris. (Hubris (/ˈhjuːbrɪs/, also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβρις) means extreme pride or self-confidence. When it offends the gods of ancient Greece, it is usually punished. )
The arrogance of my culture astounds me. We have been so sure that we stand on the rock of ages. Yet water and wind over time turn rock into sand. What makes our hosts laugh when their tears run steady?
What makes these warriors into fearless defenders of mother nature? In a CBC interview internationally renowned cutting-edge architect Douglas Cardinal comments on the power of fear’s inhibition. His heritage gave him what he needed to put fear behind him. “Once you sit with the elders and experience the Vision Fast – you experience a death of ego – and so you learn to fear nothing.”
And as for the trouble Jesus promised? Trouble is what the Trickster uses to teach us when we’ve strayed from humility into hubris. Humour is what tickles confidence into questions. Joy is the evidence of a wealth that money can’t buy.
As I wonder at how Indigenous people across Canada have survived colonialism, and I think of the Canadian winter approaching, what strikes me is just how tough you need to be to live off this land. If these people could survive through the winters here – adapt and even thrive – is it surprising they have been resilient enough to survive the plagues of colonialism.
“We’re still here.” declares Judy DaSilva, Larry Morrissette, and others in a mantra I’ve heard repeated now many times.
It also strikes me that just as indigenous people taught the first Europeans how to survive in nature’s harsh elements – they have lessons to teach us still. As global warming threatens to wipe out our modern societies, we’ll need new skills. If anyone can adapt and survive through radical climate changes – it won’t be those of us who don’t know how to live without electricity and gasoline. Traditional, appropriate technologies of the first peoples developed over millennia offer hope.
For the last two centuries we’ve been working hard to educate and civilize indigenous peoples. Colonial efforts across the globe have pursued this same pattern. Changing the people of the land into good corporate citizens. Training them to respond to bells, whistles, and the clocks of progress. Turning them into consumers dependent upon the cash-economy. Uprooting them from their place in the eco-system to be part of a transient society in pursuit of “the American dream”.
Is it these first peoples who need to change?
My Grassy Narrows friend, Mary-Ann laughs when I ask her about the effects of the closure of the Abitibi Pulp Mill in Kenora. Fifteen hundred jobs were lost. “It didn’t affect us at all – hardly any of us were even employed.”
While we get scared every time the stock market dips. While politicians compete to be the one to ensure middle class comforts by feathering the ever-bigger and better nests of the super rich. While we worry about pensions and property values. None of this even touches the poor – the majority of people on this planet. When you have nothing to lose – why vote for leaders blind and deaf to the interests of what actually sustains you?
What sustains you when you are not a part of the global economic order? Clean water, clean air, and the soil that holds the bones of your ancestors. A communal wisdom rooted in co-existence with the elements. The people who have listened to the earth speak, and have shaped their survival out of respect for its laws – know more about sustainability than any PHD with a library full of books. (books made with paper from clear-cut forests.)
“Built on Paper” declares northern town’s roadside signage. They invite tourists to stay and enjoy the natural beauty, spread some of that southern cash around. Tourism employs more people and contributes more to Canada’s economy than the oil industry, or mining, or forestry. Yet the economics that puts disposable income into the gas tanks of tourists threatens to ruin what they’re here to experience.
In the first six months of a North American baby’s life, they will consume more packaged goods than most people on the planet will buy in a lifetime.
Is it indigenous people who need to change, to be fixed, to be educated?
Sunday August 22nd
Much of our time with the CPT delegation at Grassy Narrows is unstructured. We hang out or go for walks. Our home base is the Trapper’s Centre overlooking the Pow Wow site and new Elder’s Centre.
Shoon Keewatin, the Centre’s Director, drives his pickup over to the Trapper’s Centre with his small grandson. He has kind eyes and grey in his hair under the ballcap. He comes and goes quietly from the centre – checking on this or that – smiling and waving at us.
When I ask him about the centre he tells me this story:
“I was working as a caretaker at the school. I happened to be in a classroom one day when a teacher – a native teacher – was showing slides to the children about handmade snowshoes, hide tanning, moccasin making, and such. The teacher told the class, ‘This is what we used to do.’
“That really struck me.” says Shoon. ” I thought she should be saying, ‘This is what we do.’
“So, I started to look into the old ways. I heard about a man in Kenora who was making snowshoes. I went to see him and when I told him that I wanted to learn – he started to cry. He was so happy to have someone who would keep the skills going.”
Shoon shows me the practice frames that he has the teenagers and adults learn on – tying the knots and getting the weave right. He also shows me the snowshoes he’s made using plastic tubing as the foot support webbing – and a synthetic twine for weaving the front and back parts of the frame together. “Moose hide can be hard to come by these days. The moose left these parts when the forests were clearcut.”
There’s a couple of cradleboards for carrying babies on one table. A small scale replica of a birchbark canoe is hanging from the ceiling.
One of several large area maps on the wall is marked with lines and the words “traplines available”. When I ask about it, Shoon explains that the Province made a park out of a territory. They told the trappers they’d have to give up their traplines for the campers. But when the campers arrived they asked, “Where are the trappers?” Now the Province is trying to get trappers to come back into the area to make the tourists happy.
Shoon shows us a video of him teaching a group of youth how to tan a deerhide from start to finish. It’s a long process with many steps and a lot of hand labour. The kind of job that goes better when you’ve got a group doing it. It takes skill to scrape off the layers of fur and membrane. Shoon explains that it’s not hard to ruin the hide by poking holes through it. I think how heartbreaking it would be to ruin a hide after putting hours and hours of work into it. They started out working on four hides, but ended with just two. The high cost of education I guess.
He tells me about a wood carver who made a small owl. A guy from a retail chain asked him if he could make a thousand of them. Shoon looks at me, “He could have set up with a computerized saw – but that’s not art” I shared a few stories about my experiences trying to balance the need for a fair wage with the low prices most consumers are willing to pay. Soon just nods and looks at me sideways.
Afterwards I realize we’re talking two different economic languages. My experience and analysis are driven by the idea of counting time as money. The value of a product is measured by the cost of labour put into it. But Shoon’s ways are traditional. His technology comes from a time before the cash economy took over their lives. The arts of survival he is reclaiming are not measured by the hourly waged individual worker. The value of these crafts are about staying alive. About a community relying on one another. Each doing their part in the day by day, season by season cycle of taking from the land the living it provides.
The land is not a resource to be exploited to feed the cash economy’s endlessly hungry machine in its relentless march towards progress’ illusory benefits for all. No, their relationship with the cycles of the seasons is one of love and respect for the mother that sustains them. The creatures of the woods and waters, the plants of the forests and shorelines, are not a commodity but a relationship. Time is precious but not something to be bought and sold.
No wonder these folks are so passionate about protecting the woods and the waters. To break the cycle into a linear path puts everything at risk.
Shoon’s sideways look takes me back to the Sabbath teachings of Jesus. As his people were being absorbed into the Roman Empire’s coin economy – forced to exchange trade, barter, and share system for the Roman’s cash and tax system – the itinerant rabbi reminded them of what was being lost. Either Caesar is Lord – the guy with his head on the silver coin – or Jesus is Lord – the guy who called his people into a radical generosity that couldn’t be taxed.
Shoon isn’t just showing us what his people used to do. Now, at the Trapper’s Centre – it’s what they do.
Thursday August 20th
What a beautiful spot! Early morning sun hits the far shore of Grassy Lake and a cool breeze is keeping the bugs away. I’m sitting in a camp chair enjoying the day’s first coffee. Crows call back and forth. Dogs come to visit for a scratch. A carload of early risers passes with Johnny Cash singing “I walk the line because you’re mine.”
We forget that we belong to each other. We forget that we are all connected in this web of life. We forget that every time we take – something needs to be given in return. A pinch of tobacco reminds us of how precious is the circle of life that holds us and sustains us.
The Trapper’s Centre where our gang is staying – our international delegation I should say – sits on a hill overlooking the Pow wow site and a new Elder’s Lodge being constructed. I can see the Fire Hall and a community hall where we’ll gather later for a community meeting with government officials about the Mercury situation.
A golf cart sized boulder splashed with red paint sits beside me. Is it vandalism I wonder – or a declaration of the red path’s way? “Walking the red path” is about taking care of the circle in the old ways.
“Out here we’re Anishnabek people” Judy told us last night. We’re sitting around a fire in a wigwam constructed of birch saplings and heavy canvas tarps. As the day’s light seeps away, she tells us the history of the blockade and the struggles to sustain Canada’s longest running civil disobedience action. “Inside the Reserve we’re under the Indian Act. Out here in the forest, in our traditional territory, we follow our ancient ways.”
“I lived with logging all my life,” she explains. “It was just a part of our lives here. Following logging trucks all the way to town. Seeing them in the ditch. Hearing the growl of them day and night. But when they started to put in a new road just on the edge of the reserve – it seemed they’d be cutting right on the edge of our homes. One of our trappers told us with tears in his eyes about how he’d gone out to find a swath of clear cut right through his trap line.”
She explains that it’d be like us coming home to find our house gone. “That’s the only way to explain to you how it would feel.”
“It was late November 2002 and we came out as a group to stop the trucks from going up the road. The Police came to tell us what we were doing was illegal but we stayed. My brother spent the whole night here. While the rest of us went home to our warm beds, he stayed. When the next truck came he went out on the road and put his arms wide and just stood there. He said he didn’t know what else to do. We have had many acts of heroism here. The next day young people came out and lay down across the road in front of the trucks.”
The blockade camp runs along the turnaround road the truckers would use after giving up on getting through. There’s a couple of small log cabins and some tent frames along the road. In the trees hang coloured cloths. Judy explains. “When someone fasts and prays, they put tobacco in the cloth and hang them as a sign and as a way of creating a circle of good feelings and protection from negativity.
“We have women’s gatherings. We have youth gatherings. People come out here to pray. But right now we’re having trouble keeping the young people interested. My kids used to beg me to take them out here – there was always something happening – but now they’re losing interest. Larry (Morrissette) says it’s the effects of assimilation. He taught me about neo-colonialism where we start acting like colonizers on our own people.”
As my eyes follow the wood smoke up through the wigwam opening, I see a satellite passing blinking over.
“CPT’s been with us all the way. When the blockade first started I knew we needed help. I googled “peacemaking” and found the Christian Peacemaker’s website. I called the number and spoke with David Pritchard in Toronto. He said that they’d worked in many countries but never Canada. I invited him to come and see so he brought some Mennonite elders up from the States with him to help decide if this was a place they could be.
“It was getting late in the evening and we were wondering where one of the Mennonite men had gone. When he finally came back he explained that he had been listening to the loons calling. He said it reminded him of when he was a boy and his grandfather would take him out on a lake to hear the loons. But now, he told us, the loons are gone. Industry drove them away. He told us he cried when he heard the loons here. He told his CPT friends, “we need to be here.”
“It’s all the small ways that they help us out – practical things – just helping out like one of us,” Judy explained. “I feel safer when they’re here. It’s encouraging to know that we’re not alone. And when the next crises comes, we know they’ll be here with us then.”
“What should we do to help when we go back home?” one of us asks. Judy pauses to think. She says “When you see an injustice – step in – don’t step back. If it’s a homeless person being harassed – or whatever. Helping them, helps us. It’s all part of the circle.
“You could do a bake sale, or sell some t-shirts, or tell our story and encourage people to do what they can to help. I understand Maslo’s hierarchy of needs. Lots of our people are busy just trying to get by. They can’t spend any time or money on this – so that’s why I ‘m here. I speak for them.”
Judy’s working on the Mercury Advisory Team that the Provincial government has set up to monitor the long term effects. She tells us that only a few people like her have received compensation for the Mercury poisoning. She tells us about the Japanese doctor who came to Grassy several times over the decades. How he’s now died and other scientists who loved him have taken up his work.
“Our doctors say ‘it could be this or it could be that’ when we bring them our children with seizures and crossed eyes and speech impediments. Mercury goes straight to the brain when it enters the body.”
All of this information is offered to us in a quiet calm way. It’s a story that she’s been living now for over forty years. I think of the rage that would burn in me if it was my child poisoned by a corporation that never gave a second thought to my children’s health when they dumped chemicals upriver from my home. I think of the rage that would burn in me when the people elected to serve my interests found excuse after excuse to not act. I think I’d lose hope when I see them throw bags of money at all the side effects without ever dealing with the root cause of the problem.
I forget that these are my children. I forget that these are my brothers and sisters. I forget that these forests are the lungs of the Mother who sustains us all.
I am weeping now. Tears stream. Anger burns. And I know that neither will change the hearts of those who have made this mess and those who claim sincere interest while collecting taxes from the companies that feed my own consumer ways.
That splash of red paint on the boulder speaks to me.
Tuesday August 18th
Having been somewhat immersed in the local native perspective, I find that I’m curious about what the white townspeople have to say about the logging blockade.
We have some free time in the afternoon so I go for a wander – wondering where I might find such a perspective. I consider the strip bar but don’t think I’ll find what I’m looking for there. And then I find myself on a corner and as I look back over my shoulder – there’s the big windows displaying local art – the place Meg had told me about. A storefront on the historic Kendricia Hotel.
The proprietor is a white-haired, white-bearded friendly sort. He’s wearing a workshirt with pockets stuffed with pens and notes and such. I ask him what he’s been reading and he tells me it’s a story about Residential schools. Hmmm…
Don is curious about where I’m from and what I’m up to here in Kenora. I find he’s quite happy to chat and answer my questions. A few customers come and go and he takes care of them and then returns to our conversation.
I ask him what impact the blockade has had on the local economy and he says “not much”. I’m surprised. What about when Abitibi Pulp and Paper shut down? (the operation made the decision to stop clear-cutting in the late nineties when the Ontario government finally began to respond to Native concerns and the future of their cutting contracts seemed murky.)
Don says that most of the workforce at Abitibi was older. They were happy to receive their compensation packages. Turns out Don was working as an employment counselor for the federal government at the time and knows quite a bit about the local workforce.
I tell him about my friend’s sister’s report that there is high unemployment in Kenora and he shrugs. “There’s definitely a lack of steady high-skilled jobs that provide benefits. There’s no shortage of part-time service jobs and the tourist industry is a big seasonal employer. There’s a new stud mill scheduled to open up this fall but they’re having trouble finding local skilled labour. There’s also plans for a Casino – one of five across the north – but no official announcements yet.
“The federal and provincial governments had departments here that were big employers. But MNR (provincial Ministry of Natural Resources) is now a fraction of what it once was. The Service Canada department where I worked has moved most of its jobs to a centralized, computerized location.”
I try to dig a bit deeper asking if there was much reaction to the blockade. He shakes his head, “A neighbour who was a heavy machine operator – doing road building – wasn’t too happy when his work stopped. But he’s a high-skilled worker and he just moved on.”
We chat about the number of independent retailers and restaurants downtown and he says it’s a struggle to keep things going through the winter months. His own operation fronting the historic Kendric Hotel seems to be more of a retirement pastime than a moneymaker.
“Oh I could go on” he says “but we’d need a campfire to get into it.” He shows me some of the local art hanging in the café. There’s a stunning charcoal portrait of a first nations woman. Don tells me the artist couldn’t afford to frame it and was willing to take the best price Don could get for it. We talk about what the market might provide for such a piece down south. He says it’s a different story up here.
After he serves another customer, we get into a short discussion of the Energy East pipeline. It’s a hot question locally. CPTers joined local townspeople and native activists just last week on a walk to protest this new development. Transcanada pipeline plans to convert a natural gas pipeline into a tar sands pipeline has raised concerns about spills.
“What I’d like to hear about is better safety regulations. I think that’s the common ground here. They tell us that their safety controls can respond within half an hour. That’s not good enough. What if someone’s asleep at the switch? A lot of damage can happen quickly. Our municipality should demand five minute warning systems and a fund to deal with clean-ups.”
I buy some ice cream and a few used books. The money for the books goes towards a local Cat Rescue Shelter. Don is obviously a guy with a big heart. His love for Kenora and the great outdoors is as clear as his generous nature.
Don’s perspective is one of those four ways (or twelve ways) of approaching the truth I was blogging about a few days ago. I thank him for the chat.