Keep Going for Equity and Justice

Creating a space where each member of a community not only feels welcome but valued and respected is a gargantuan challenge.  I have been welcomed into spaces where there are is an unwritten code, or set of expectations, that you must identify and comply with if you do not want to fall into disfavour and subsequently have the welcome withdrawn.  All too often the rules are apparent after the fact.  Or perhaps, they are never are discerned.  Job places, schools, places of worship, and community gathering spots face the same challenge of how to create spaces where people with diverse cultures, belief systems, family structures and appearance can come together in a context where everyone feels valued and in the words of Marlo Thomas – free to be. 

I have lost heart that any set of rules will provide all the answers. The Declaration of Human Right and Freedoms was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 and enshrined the rights and freedoms of all human beings. Subsequent human and civil rights law have codified many of these basic rights. We have had time for full implementation. And yet, in wealthy countries the #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter #IndigenousLivesMatter echo the cries of people waiting for even basic rights to be extended to them. The citing or rules, finger pointing, and defining the work that others need to do, breeds anger and resentment rather than a collective, coordinated effort to do better.

If we are going to make a difference in the quest to create respectful spaces, we are going to need to capture the imaginations of the people within organizations whether it’s a workplace, school, club or social organization.  Co-existing in a space does not generate a welcoming or generous climate.  We need curiosity and empathy.  The kind of curiosity that inspires us to want to get to know each other, the patience to listen to someone’s story and the development of empathy.

The best place to start teaching this process is in schools, where we already have students brimming with curiosity, not afraid to ask questions, and ready to dive into the learning.  I have been inspired by Patrick Stewart’s reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and Michelle Obama’s story time online.  As part of the process of building community in our school, I decided to put a weekly story on YouTube for my school.  For my first book, I chose Fauja Singh Keeps on Going to dovetail with our recent learning about Diwali. 

I gathered the book, my tripod, my iPhone, and headed off to read the book to a Grade 5 class.  After I discovered there was too much noise and the student response to the book, I headed off to read to the Grade 3 class I was covering.   It is a newly published book by Simran Singh with illustrations by Baljinder Kaur that bring additional insight into Sikh culture.  Fauja Singh is 108 years old and will live on in my heart.  He experiences physical adversity, racism, loss, and becomes the first 100-year-old person to finish a marathon.  Fauja demonstrates resilience, perseverance and grace in moving forward to become an inspiration for all of us.  Before I went off to read with students, I called one of the parents in my school community to make sure I was pronouncing Fauja’s name correctly.  Turns out Bindy interviewed Fauja when she was doing the research for her doctoral degree and was able to provide a great personal story to bring additional insight to our students.    

My 15-minute YouTube time limit for Ms. Froese Reads, didn’t allow for me to include the fascinating conversation with students.  All of us immediately made the connections with Terry Fox, the Canadian hero who demonstrated the same kind of perseverance and integrity as Fauja.  The image of Canadians running beside Fauja was reminiscent of people running beside Terry to encourage him along his route and it made us proud as Canadians.  The racist treatment of Fauja in New York post 9/11 was a focus of both conversations.  A Grade 5 girl with white skin spoke of her embarrassment about people being racist, even though she wasn’t there.  A Grade 3 boy with brown skin gave an impassioned and well-informed speech about how Donald Trump and how his racist beliefs are taking the United States in the wrong direction.  These kids heard Fauja’s story.  They understand fairness.  They empathize.  They were inspired by Fauja’s mother ‘s message that “Today is a chance to do your best.”  How do we inspired everyone to take a step back and proceed with kindness on a path to equity and justice?

We are at another junction in history where people are pausing to consider our direction.   Certainly, it will take a willingness to listen more and to broaden our perspectives if that is to be a path towards equity and justice.  The route of how to get to a more social just society is widely disputed.  I still hold tight to the  principles laid out in the United Nations Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  I believe the process of continuing to articulate those principles in a Children’s Charter, an Indigenous Charter, and a Canadian Charter were important to further strengthen these basic rights and freedoms.  I will continue to live them and to teach them.  I believe in laws and their fair application to provide justice.  I also believe in mandatory training to outline expectations in the workplace and in public institutions.  Yet, they are not enough. 

How do we inspire curiosity and a desire to do better?  How do we break down the hierarchical and social structures that inhibit people from sharing their stories with the people in their schools, jobs, places of worship, and the cities we live in?  And how do we inspire people to want to empathize?  How do we encourage people to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not immediately assume the worst intention?  Any environment that creates a fear of making mistakes, is destined to become entrenched in camps.  Silence follows fear.  Growth requires a collaborative effort to understand. Authors like Margaret Atwood, Wab Kinew and Yaa Gyasi have the ability to shift perspectives within a few hundred pages.  Children are responsive to well written books with diverse perspectives, particularly when followed with engaging discussion.  Sitting face to face in a room and learning about someone’s journey is magic.  As a member, then community fieldworker for Amnesty International, I had the opportunity to listen to the stories or many people who had been imprisoned and tortured for their religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, political belief or relationship to someone else being persecuted and intimidated.  They were stories or hope, survival and gratitude.  They were inspirational and strengthened my resolve to work for social justice.   During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hearts were broken listening to traumatic stories of residential school survivors  and family breakdown of our Indigenous people.  It brought a part of Canadian history, omitted in textbooks, to the forefront of our collective consciousness as a country.  Anyone involved in the process has a greater level of empathy and understanding of the complexity and importance of the path to reconciliation with our Indigenous people. Like Fauja Singh, we need to keep going until basic rights and freedoms are part of the lived experience of all people and we don’t even have to ask – Do you feel valued?  It will be a given.

Indigenous Experience is Canadian History – Remember on Sept. 30th

Orange shirt day is officially marked on September 30 each year, as that was the time of year Indigenous children were historically taken from their homes to attend residential schools in Canada.  Orange shirt day is not a day about guilt for actions of other Canadians in days gone by.  It is about being part of a story.  Our story as Canadians.  A story in which 150,000 Indigenous children were taken out of their homes and communities and put in residential schools because the differences in culture and language were not understood or appreciated or tolerated.  A story where 10,000 years of experience living off the land was not understood as a learning opportunity.  A story that started in 1831 with the first residential school and continues today.  Because although the last residential school was finally closed in 1996, the trauma of generations of residential schools has left a trail of shame, sadness, and racism.

One of the best things for us as a country has been the work of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada.  From 2007 – 2015, as the commission traveled throughout Canada, the stories of residential schools became common knowledge.  In many cases for the first time, Indigenous people were able to tell their stories and have people believe they were telling the truth.  We learned of the harsh, punitive conditions in which children were not allowed to speak their own language or practice their cultural traditions.  Six thousand children never returned home due to inadequate food, health and sanitary conditions.  Stories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are all too common.  The trauma has crept through generations.  And yet the beacon of hope is that the truth has been told and heard.  And now the work of reconciliation has a chance of success.  We have the opportunity to forge a vision of a future in which Canadians value differences as opportunities for learning, ask questions, problem solve and recognize that every person matters.

Indigenous elders teach respect of the sacredness and importance of clean water.  Autumn Peltier from the Anishinabek First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario learned this as a young child.  These teachings have allowed this 15 year old girl to clearly articulate the need for clean water to the United Nations and at hundreds of events around the world.  She speaks and people listen.  Her question, “All across these lands, we know somewhere where someone can’t drink the water.  Why so many, and why have they gone without for so long?”  I am certain she will be included in the next edition of Wab Kinew’s book about Indigenous heroes!  Our country is better with her voice.

 

The Vancouver School District has identified an Indigenous Goal for all of our public schools:  To increase knowledge, acceptance,  empathy, awareness and appreciation of Indigenous histories, traditions,  cultures and contributions among all students

At David Livingstone Elementary, we will be exploring the Indigenous Principles of Learning incorporated in the new curriculum in British Columbia and exploring Indigenous ways of knowing.  Our starting points will be in the school community garden.  It will be a place to learn about indigenous plants and how they were used by local Indigenous groups as food and as medicine.  We’ll also be exploring many of the legends  that are based on different aspects of nature.  We have lots to learn and we’re ready to begin.

Weaving Together the Stories of Reconciliation

Latash Maurice Nahanee performed his first national premiere on Thursday night as part of the cast of Weaving Reconciliation – Our Way.  It is presented not only as a play, but also as a cultural encounter, written by Renae Morriseau, Rosemary Georgeson and Savannah Walling with contributions from the cast, knowledge keepers and partnering communities.  I was honoured to be a witness to the stories that unfolded.  The pre-show weaving demonstration, a metaphor for the play, was the focus in the middle of the circle when you enter the room, which later becomes the stage.  The stories of the struggles of one Indigenous family unfolds in the centre of the circle.  They are supported by four relations, arranged like compass points around the stage, from the past, the present and the future.  Their voices have an ethereal quality and speak to their friends and relatives, ready to support the tormented soul of the characters that weave in and out of the spotlight.  Just when the pain and tragedy of the story became too overwhelming, in enters the Trickster, Sam Bob, with his hopeful, young sidekick.  This character has a big physical presence with a lightness of spirit and sharp wit which mirrors the comedic element in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The sharing of the stories, intertwined with other stories, intertwined with past injustices, intertwined with other injustices, give light to the complexities of the process of reconciliation with Indigenous families.  The struggle and the promise of moving forward is a testimony to the resilience of Indigenous people emerging beyond the constricting yoke of residential schools, systemic racism, dislocation from support structures and pain.  Part of the hope felt at the end of the play comes from the characters moving forward towards reconciliation with family, with history and with a stronger voice to recapture the power over their own lives.

The power of good theatre is the capacity to draw us into the story and help us to empathize with the characters.  Watching the play, I believed that each story represented the lived experience of each actor.  Their intensity of emotion was palpable.  The story of the experience of Indigenous people in Canada belongs to them and their story of reconciliation belongs to them.  How that story intertwines with our individual story and our colonial past is defined by us.  Latash has been a mentor and a friend in helping me on my own personal path towards understanding and reconciliation.  We met “many moons ago” when we were both working in Coquitlam.  Latash was an Aboriginal support worker and I was a teacher at a middle school.  Some of our shared students were some of the most vulnerable in the district.  Latash was masterful at stepping back from judgement and accepting where these kids were and providing much needed support.  He helped me to begin to understand the complexity of supporting these young people as they tried to forage a new path that was far beyond the scope of learning to read.

Latash invited me to be the sponsor teacher in a cultural exchange program with indigenous students in the Coquitlam School District and indigenous students who belonged to a Friendship Centre in Ottawa.  These students came bubbling with enthusiasm to seek out understanding of their cultural roots.  Students spent time as a large group in both Vancouver and Ottawa.  It opened up new world of experiences, cultural learning, and access to history not included in my classes at elementary school, secondary school or university.  As the sponsor teacher, I was in charge of expectations for behaviour, timelines and safety.  This was my first glimpse into the challenges that come with the role of principal.  It was also my first understanding of my role as the “one outside” who carries a completely different frame of reference and experience within Canada.

Latash, helped me to grapple with the notion that my path towards reconciliation was my own.  Learning the history was not enough.   Looking to the indigenous community to reconcile on their own was not a viable option.  Feeling guilty wasn’t the point.  The discovery that residential schools existed in Canada, let alone in my lifetime was as much of a shock as the dawning realization that Canada was not the champion of the Universal Declaration of Rights and Freedoms that I had believed.  The initial defensive move was the desire to distance myself from any responsibility and create a rationale for unacceptable decisions.  The dawning realization was that the decisions made and perpetuated throughout our history could only have been motivated by a belief in cultural supremacy and monetary gain.

Our challenge is to decide to open our minds and hearts to the stories and weave a new chapter that is based on a reconciliation of the past, and lay a new foundation based on  respect for basic human rights and freedoms.   It is to ask questions.  How does one woman decide hitchhiking is her only option and no one ever sees or hears from her again or knows what happened to her?  How does that happen once, let alone hundreds of times?   Why do indigenous people struggle to graduate?  Represent such a high number of the prison population?  Suffer from high rates of addiction?  As Latash aptly describes, Canada for indigenous people “is like the albatross that was hung around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.”  Resilience will be the story of the Indigenous people in reconciling within their families, communities and Canada.  The story of the reconciliation of “a settler” such as myself, is still to be written.  It will be a journey and it will be woven with a myriad of other stories.  It will be a story of hope and of justice.

My advice.  Go see the play.  It’s in Vancouver for another three days, then off to Pentiction, Toronto and Winnipeg.  It may make you cry.   It will make you think.   It will make you hopeful.  And surprisingly, it will make you laugh.