I’ve sat down to write this blog for 7 years. I’ve never been able to find the right words, or I've convinced myself that having an opinion on a subject that has nothing whatsoever to do with me is unnecessary. I decided that my voice could bring no change.
I couldn’t tell this story.
Years have gone by, and as I’ve watched the world change and hatred boil up to the surface down south, I started to feel an urgency to step into the fire and try to make some kind of positive change. But, what little can I do from where I sit? Well, maybe I could start by listening.
I am a podcast junkie.
For the millionth time PLEASE use that app on your phone. It is a world of stories, from across the world, free and on the device we all spend too much time looking at. It holds other points of view, interesting stories, many, many comedy podcasts that will have your daily commute feel like a snap as you’re laughing along to a bunch of ex-NHLers talk smack, Conan O’Brien finding friends, or intrigued over another true crime whodunnit that’ll keep you guessing until the end. My kids love to listen to Stuff You Should Know, and when I have time to myself, I delve into some deeper subjects which range from enlightenment (hey Oprah!!!) to True Crime (Serial was the very first podcast I was unabashedly addicted to), and every bit of Canadian content I can find.
Most recently, I followed week by week as Ryan McMahon delved into the under belly of Thunder Bay, Ontario, in his Canadaland podcast of the same name. I initially figured it would be interesting to hear about a community in Northern Ontario with seedy mayors and crooked cops. It was what I thought it would be about upon hearing the trailer, but after listening to the last episode, it was how much uncomfortable familiarity I heard in the voices of Thunder Bay residents talk about the 'native problem', that forced me to sit down and write this post.
I grew up in Saskatchewan. I lived in a predominantly white city, right on the US border. When I was 15, I moved to Regina, and that’s where the picket-fenced shelter I grew up in expanded a little. By the time I was done university, I thought I knew about what being from Saskatchewan meant. I took Indigenous Studies and attended a university that housed a federated college within it for First Nations people. I also knew about the current reality of Indigenous people in big centers. I knew about homelessness, and the disproportionate percentage of people in custody. I knew the facts, I had seen some of the faces, and as far as I was concerned, I was enlightened.
I was not.
My husband’s career as an RCMP officer took us to a northern Saskatchewan community that was almost entirely Metis or Treaty residents. I’ve written before about how my time up North changed me. Our son attended at Cree-immersion preschool, we were gifted beautiful wrap-around booties for our daughter when she was born, handmade by a friend’s Kookum. I came back south to visit and felt driven to tell people about the beauty of a First Nations community. Yes, there were problems, there was poverty and crime and all other things we had heard of on the news, but, beauty too. I figured everyone would immediately believe what I had to say and would change their minds about life on reserves.
But, instead, I started to hear things I hadn’t before. Not that they had never been said, but because I had never noticed the ignorance in them before. I would interrupt and say that wasn’t true, or it was unfair, but all I got back was blank stares and, “Ok, Brittany”. When our time in that community was over, as we prepared to leave, I was driven to use my words to try and make people understand what life had been like where I had just spent two years. I wanted to help the people that needed help, I wanted to exclaim everywhere that we needed to DO SOMETHING to help the kids in the system. But all I could see when I tried to write- as genuine and authentic as I was trying to be- was how easily one could fall into the ‘white savior’ complex, and end up coming off looking like a self-serving, disingenuous nitwit. I guessed that if anyone ever needed my help, they would ask.
We moved to Alberta and happened to be in Leduc, a neighbouring community to Wetaskiwin, which has once again just made the news for the living conditions of some Indigenous people and the city’s solution to their 'problem'. Wetaskiwin is the closest city to Maskwacis (formerly Hobbema), and as such, a large part of the population is First Nations. And, being around a bunch of white people near a reserve, I started to hear it all over again. Those same remarks I had come to know growing up in Regina. “It’s just violence within their own communities.” “They need to stop giving them money!” “If I have to hear ‘residential schools’ one more time..” and I tried to be polite as I corrected people, tried to use stories of the people I had seen, the families I had gotten to know when we lived in the North as not exceptions, but the reality of the tight familial bonds on reserves and in isolated communities, but no one listened. They were too busy casting solutions to ‘their’ problems and calling on the government to stop funding, to hear what anyone had to say.
In the meantime, my husband’s work meant that he worked on murdered and missing women’s files. We lived where the remains of multiple First Nations women were found. I saw it affect he and his coworkers when they couldn’t get anywhere with leads. They were frustrated that no one would talk to them, the women’s families were frustrated that they weren’t getting answers, and the cycle continued around as there was nothing to go on. Decade’s old distrust of the police and feeling like no one was being heard remained paramount.
As we moved again, further south, I was further from a community that had any reserves surrounding it, but the opinion for the most part remained the same. Bias reigned supreme….right before the conversation changed to how much more elevated as humans we are than those who voted for Trump in the US. We’re so kind and compassionate. Gentle and humble.
Well, as long as you don’t look too closely.
Again, I sat at my computer trying to say something- anything, about how we needed to view the problems differently. How we had to think outside of the box to help one another out, but was constantly afraid of it coming across wrong. I am acutely aware of white privilege, and what that means. I have never been the victim of racism in my life. What could I say that would change people’s minds?
I continued to seek ways to educate myself about Canada, and would recommend the things I’d read, or seen to people when I heard them talk about the redundancy of apologizing for residential schools. “But you guys!” I would exclaim, “Entire generations of children were taken from their homes, abused, sent back into communities with relatives they no longer knew and we just apologized and expected things to go smoothly!” and they cited dollar values and tearful Justin apologies as reasons why everyone needed to move on. It seemed that everyone had something to say.
I listened to Finding Cleo, a CBC podcast and was astounded to learn about the 60’s scoop, another Canadian government atrocity that sent children into foster homes all over North America, with television adds airing in the southern US called “AIM- Adopt Indian and Metis” and was angry that in all the years I had went to school- I HAVE A HISTORY DEGREE PEOPLE- I had never even heard of this. Perhaps it had been mentioned, but I can assure you I had no idea the extent to which this program affected Indigenous communities. As Connie Walker and many much more educated people than myself surmised, perhaps impacted communities even more than residential schools.
My husband and I went to Indian Horse, and agreed that if anyone ever says, “why don’t they just get over it?” this should immediately be shown to them. It was uncomfortable, and I took to social media to implore people to get a little uncomfortable so that we can start to gain perspective. Perspective isn’t gleaned from the box seats.
But it was most recently, listening to Thunder Bay, and hearing those voices say the SAME THINGS I had heard growing up, as a teen, as an adult, even now, that I felt like I had finally had something to say…
I understand I have white privilege. If you don’t think this is a thing, I am sorry your viewpoint is ignorant and the size of a pinhole. I can’t give my privilege away. Like the color of my eyes and my crooked nose it’s a part of me. But what I can do, is use it.
Recently, I saw a post from Amy Schumer where she said “It’s not enough to see all people as equals. That’s cool if you do. But it’s not enough. Our actions need to reflect that. We need to change everything we can to change the way things are”. She’s of course referring to getting out and voting, and to getting 45 out of office as soon as humanly possible. And, let’s be clear, what they have down there is a huge mess. But, we can’t be so busy tsk tsk-ing the US without taking a good, hard look at what’s happening up here, either.
But until I heard those same ignorant views in accents I knew well come through my headset, I wasn’t sure what ‘everything’ was. I didn’t know what to do on a large-scale that will make an impact. I’m forever seeking ways to understand and to educate, and I hope that as I learn, I will find a way to use my privilege to benefit other women who weren’t born with it. I genuinely believe that starting by acknowledging that racism happens everyday around us, and calling it out is the easiest, most reasonable step in the right direction. It’s on us to change the coffee-shop rhetoric to understanding instead of ‘us vs them’, and to be ok with making people feel uncomfortable when ignorance is distributed in jokes and stereotypes.
But most of all, hearing the rest of those voices on that podcast, the ones that I didn’t grow up with, was when I realized that encouraging people to step outside their comfort zone, outside their innate bias, was the most important thing I could say. Perhaps it was me imploring people to LISTEN, that was the greatest way I could change things.
Not making suggestions, not solving everyone’s problems, but just listening. Social networking and arguing political parties over drinks will never change anyone’s minds. It just won’t. For years relatives have stopped talking to one another over politics because NO ONE IS LISTENING, they’re just thinking of what point they’ll argue next.
So, here’s where I’m starting. I’m not a politician (yet??), but I am a writer. I am a fan of podcasts, of movies that get me thinking, of books I think about long after finishing the last page- I crave things that get me to see things from other points of view. So today, my ‘everything’ is to ask people to try out another perspective by listening to any one of the podcasts I’ve mentioned (I’ll list them below) and just, listen.
Making no excuses or judgment as you listen, but letting the voices of people who have experienced trauma, pain, and societal bias talk without interruption.
Hear their stories.
Please post anything you think I’d like, or others would like and let’s start a wave of a bunch of white people truly listening to Indigenous voices for the first time.
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Dalai Lama
To get started, some of what I'd recommend right now. I'll update the list as I read, watch and listen.
Missing and Murdered: Alberta Williams https://www.cbc.ca/radio/podcasts/missing-murdered-who-killed-alberta-williams/
Finding Cleo: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/findingcleo
Thunder Bay http://www.canadalandshow.com/shows/thunder-bay/
Indian Horse https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02cyFlnvA4s
All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward