Today is Orange Shirt Day. This movement started in 2013 because Phyllis Webstad opened her heart to Canadians to share her residential school experience and inspire others to pay attention to its lasting impact.
Resilience, bravery, and courage are at the heart of Orange Shirt Day.
The resilience of all those who experienced the horrors of residential school and somehow survived to tell us all about it.
The bravery many survivors have to speak their truth and those who are brave enough to listen to them.
And the courage for all of us to be inspired enough by this resilience and bravery to change and work towards a different future.
Over the past six plus years, I have become braver. On March 30, 2014, I spoke my truth to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada at its final national event here in Edmonton. It was the first time I had verbalized my experience as an intergenerational survivor of residential school and the hurt, sadness, and loss it had caused in my life. That moment, my shell cracked and in the years since then, my true self has begun to emerge.
Part of this healing journey has meant sharing my truth dozens more times to those who are brave enough to listen. Each time I do, the weight I carried becomes a little lighter and the burden of colonization begins to be shared on the shoulders of all who uphold it.
This year, I was asked to share part of my story of reconciliation with the students and staff of Bow Valley College as the keynote for their Orange Shirt Day event. Here is that address:
Every September 30th, I wear orange because I believe that EVERY CHILD MATTERS.
I wear orange because Phyllis’ story is my story, and the story of thousands of other survivors.
I wear orange because I am here. My existence is my resistance on behalf of my ancestors and the generations to come that will benefit from our struggle.
I wear orange because colonization is a burden that I carry each day and a system I also uphold through my inaction.
I wear orange because there are Indigenous youth struggling today with the same challenges I faced growing up in an unwell family unit. I want them to know there is a path out of the darkness.
I wear orange because my emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical being craves acknowledgement of truth every day.
I wear orange because the harms that my relations have endured pulse through my veins and burn inside of me to keep me going.
I wear orange because racism and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples is alive and well in our country.
I wear orange because I am a Treaty person and with that comes the responsibility to live into the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship.
I wear orange because I am a fierce defender of truth.
Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day. For me, the day has always been a moment to pause and consider my connection to Mother Earth and all the beings I am in relationship with. Like many of us over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of time for pause and reflection. Now more than ever, I face each day with a heightened awareness of my connection to the world around me. In a society amidst a global pandemic, on the verge of economic collapse, how we rely on and support one another has challenged me more than ever to consider All My Relations.
Earlier this month, our support for one another – especially those who differ from ourselves – became the basis of protests and rallies across the globe. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed momentum to our south, individuals and institutions alike have begun to consider the systems they enable that allow for racial discrimination to thrive. This has led to BLM support statements, social media blackouts, and lists of commitments to do better. For a racialized person like me, this increased awareness of inequity is met with both hope and cynical distrust. More people showing up in support of those who are marginalized and mistreated shows allyship but what makes this time different and what will actually change?
I have been on a journey of educating others about how to be an ally for Indigenous Peoples and social injustice for decades. This work is intentional, emotional, and constant. It requires me to balance between patience and pushing, which most days I struggle to manage. When protests spark conversations in the media or online, the questions flood in from all directions: how do I be an ally in a movement that has nothing to do with me? is often the basis for these questions. The answer: it has everything to do with you and what you do, or don’t do, in response can be the reason for the movement’s success or failure. If you are a part of the dominant, white settler society, your voice and participation holds power. These systems of inequity are created by and can be brought down by people like you.
Are you actually interested in being an ally? Start doing the work and prove it.
Share the Labour
When protests led by racialized peoples spring up in your community, your first inclination as a SJW may be to create a sign and show up in support. That’s a great first step. Being an ally starts with being present, physically and emotionally to offer support. But being there should not be the only way you show up in this conversation. Consider volunteering and taking on some of the labour required to host the rally. Help moderate and manage comments on social media, offer to secure food and water donations, support event logistics and crowd monitoring – all the extra burden that organizers take on on behalf of the attendees.
Learn Something and Pass It On
Ongoing learning on issues of racial bias, systems of oppression, injustice, and colonization is a shared responsibility. Don’t put the duty to educate yourself on the shoulders of BIPOC. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked to teach someone everything they need to know about being inclusive in one coffee date. Start reading books and blogs that challenge your own perceptions then share with others what you are beginning to learn. Start a conversation on your social media, introduce a learning activity in your next staff meeting, or pass along the book you’ve read to your dad – encourage those around you to also learn.
Audit Your Influences and Actions
Think about all the circles you are a part of – your closest friends, your work colleagues, your social networks. How is diversity represented, or not, in who you spend your time with? Who are the voices that influence your conversations and challenge your perceptions of the world? Through your paid and unpaid labour, who do you support but are not included in the planning, process, or evaluation of that labour? What perspectives are missing? What are the identities you know nothing about? Most importantly, what are you going to do about the obvious gaps you identify around you?
Be There in the Good Times Too
True allyship shows up in celebration and in hardship. Partners are there to help carry the load when things are difficult, honour victories and successes, and work alongside the mundane – all the times when true relationship and connection is formed. Find time in between the protests to get involved in diverse communities by volunteering at festivals, listening to webinars, and following the lead of those who you need to learn from. As much as I want to see you at the next protest against police brutality, I also want to see you at the next pow wow.
Systemic racism against Indigenous Peoples and other POC has been built and perpetuated over centuries by people in positions of power and privilege. If you want to show support for change and be part of the road to equity, you have those opportunities everyday. Don’t wait for the next rally or protest to claim you care, find concrete ways to rally your support everyday.
You with me?
The preceding blog was commissioned by the Canadian Art Gallery/Art Museum Educators (CAGE) and also appears on the organization’s blog.
Today, many are celebrating the Constitution Act 1867, otherwise known as confederation. For most, this is a time for national pride and honouring all that is ‘Canadian’. For Indigenous People like me on a journey of decolonizing, July 1st is a day off work and time to reflect on the idea of nationhood and our personal relationship to Canada. I think about this a lot – on what it means to be a Canadian citizen. On what about this country I am actually proud of. On the investment I make daily to speak truthfully about the past that has brought us all here.
Telling the story of our shared history to Canadians and to the world is an uphill battle. What we are taught through our education system and the narrative perpetuated in society is a colonial one. It’s based on the idea of terra nullius, or empty land, that was ‘discovered’ by Europeans and put to good use. I remember in grade school learning about Cartier and Cabot that arrived on the eastern shores to settle, create colonies, and eventually move west. I learned that the only role of the Indigenous Peoples who were here before them was to help them learn to survive in the harsh climate and furnish them with beaver pelts. Sound familiar?
As an adult, I have come to know that I, like others, was fed a lie. Canada was not founded or created, it was colonized. The Peoples who had been here for tens of thousands of years prior to European contact were decimated. My ancestors who survived the centuries of genocide did so out of inner strength and resilience based in cultural teachings. It’s because of them that I am here and I will not allow their struggles to go unrecognized or unheard.
Over the past 200+ years, the perspectives and knowledge from Indigenous Peoples in this country have been minimized, marginalized, and bastardized to ensure that the dominant narrative of colonial settlerhood reigns. But this is starting to shift. More Indigenous People are standing up for truth and refusing to be silenced. More investments are being made in the documentation and amplification of Indigenous voices. Yet efforts are still made to make sure the balance of power and truth remains skewed in favor of the colonizers.
Which brings me to the publicly-funded Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) which re-opened last year in a new building in downtown Edmonton. In this time of reconciliation, I had hopes that the RAM would use it’s new facility to create exhibits that approached the story of Alberta in a more balanced way. I hoped the museum would acknowledge its own founding story based on stolen artifacts and pioneering settlement. Ultimately, I hoped that Indigenous stories of this place would inform the story we tell about who we are as people who make our homes here now. My hopes were all but shattered on my first visit to the RAM last fall shortly after it opened.
It took me a while to process how much the RAM had truly missed the mark. It started with a feeling in my gut of disgust and anger that I couldn’t verbalized at the time. As I walked through the galleries, I was overwhelmed with how much everything was the same as before, perhaps a bit shinier, but the same. Yes, there were some noticeable differences – the presentation of the manitou asiniy, the smattering of Indigenous displays throughout the museum instead of clumping everything together, and the presence of Indigenous languages. That visit left me wondering why they chose to take only a few small steps down this path of truth rather than make leaps and bounds. Why didn’t they do better? Was it because of resources? Time? Willingness? Or all of the above?
That night I remember running into a few people I knew at the RAM who had also been invited for this private, invitation only event. The settler acquaintances were overwhelmingly in awe of the spectacle that was the new museum. The Indigenous friends were politely pensive. As the weeks and months rolled on and more people had a chance to see the museum, I had the opportunity to talk with others about their impressions of the new RAM. Through these conversations, I was able to focus my own thoughts and reactions to what I had experienced.
A while back, I was invited as a guest to the Canadian Art Gallery Educators symposium held in Edmonton over three days in May. On the final day of the gathering for gallery educators from across Canada, I was on a panel of Indigenous people sharing personal insights. As their guest, I was also able to join in on the other days for tours, workshops, presentations, and networking. When I reviewed the schedule and saw the guided tour of the new RAM, I decided it was time to go back and check in on the feelings I had from my first visit more than six months before. This visit would also allow me to snap a few photos for this blog post that had been festering inside for months.
So what exactly ticks me off about the RAM? I can summarize my feelings in these few points:
1 – Indigenous Peoples had no influential voice in the museum’s creation or renewal.
In Fall 2017, about a year before the new museum opened to the public, I was approached to participate in the Indigenous Advisory Panel. With this panel being formed so close to public opening, it was evident that they were not actually looking for advice that could be implemented but rather, approval of the decisions already made. At this point, the content and design for the main galleries had already been decided, the text panels were written and final construction was nearing completion. In actuality, the RAM wanted rubber-stamping Indigenous People to be champions for them to parade around and say “look at everyone who helped us” providing validity to their colonial practices. No thanks. Like the very premise of settler colonialism, museums are based on the idea of a self-appointed superior culture (ie. the colonizer) deciding they know best and making decisions without including those who are impacted the most. The dominant culture is continuing to steer the narrative and decide how the story of our past and present is told.
2 – The truth about how artifacts in the collection were acquired is going untold.
When the first provincial museum opened in 1967 as a centennial project, museology was in it’s pillaging prime. Their goal was to ‘acquire’ items for their collection, perhaps by any means necessary to meet the deadline of opening day. This included using public funds to buy stolen cultural artifacts via pricey auction houses and sending out contracted staff paid with finder’s fees. Both practices removed the museum and the provincial government from directly getting their hands dirty but doesn’t change the story of how these items came to be in the RAM’s possession. For the Indigenous items in their collection, these range from tools from archaeological sites and centuries old beadwork to sacred bundles and items of cultural use taken when ceremonies were outlawed. In order for reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples to be seen as plausible, it must be grounded in truth. The museum needs to tell the truth about who they are and how they came to be in order to have credibility with me and with others. When they are willing to tell the truth about their collection, the next step must be repatriation and redress for the loss. PS: don’t let their mention of this on their website fool you. Their definition of repatriation is like long term loan and covers only Blackfoot items at the moment.
3 – Indigenous content is presented through a lens of white fragility.
For me, this is the worst part. It’s like the museum made a decision to incorporate Indigenous content throughout the museum, rather than repeating the old Syncrude Hall of Aboriginal Culture, but wanted to make sure it wasn’t upsetting in any way to the their paying settler customers. There are some specific examples of this in the Human History Hall that caused the most visceral reactions from me.
The first is the placement and language of the residential schools story. The display sits in a closed off, circular space in the middle of the floor of the gallery, surrounded by unrelated content. I have spoken with so many people who visited the museum and didn’t even know there was a residential school exhibit or they had seen that particular display but didn’t know it was telling the story of residential schools. Unless you are looking for it specifically or are connected to the story in some way, it’s easy to miss it all together. Through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, this truth is now available to Canadians. To honour the courage of survivors, we need to tell it in an honest, heart wrenching way.
The second example is actually not Indigenous content at all, it’s the presence of the Sunwapta Broadcasting totem pole. Yes, this is a part of Alberta’s past and for some brings back fond memories of yesteryear, especially for settlers who grew up in Edmonton and Northern Alberta. But the act of reconciliation lies in the way we tell this story. The name of this private media company and it’s choice to be branded with totem poles is First Nations cultural appropriation. Sunwapta is from a Stoney Nakoda word and totem poles are cultural practices of many Pacific Northwest First Nations, neither of which are from the traditional territory on which Edmonton was founded. I think that sharing these few sentences with museum visitors would make them feel uncomfortable and put a negative slant on the way they remember the past. This discomfort would not likely to create a repeat visit, and may be a reason why the RAM has shied away from truthtelling.
4 – Indigenous Peoples are still othered and not presented as foundational.
At the root of all of it, this is the problem. The RAM and us as Canadian citizens don’t recognize that the reason we are here in Treaty Six territory is because of Indigenous Peoples. The way in which information about Alberta is presented at the RAM does not consider this fact and puts the focus on the human inhabitants of the last 200 years, rather than the first 20,000+ years. The relative focus of each era implicitly tells visitors what is important. Indigenous voices, perspectives, and opinions have been purposefully excluded at the expense of telling more settler stories, the feel-good memories that perpetuate the pioneering narrative of taming the wild west. Museums like the RAM hold positions of power in the telling of these stories and underlining what is important for each of us to learn about. If these decisions continue to be made by white scholars who have a vested interest in maintaining power, how can we ever know the full truth? When will people from the cultures represented in the museum’s collection be put in charge of how their items are displayed or allowed to decide if that should even happen at all?
One act of reconciliation the RAM announced early on was free admission to the museum for Indigenous Peoples. Not charging me admission to see the items you stole from my ancestors is the VERY LEAST thing you could do. The First Peoples of this place were robbed of culture, language, traditions, and life because of colonization and the settlers who have come since have benefited from that loss tremendously. And through this loss, settlers have also missed out on learning from this traditional knowledge and applying it to our relationships with the land and with each other. Remember, Indigenous Peoples are still here and not all opportunities to learn from these teachings has been lost as long as settler society is willing to listen and adapt.
On this 152nd anniversary of the Constitution Act, I will be taking time to reflect on what legislation has led us to today and what acts of defiance will help us heal from it. The story we tell ourselves about who we are as Canadians is based in this idea of a cultural mosaic – a place where you can come to practice your culture, speak your language, and teach your traditions to your children. But it is those very things that were taken away from the Indigenous People who were here first. Let’s start telling the truth and reconciling its impact, in our publicly funded institutions and in ourselves.
On the four year anniversary of the TRC’s release of the executive summary of their final report and the 94 Calls to Action, I am writing to remind you of your past, present, and future commitments to truth and reconciliation in our city. I am also writing to acknowledge that some of this work sits on the shoulders of the agencies, boards, and commissions that you provide funding to.
Earlier this year, I received a small travel grant from the Edmonton Heritage Council to attend and present at a symposium in Winnipeg hosted by the Indigenous Heritage Circle, a national organization I have been connected with for several years now. My presence at the two-day gathering allowed me to not only share Edmonton-based work I completed in conjunction with local archives but also act as the only representative from our province at the event. While I am grateful for this support, a few hundred dollars does not scratch the surface of changing how Indigenous Peoples are represented in our memory institutions or our current civic fabric. Over the past four years, I have yet to see the tangible impact of the TRC in transforming the way that EHC or the City of Edmonton supports, collaborates with, and listens to the Indigenous Peoples of our city.
The TRC’s Calls to Action created a framework for Canadians to begin the work of reconciliation. On anniversaries like this, I take the time to reflect back and consider the progress that has been made as well as the missed opportunities for improvement. Today, I ask you to do the same. Perhaps, this is a good time to revisit and re-read the Calls to Action for yourself and consider their practical application in your daily work.
Are you considering the impact of your decisions on the Indigenous Peoples of our city with each vote in Council Chambers?
Are you reaching out to your Indigenous constituents and neighbours to encourage their involvement in civic life?
Are you continuing to educate yourself on the impacts of historical trauma, colonization, and your obligations in the treaty relationship?
As elected officials in our city, you can set an example for other community leaders to follow. Your daily, proactive commitments to reconciliation show others that this work is an ongoing process and can create change if we all step up to the challenge. There is a community of survivors in our city and across the region that are also watching and listening, expecting you to approach your work differently because of the TRC. The sacred fire that burned four years ago on the steps of City Hall collected the tissues and tears of centuries of loss as well as hope for healing. I hope that your commitments to better relations with Indigenous Peoples is seen more often and that you expect the same from those that you provide public funding to.
In solidarity, Miranda Jimmy
The preceding letter was sent to all members of Edmonton City Council, along with the Edmonton Heritage Council Executive Director and grants staff on June 2, 2019 to meet the final reporting requirements of a grant.
Good afternoon “Day Star” and other members of Edmonton City Council. My name is Miranda Jimmy and I am a proud member of Thunderchild First Nation who has made my home in Edmonton for nearly 20 years. I sit before you has a partner, committed to fulfilling the Treaty Six relationship. I also want to acknowledge Heather Shillinglaw, a local Métis visual artist and arts educator, who has joined me here today.
Last month, despite concerns raised by myself and other leaders in the Indigenous community, you chose to approve, by consensus, the new 10-year Arts and Heritage Plan for the city that lacked meaningful Indigenous involvement in it’s creation – not even including the Edmonton Arts Council’s own Indigenous Advisory Committee which I was a member of. The plan contains no actionable commitments to serve Edmonton’s Indigenous peoples or organizations for the next ten years. In approving the plan without debate, you have set a precedent of lip service leadership for others in our city to follow in serving the Indigenous community. I have shared with you a letter this afternoon from Marilyn Dumont, renowned Métis poet, who was unable to be here this afternoon but also wanted to share her concerns.
Earlier this month, many of you joined members of the Métis community right behind you in the City Room to declare it Métis Week in the city of Edmonton. You spoke about the importance of this relationship in both Edmonton’s past and future. But words have to be backed up by action and resources to support that action.
2019 will mark five years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada held its final national event down the street at the Shaw Conference Centre. Mayor Iveson – you were an honorary witness to the testimony of hundreds of survivors of the Indian Residential Schools system. You heard how that experience, along with the other colonial systems and systemic racism, has impacted the rest of their lives. A year later, here in Council Chambers, we streamed the TRC closing events from Ottawa and gathered by the sacred fire outside City Hall to reflect on the impact this testimony would have on us as a city and a nation.
Since then, eagle feathers have been given and gifts exchanged. You have all had the opportunity to attend sweat ceremonies and pipe ceremonies with the Elders of Treaty Six. You have committed to that Treaty relationship both in your words and with your spirit. But reconciliation is not measured by the words that were said and the commitments that were made but on your ability to deliver on them.
In the coming weeks, you will be making funding decisions on behalf of the citizens of our city for the next four years. You will also be providing funding to agencies that will provide services to the people of Edmonton. You hold a lot of power in improving the lives of the most marginalized in our city without ever hearing from them directly in Council Chambers. I am hear to provide you with wake up call.
As a city administration and as a Council, you continually speak about reconciliation. In order for Indigenous people like me to believe your words, you must start to prove it through the funding allocations you approve. There has to be accountability and long term change for Indigenous peoples to begin to take you at your word.
I want to see direct investments in the lives of Indigenous peoples in our city. I want to see changes to the systems that were created to keep Indigenous peoples excluded and on the margins of society. I want to see how the training you are implementing for city employees is changing the way you meet the needs of Indigenous peoples. And most of all, I want more ways for Indigenous peoples to be involved with and leading these conversations.
Three years ago at budget time, fellow members of my organization RISE – Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton made this same request to the then City Council. Since then, there has been ample opportunity for you to show your commitment through multi-year funding. There has also been an opportunity for you to expect demonstrated commitments from your agencies and boards to put in place plans to include Indigenous perspectives at every level of their organization and find tangible ways to support reconciliation.
Stop throwing around buzzwords like inclusion and reconciliation and treaty if you are not willing to make every decision through these lenses. Indigenous people need allies in leadership who are willing to stand up for their needs and make decisions for us, with us. I know this is a tough budget cycle and you will be forced to make some hard decisions. My only request is that you start putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to Indigenous peoples.
This conversation is not going away. Until you begin to show accountability to the Indigenous community, I will continue to speak up. As always, I am happy to provide you with tangible examples on how you can do this and who can help make this happen. I look forward to answering your questions today and am also willing to speak one-on-one as well.
The preceding speech was shared at Edmonton’s City Council 2019-2022 Budget Public Hearing on November 28, 2018. A video recording of the proceedings can be found online here.
Over the past month, I have continued to use my voice to bring attention to issues that I feel are important for Edmonton’s Indigenous community. Every time I speak up, conversations are sparked, different perspectives are shared, and learning takes place. I also hope that by stepping up, I will encourage others to feel confident in pointing out things in the world that rub them the wrong way. These outcomes are my only rewards and hope they will also benefit others. I know that my opinions are not the be-all, end-all but sharing them is important to me.
My presentation to Edmonton’s City Council Community and Public Services Committee and last blog post (which has now been viewed more than 4000 times) led to local media coverage and a lot of conversations, online and in-person. Since presenting to Council, I have been contacted by more than 60 Indigenous artists and allies who are also concerned about the lack of Indigenous involvement in the City of Edmonton’s newly approved 10-year Cultural Plan. Many of those who share my concerns say they are afraid to speak out publicly over possible repercussions for doing so, including a fear of being blacklisted from receiving grants for themselves or their organizations in the future. This is a real risk with real consequences for their livelihoods.
And just before Halloween, I shared some photos on social media of a costume that I found offensive. My post on facebook and twitter led to local and national media coverage. It also brought out a lot of opinions about cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation – a conversation that is not black and white and evolves with every grey example that pops up. In this situation, I was disappointed to see the swift backlash that came from a variety of people telling me I was being too touchy and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Like most times when I am met with opposition, I’ve been reflecting on the spectrum of responses a lot.
I consider myself to be fairly self-aware but I know I, too, have blind spots. I make a conscious effort to consider the implications of my decisions and my words before taking action. However, as I get older and gain confidence, less and less do I let possible repercussions stop me from speaking my truth or calling out acts of racism and discrimination. For me, this is about challenging myself and others to consider how everyday words and actions are a way to influence larger societal shifts. I truly believe that intentional, daily efforts is what will ultimately disrupt colonial systems.
The opposition that has come from strangers, acquaintances, and allies in the past month, has led me to have some deep conversations about my own intentions and end goal of this work. Some have been willing to do this deep dive with me, while others have avoided the discomfort all together – all leading me to more self-reflection. For those of you who have followed along via the news coverage, social media, or my blog and have formed opinions about my intentions without engaging with me directly, I wanted to provide you with some insight.
I know that there are different levels of tolerance for racism and that people sometimes see (or don’t see) how it manifests around them. As I connect more with my own Indigenous identity and learn about the power of truth as a foundation for resiliency, I am more aware of the racism that exists in our city. My eyes are open and I now see it almost every day. I also see people who are afraid to open their eyes because seeing what I see will force them to look at themselves and, perhaps too, be compelled to do something about it. As I witness those who chose to look away, my tolerance for acts of racism grows closer and closer to zero. I feel that seeing it without acknowledging it and making others aware it’s happening is a way of condoning it. Each time we turn our heads and carry on, we tell the world it is acceptable. Perhaps we believe that we don’t hold the power to change the world but we do, one action and one word at the time. This requires standing up and speaking out. Every time we witness an act of racism, we have a choice to tolerate it and silently agree or do something. I have that choice, and so do you.
However, we also live in a society that breeds conformity and punishes those who challenge norms. There are risks, both perceived and real, for those of us that speak up and call out racism and discrimination. The risks can range from simple feelings of discomfort and awkwardness to loss of relationships, employment opportunities, and even threats of harm. The risks can impact all parts of one’s being – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. Because these risks can be so detrimental, they further encourage us to mind our own business and stay out of it – tolerate it and pretend it’s not there.
These risks are ones that I am well aware of. From the first time I tweeted, I realized that sharing my thoughts in a public forum has its downfalls but also its rewards. I know that my low tolerance for racism and high tolerance for risk makes me different from others. I also know that these ratios have changed throughout my life, and continue to fluctuate based on a variety of factors. Being different in these ways does not make me better than others who make a conscious effort to choose silence more often than speaking up, it simply encourages me to do it more often for those who do not have the current circumstances to overcome the risks.
I know that the boldness I exhibit by speaking out in a public way frightens some people. I have been told by some other marginalized people that I should just be grateful for what I have and not rock the boat, founded in a belief that what Indigenous people have been able to gain could once again be taken away. I also know that there are other ways to combat racism besides a call to the local paper and I do those, too, although you may not hear about it. I have many one-on-one private chats, I point out who is missing from conversations at the boardroom tables I am asked to sit at, and I ask a lot of questions to deepen my understanding of opposing viewpoints. What bothers me most are those who don’t engage in the hard conversations, publicly or privately, and are not willing to challenge their own tolerance of racism and consider the risks in facing it head on.
If you’re uncomfortable with my forward approach, perhaps consider starting with some reflection on what you might be comfortable with:
What are your own tolerance levels?
What acts of racism are you willing to let slide?
Which ones cross the line and, in your eyes, must be called out?
What have you witnessed that, looking back, you regret not doing something about in that moment?
What were the risks that came to mind in that moment that stopped you from speaking up?
What is the worst case scenario that could have resulted from your action? How would you have handled it?
I encourage each of you to consider these questions and start a conversation with someone close to you that you trust. They may see the situation differently and gently challenge you to challenge yourself the next time you’re confronted with a similar situation. Through the process, you’ll likely learn a lot about each other but someone needs to be brave enough to start the conversation.
Pointing out acts of racism and discrimination takes away from my personal time and can be emotionally, mentally, and, sometimes, physically draining. When I choose to speak up, I have to be ready to engage in the conversation I am starting and have the supports I need in place beforehand. I have learned to enter these conversations with intention and the confidence that more good will come from it than bad. The more situations that prove this outcome to me, the more willing I am to start the conversations I feel are necessary for our collective well-being and for a respectful, just society.
In a recent conversation I had with a friend about the risks I face in speaking out, she pointed out the broader need to increase everyone’s risk tolerance. This is the question I am contemplating today – how do I encourage others to take on more calculated risk to call out racism? For me, this has always come in modeling the behaviour for others in hopes that it will spur others to speak up. Now, I am realizing that maybe it’s having the opposite effect. Perhaps others are watching from the sidelines, only seeing the negativity it stirs up which validates their assumptions about the benefits of avoiding any personal risk.
In thinking about our past, there are figures who stood up and spoke out when others allowed atrocities to happen. They may not have changed the course of history at that moment but they didn’t ignore the wrongs around them. Right now, I am thinking about ally Dr. Peter Bryce who wrote a scathing report on the welfare of Indigenous children in Indian Residential Schools, first shared in 1907. His report was a truthful account of the poor living conditions and disproportionate mortality rates in this federal system of forced assimilation. His report eventually led to his discreditation and ended his career in public health. More than a hundred years later, his findings were validated through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. If the Bryce Report would have resulted in the immediate closure of residential schools, my grandmother and my father – among hundreds of aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives – would have never been forced to attend. But instead of listening, three more generations of Indigenous peoples in our country were subjected to this genocide.
The risks are real and each of us have to consider our own ability to manage those risks. But fearing possible repercussions doesn’t have to stop us from speaking up. I would like to find ways to encourage a society that is less risk averse, where the possible impacts don’t keep each of us frozen in a place of compliance. If modeling behaviour around speaking up is not the answer, what is? I’ll continue to reflect on this and how I can play a part in encouraging others to engage in conversations about racism and understand each other’s perspectives on this complex issue.
While I don’t know the solution (yet), I do know that the consequence of inaction is a continued tolerance of racism. I want future generations to look back on us and see those shining moments when we were creating positive change in small and big ways every day, even though it made us, and others, uncomfortable. I want them to be proud of those of us who stood up against injustice, racism, discrimination, and inequality. I refuse to be remembered as one of the bystanders who knew better and chose not to act. This is not a risk I am willing to accept.
For those of you who have been following along on my blog journey since October, you might have noticed that I have not posted much over the past month or so. Although I haven’t been blogging, there has been a lot going on.
This path of reflection, processing, and sharing that I have been on since the election has brought some surprising things my way. I had anticipated that people would be interested in hearing a bit about what I learned and that my perspective would spark conversation, perhaps encouraging others to share. By choosing to blog, I also knew there were going to be those who didn’t want some secrets revealed and that I was going to take some slack for my opinions. That is always a chance you take putting your thoughts out there for the world to read. For those who know me personally or know me through my public involvement, most would agree that I have never been known to keep my perspectives to myself and enjoy challenging the norms. To me, blogging is just an extension of that. My opinions are not more important or less important than others but I do think they deserve to be a part of the conversation.
Over the last year, there has not been a shortage of people reaching out to me to share their opinions, as could have been expected. When you’re constantly out at community events and going door to door inviting people to share their perspectives, you are greeted with a swath of ideas, opinions, and suggestions for improvement. However, I was surprised at how many of my acquaintances felt the need to reach out and attempt to influence my approach to campaigning, platform on specific issues, or decisions to be made in public office. No more so has this been more evident than over the last two months.
I know a lot of people through the many hats that I wear and think that my connections to a broad range of networks is one of my greatest strengths. I rarely turn down an invitation to connect with someone who reaches out to go for a coffee and appreciate the opportunity to catch up with the people that I know. Since October, I have received many invitations for coffee from past acquaintances, former colleagues, and friends. In most instances, the invitation came via text and sounded something like “I’d love to take you for coffee once things settle down. Let me know when you have some time.” With the flood of invitations and everyone’s busy schedules, it took well into December to find time to meet with everyone I wanted to catch up with. Nevertheless, starting in early November, I began my coffee date tour.
Looking back in my calendar, there were seven chats that stand out for me because they were all so eerily similar. We’d meet up at a local coffee shop, grab a drink, sit down, and within 90 seconds of small talk, the conversation would turn – you need to stop with the blog.
I was then peppered with questions about why I was blogging and what I was trying to prove. The line of questioning often came with a condescending tone of “I’m worried about you” or friendly advice that “there is always a higher road”. In every case, these were people I would consider community contacts but not necessarily friends or confidants. I was surprised at how the relationship I thought we had led them to believe that I would somehow be convinced over the coffee to silence myself. Most also said they were there on behalf of others, not just themselves, and that everyone is concerned about my intentions. Why were they so worried about me and what I had to say? After the first couple of coffee chats, I thought it was just coincidence but then it happened over and over and over again. This put my guard up and I began to anticipate the same line of questioning with every invitation to get together that came my way.
In every instance, I listened to what they had to say, shared my perspective, and ended the conversation politely. I think most people realized that they had not convinced me to end my blog and perhaps left a bit more on edge about what I might say next. Not only had their persistent attempts to silence me not worked, they now knew I was blogging knowing full well people were paying attention. The best line from one of the coffee dates “I fully support you in saying whatever you like, just promise you won’t mention me”. Guess what, if you are in my life, I have experiences and interactions with you and perspectives on those encounters which I am not afraid to share. What are you so scared that I am going to say?
On top of the odd advice-offering coffee chats, I was recently told that my name has been swirling in conversations in the City of Edmonton communications department. My first and last name appeared, along with nothing else, on the whiteboard of Mary Sturgeon, Branch Manager of Communications at the City. For days my name was on display in her office for hundreds of employees to see while walking the open concept floor at the Edmonton Tower. To my recollection, I’ve never met Mary nor has she ever reached out to me so what earned me the distinction of being mentioned in her office? (Mary – if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear from you)
Over the last month, the coffee conversations have become more direct and pointed in their intent. I have been threatened with legal action if I mention particular names or information on my blog. My livelihood has been interfered with by those in public office. And sadly, this has made me tighten my circle and play an internal game of ‘who can I trust’. I am now more careful about what I share on social media and even hesitated in writing this blog for weeks.
As I’ve mentioned, one of the main outcomes that I was hoping for from my blog was to spark conversation. However, I did think that more people would be interested in having these conversations in a public forum, like in the comments section or on social media. Some of that happened initially but that quickly dwindled off. These coffee talks have proven to me that conversations are still happening, just in more discreet ways. I also know that people who I have never even met are having conversations about me and my blog. The fact that the conversations are taking place is a good first step. It’s interesting to me that I am not being included in the conversations that I have sparked and, because of this, will never know what conclusions people have come to. Overall, I am grateful for those who were willing to talk with me directly, seeking clarity on my intent, rather than gossip and assume.
My experience as a candidate and in the months that have proceeded is an incredible gift. Now more than ever, I realize that there are many reasons for people’s paths to cross and through every interaction, there is a lesson to learn. I am also even more driven, knowing that speaking my truth will lead to important conversations that need to happen and ultimately shifts and the change I want to see in the world. I likely will not be consistently posting blogs anymore – just know that this is not the last you’ll hear from me.
I am starting 2018 with optimism, opportunity, and endless potential. My blog on reconciliation will be the focus of my public lecture at MacEwan University on January 24th where I will be given an hour to elaborate on my thoughts. In February, I will be leading a webinar for Canada’s History on a project that I co-created in 2015, which led to an honourable mention at the Governor General’s Awards. And in April, I will be speaking at the National Council on Public History conference in Las Vegas. Best of all, I am starting a new job that will allow a seed that I planted 14 years ago begin to flourish.
If you want to know more about what I am up to or what’s been going on behind the scenes, reach out. I am always up for a coffee!
As I mentioned in my first blog post, I wanted to start a real conversation about the systemic barriers and underlying systems that are at play in the realm of municipal politics. My rationale for wanting to have this conversation is simple: I was unaware until I ran as a candidate how much these systems truly impact the process and the outcome. I think most people are also unaware and this information needs to be identified, shared, and understood so that every voter knows the powers at play.
I decided to use a blog to start this conversation to help myself process the experience and share my perspective. When I posted the first blog, a week passed without a mention of it online anywhere. I wasn’t sure if anyone had stumbled across it or read it. I thought I would be able to continue processing my thoughts in solidarity for a while before inviting others to the conversation. Well, that didn’t happen.
Less than an hour after I posted my most recent blog, a known Conservative insider who was involved with Sarah Hamilton’s campaign decided to post it to twitter and share his opinions. Within a couple of hours several Conservative supporters had replied in disgust. This immediate response told me that I must have struck a cord. The swift dismissal of my perspective as ‘sour grapes’ has proven to me the importance of this conversation. I need to challenge the norms and shake the foundation of entitlement.
And so the conversation has begun.
Last fall at the Banff Forum, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow participant about having difficult conversations. Both of us had experience working on the cause of reconciliation and pushing this issue into places where it needs to be pushed. I had been referring to the need to create safe spaces for the difficult conversations – respectful spaces where people felt supported to share openly, free from criticism. In our interaction, my fellow Banffer challenged this notion and said we don’t need safe spaces we need brave spaces – spaces where people feel brave to share how they truly feel filled with people brave enough to listen and learn. This has stuck with me over the last year. Be brave, not safe.
All of us have assumptions and biases which help us make decisions quickly, based on previous experiences or knowledge. Rarely do we acknowledge these assumptions and sadly we rarely share them with others. In my last post, I shared some of my assumptions publicly. This was not intended to say I am all-knowing but exactly the opposite: I have formed opinions based on assumptions that may or may not be true. I am trying to be more brave in every conversation I have. I hope that my bravery will challenge others to consider their assumptions and biases or at least acknowledge them as being present.
I have a few blogs already written in draft form and am planning to release a new one every Tuesday for now. Like this blog, I might also need to pepper a few in between to help the evolving (or in this case, exploding) conversation. I know that my perspective is not one that some people will want to hear and others will not even want to recognize exists. I am okay with that. I have chosen to stay out of the twitter conversation but appreciate everyone who has stepped in and engaged so far. I also appreciate the few people who have chosen to continue the conversation on facebook and on their own blogs. I know this conversation will not be easy so I am challenging everyone to be brave.
For those of you who chose to read along with me, for those who choose to voice their perspectives in response, and for those who need supportive allies on this journey – we can all be brave together.
As I shared with my supporters last night, I began my campaign with three fundamental beliefs in mind: anyone who wishes to speak up and share their perspectives should have a place in the political process, decisions for our community should be based on listening to residents and incorporating their perspectives, and our current City Council needs to be more diverse
All of these beliefs come from my own core values that standing up for what’s right will lead to change and that including more diverse perspectives into the conversation leads to better decision making. The last 14 months of campaigning has brought insights and experiences that I never could have imagined. I have met thousands of people that have expanded my own knowledge of the city and what it means to be an Edmontonian. I have garnered support from places where I didn’t even think to look for help, and I have deepened my connection to my community and this place I am proud to call home.
Today I am further reflecting on the efforts of my campaign and pondering the personal commitments that I have put on hold to seek public office. I am thinking about the extraordinary efforts of my volunteers, the support of my campaign contributors, and the relationships that I made with people across the ward and the city on this journey. Something like this takes a vast network of people committed together to pull it off. I am honoured that so many people believed in the gifts that I have to share that they joined me as part of the campaign.
Despite a groundswell of support, despite months of hard work, despite the personal belief that I am the best person for the job, I didn’t win. This makes me sad and angry, not because I lost but because it has become clear to me that the political game was created for people like me not to win. The campaign has broken my belief in representative democracy and I will be mourning that loss for a long time.
The disadvantages that I was faced with were anticipated in the planning of my campaign, yet throughout I maintained a core belief that knowledge, passion, and dedication could overcome these systemic barriers for true democratic representation. In the days, weeks, and months to come, I want to start a public conversation on these barriers that exist for some and the advantages that exist for others.
For me these advantages fall into three separate but related categories:
Affluence Equating to Influence
Systemic White Privilege
I look forward to diving into these topics in upcoming blogs. I will also be reaching out to hear from other candidates that I respect to hear their perspectives. Their experiences and opinions on the barriers they experienced through the recent campaign will help deepen my own understanding.
I have a lot more to say. I look forward to using this communication tool as a way to process my experience and provide a dose of reality to how others understand the political process.
The voters of Ward 5 have made their decision. Of course it was not the result I was hoping for but I respect the democratic process and the people who chose to have their voices heard. I will have many more reflections over the coming hours and days but for now I just want to quietly reflect on the journey that brought me here.
Thank you to my volunteers, donors, and supporters. Your willingness to step up and support my Ward 5 journey has been a gift. It has been an honour to work alongside of you and campaign in the best way we know how – with honour, courage, and respect.
I am excited for the next adventure awaiting for me and for whatever the universe has in store.