Katie Delay, left, and Sunny Enkin Lewis are co-presidents of Grant Park High School’s Students for Social Justice. (photo from Sunny Enkin Lewis)
Earlier this year, Winnipeg Grade 12 student Sunny Enkin Lewis won first prize for her age group in A&E network’s contest Lives That Make a Difference. The contest receives hundreds of submissions from all over Canada.
“The prompt [for the contest] is along the lines of, ‘Write an essay about someone who has made a significant contribution to Canada in 2018,’” Enkin Lewis told the Independent. “So, I wrote about Autumn Peltier, who – I believe she’s 15 now, around there – is an indigenous water keeper. She’s an activist for clean water in indigenous communities in Canada. She’s spoken at the UN, she’s spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. So, she’s done a lot of amazing activism.”
Peltier is Anishinaabe and is from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario.
“I chose her for a couple reasons,” said Enkin Lewis, who was born in Toronto, but has lived in Winnipeg for the past 10 years. “First of all, I think her cause is really important in Canada. I’ve always been really upset with Canadian society and government, because we tend to look at ourselves as pretty flawless in terms of human rights. And, it is true that the quality of life for Canadians, overall, is really good. Yet, there are people, a lot of people, who don’t have the most basic of their needs met – water and shelter … and I think she has brought more awareness to that.”
In her essay, Enkin Lewis points out that Peltier not only stands up fearlessly for this cause, but that she does so from a unique worldview as an Anishinaabe person.
“She thinks of water as deserving of rights,” said Enkin Lewis. “That’s not something we would generally think of and I think it’s a really strong statement – that someone can stand up and speak of things in a way that contrasts the common logic of general Western ideas. I think that helps validate indigenous worldviews in a Western context a little more. Also, I was just inspired by her, as a young woman. I think it’s so important that young people’s voices are heard and that’s how I believe change will happen the fastest – if young people are given a platform and are accepted and respected – and she really embodies that.”
As for as why Enkin Lewis’s essay may have been chosen, she said, “I think my choice of person was really relevant in Canada today, especially since, now, I think, there’s a big focus on indigenous rights, and I think it was maybe a bit refreshing to see someone like that. I haven’t read the other people’s essays, and they didn’t tell me why mine was specifically chosen … just that they thought it stood out.”
Growing up, Enkin Lewis learned that “a big thing in Judaism is valuing life over everything, and knowing the value of human life. And, I think a big part of Judaism is also just respect for people and … everyone should have a good quality of life.
“The fact that, here, in Canada, there are people who don’t have their basic needs met, I think that’s not OK in Judaism. I think it’s important for other cultures to listen to each other, just as I think it’s important for Christian people to listen to Jewish people. And, I think it’s important for Jewish people to listen to indigenous perspectives. As a European Jew, I’m not native to this land … and it’s important to respect the people who are the caretakers of this land and who have been for thousands of years.”
Last year, Enkin Lewis led the organizing of a social justice conference at Grant Park High School, which, in turn, led to the development of a student social justice club at Grant Park. Enkin Lewis and co-president Katie Delay created the club and, because they and the teacher involved in helping to form the group will have left the school by the start of the next school year, Enkin Lewis hopes the younger members will pick up the ball.
“I think our club is very student-centred, very much about what we care about right now, and it gives me and other people an opportunity to get involved in a safe and constructive way,” she said.
As Grant Park has many newcomer Yazidi students, events organized by the club have been focused on building community awareness of the Yazidi situation.
“We did a drive for school supplies for underprivileged students in Winnipeg, and the biggest thing we’ve done is organize a coffeehouse and a couple other events for Yazidis with the help of a local organization called Operation Ezra. We had a bake sale where we sold traditional Yazidi foods, a Yazidi dance class to educate people about the culture, etc. I find that people are not really aware of what’s happening to the Yazidi people.
“We had a coffeehouse in the evening and invited community members, students, parents, anyone to come. There were student performers and a speaker talking about what’s happening, and a Yazidi performer.”
Enkin Lewis’s essay win comes with a $3,000 cheque for her and a $1,000 cheque for her school. She plans to follow her family’s Jewish custom of donating a portion of everything they earn. “I haven’t narrowed it down to a specific organization yet,” she said, “but I’m going to donate it basically to her [Peltier’s] cause – water in indigenous communities. Other than that, I will probably put it toward my education.”
Words matter. In a period when traditional media compete with social media, where everyone on the planet can pretty much find a place to say whatever they want, the weight of words can seem lost in the deluge of opinions, aspersions and insults. So, it is encouraging, in some ways, to see a pitched battle over the use of a single word. It assures us that many people still understand the power that language can have.
After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report, the federal government set up the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. The MMIWG report, released last week, concluded that there are “serious reasons to believe that Canada’s past and current policies, omissions and actions towards first Nations peoples, Inuit and Métis amount to genocide….”
The use of the term genocide has sparked a debate. Top federal officials at first avoided using the word. At the ceremony marking the release of the report, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was interrupted by an audience member who yelled, “Genocide! Say it!” Trudeau opted against it on that day, but he would use the term later in the week. Justice Minister David Lametti deflected discussion, saying he would leave the determination around the use of the term genocide “to academics and experts.”
The 1948 Genocide Convention defines it as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who coined the term, described genocide as an effort to destroy the foundations of a national group with the objective of annihilation. While genocide certainly includes state-led mass murder, the term can also incorporate a range of less aggressively lethal acts, such as Canada’s residential schools system, the core goal of which was to eradicate indigenous cultures and languages among native peoples in the country.
The report identifies “colonial structures,” including the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and offences against human rights, as antecedents to current rates of traumatic violence, suicide and deaths among indigenous populations.
The MMIWG report makes a series of recommendations, including, for example, that police services investigate officers for discrimination and mistreatment against indigenous peoples and failures to investigate crimes, government funding to improve recruitment of indigenous peoples into policing, a national task force to review and potentially reinvestigate every unresolved case and a standardizing of protocols around treatment of the thousands of missing and murdered women.
The chief commissioner, Marion Buller, chose the term genocide determinedly and used it throughout the report.
“This report is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide,” she wrote in the opening paragraph of the final report.
However, the report also acknowledged that there are “outstanding disagreements” over the definition of the term. Alongside the final report came a 43-page legal analysis of the term genocide and how it applies to the Canadian situation.
The lead author of the legal assessment, Fanny Lafontaine, a specialist on international criminal justice and human rights at Université Laval, said, “I think it has to be understood as a very distinct type of genocide from the Holocaust…. Genocide is composed of lethal and nonlethal acts. All of that together leads to the physical destruction of indigenous people, but also as a social unit. It’s the genocide taken as numerous acts spanning decades, basically, that is the root cause of the violence against [indigenous] women,” she told the National Post.
RCMP statistics indicate that 16% of female homicides in Canada between 1980 and 2012 were perpetrated against indigenous women, who make up just 4% of the population. This is triple the rate of nonindigenous women and double those of indigenous men. Testimony from individuals and families that were incorporated into the final report tell a harrowing story of violence and dehumanization.
Some might say that the debate over the term genocide detracts from the urgent, less theoretical components of the report and its recommendations. Maybe. But the considered choice by those who best understand the social impacts of systemic discrimination against indigenous Canadians, especially indigenous women, to use the term genocide should give us pause. Among Jewish observers, there may be an understandable sensitivity to anything that seems to shift the weight of the word, which was created specifically to articulate the Jewish experience in the Shoah. Yet, we should also take this opportunity to learn and understand why and how a community in our midst would articulate their own experiences as amounting to genocide.
Knee-jerk responses are not helpful on this front (or any, probably) and, while the arguments over the meaning and intent of the term reassure us that people still appreciate the power of words, we might also caution not to get stalled over this debate. What non-indigenous Canadians should do at this point – especially if we have an issue with the use of the term genocide – is to dive deeply into the tragic legacies of colonialism that have led to this moment and try to understand why this term was carefully chosen. Perhaps, we can each start with a commitment to read the report.
Passover is coming! As we prepare, we think of what it means to be enslaved and to be free. Some seders focus on human rights. Others read and discuss Jewish texts about how to understand the holiday. Every year, we re-examine not only how good the foods are, but the ideas around slavery and redemption.
At one of my first Jewish events in Winnipeg, 10 years ago, I heard racist comments about indigenous Canadians. I was really upset by the incident. I was so uncomfortable that I still remember the experience in detail, even though I’ve forgotten a lot of other things over time.
I recently attended some of the lectures in an extremely worthwhile series put on by Westworth United Church called Interfaith Dialogue on Truth and Reconciliation. Each year, in the springtime during Lent, this church offers some of the best adult education programming I’ve ever attended and they welcome the entire community. The topics are thoughtful but, even more important, participants come ready to wrestle with hard intellectual and emotional ideas. I was introduced to it because Dr. Ruth Ashrafi has been a speaker as part of this programming more than once, and I’m hooked.
This year, the series was held in four different locations throughout the community, including Congregation Etz Chayim, Westworth United Church, as well as at one of the mosques and at a Buddhist Temple. It was so well attended that it filled the pews – wherever it was held.
Each session, a religious leader spoke, but he or she spoke at the lectern of a different congregation. Dr. Shahina Siddiqui spoke at Etz Chayim. Ashrafi spoke at Westworth United. It was powerful to see people of different faiths take to different pulpits. These leaders spoke, in the context of their religious traditions, on their status as Canadians or newcomers to a place with a heavy past of racism toward and discrimination and neglect of its indigenous people.
The most shattering part of the series was to hear from indigenous elders. I only attended two of the events, and heard Theodore Fontaine and Chickadee Richard speak. I cried while I listened to them. Their powerful personal, political and religious stories shook me.
These were bright, strong leaders with absolutely valid points about how they and their communities have been affected and mistreated by Canadian law and society. Their beliefs and prayers – about caring for Mother Earth, about protecting water and guarding the lives of those they love – are no different than those of other religious traditions in Canada. Yet, there are still indigenous communities who are forced to live in terrible conditions, without access to clean water and without adequate education or health care. How can people of faith accept this dichotomy? How is it that the first people in Canada don’t have access to the basic human rights that most of the rest of us enjoy?
After each set of lectures, we were sorted into random discussion groups. In the first event, we were asked to imagine what it might have been like to experience residential school and how we felt we would have reacted. What would that have been like?
All around me, I heard older Canadians mention how they didn’t know, and that their history classes didn’t teach them what had happened. They struggled with this part of Canadian history. It’s a denial that seemed familiar from German accounts of the Second World War, when people said “they didn’t know” what was happening to the Jewish people in their communities.
I could see many parallels between the stories Theodore Fontaine told, of “going to the moon” and escaping the abuse by disassociating and going somewhere else in his mind, and the novel The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski, which describes the horrors experienced by a Jewish child during the Holocaust. Trauma causes us (humans) to do many of the same things, even if our religious and ethnic identities differ.
Many of us know that the trauma of the Holocaust doesn’t go away in one or two generations. Those indigenous Canadians who were sent away from their families to residential schools, where they were abused, fed poorly and otherwise mistreated – their trauma has affected their families for generations. Jerzy Kosinski dealt with his childhood Holocaust trauma through substance abuse and, eventually, suicide. It’s no wonder that many indigenous survivors do the same.
Passover is a time of year, like the High Holidays, where we throw off wrongs and bitterness in the hope of embracing new growth and change. We can throw off the bondage of old biases or ideas that have enslaved us. Prejudice against indigenous people, their traditions and the burden of past abuses needs to be addressed – by all of us.
At the end of the lecture series, the facilitators asked variants of this question: “What will you do in the next year to address reconciliation, promote diversity and inclusion, and to make change?” My commitment was to be brave in speaking out about these issues.
Now, I’m turning over the question to you. What will you do, as a person of faith, to make change? Start by reading the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action. Write to your politicians to protect the water, the earth and the peoples who came to Canada first. Go to a powwow or a reconciliation discussion. Look others, no matter who they are, in the eye and greet them with loving kindness. In short – do more. It’s the Jewish thing to do.
Remember – we were slaves in the land of Egypt and now we’re free. Free to step up, speak up and help others along the path to equal rights, respect and freedom.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Linda MacCannell’s photograph of John T’Seleie. (photo from Drew Ann Wake)
The new show at the Zack Gallery, Crossed Paths – which explores the connection between the Jewish and the Dene peoples – has its roots in the federal Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry.
“In the 1970s, I was a CBC reporter in the Northwest Territories,” show curator Drew Ann Wake told the Independent. “When the government proposed a pipeline through the area, they sent Justice Thomas Berger to investigate the impact of the proposed pipeline [in 1974]. He talked to over 30 native communities to get their input. When he was finished, he issued a report recommending the government settle all the claims on land that the pipeline would pass through before construction started…. They are still settling those claims. The pipeline hasn’t been built yet.”
As a journalist, Wake accompanied Berger and his team on that historic trip. She taped numerous interviews with the local people participating in the inquiry.
“Ten years ago, I found those old tapes,” she recalled. “Only audio tapes; it was so long ago. I thought it would be interesting to go back and talk to all of them again. And let their children and grandchildren listen to their elders’ voices.”
She invited a friend, photographer Linda MacCannell, to create portraits of some of the participants of the Mackenzie Valley negotiations. Over several years, they traveled to the villages Wake had visited with Berger. MacCannell took photos and Wake filmed her interviews. “We created a show of Linda’s portraits and the stories I collected and went on the road. By now, we’ve exhibited this show in 50 galleries across North America,” said Wake.
MacCannell’s large-scale portraits of various members of the Dene First Nations, who live along the Mackenzie River, constitute the heart of the exhibit at the Zack.
“Two years ago, we gave a presentation at the grunt gallery, an artist-run centre in Vancouver,” Wake explained. “We showed the films. After the presentation, a man approached me. He introduced himself as Michael Shumiatcher, a local artist and educator. He said he knew Justice Berger at the time of the inquiry. Michael was a high school student then, and Berger was his best friend’s father.”
Shumiatcher suggested they work together and present the exhibit to schools around the province. Wake liked the idea, and invited him to join her on her next trip north. Also joining the summer 2018 trip were artist Melenie Fleischer and her husband, cellist Eric Wilson, as well as composer Daniel Séguin.
“Daniel saw the video I made of the drummers the previous year,” Wake explained. “He wanted to write new music to incorporate the traditional drums.”
The group traveled to Fort Simpson, N.W.T., to study the drumming culture of the Dene in more depth.
“Séguin wrote a piece of music, called Dehcho, for cello and the drums,” Wake said. “That is how the local nations call the Mackenzie River – Dehcho. Wilson performed it at the local gallery presentation of our show. The gallery was packed. People sat in the hall and stood on the stairs. He had to repeat his performance for all who wanted to hear it.”
As well, Fleischer and Shumiatcher produced several paintings.
One of Fleischer’s, a herd of bison, is suffused with wild, tumultuous energy. “They were huge,” she said of the animals. “They looked up casually and continued grazing and drinking water in the shallow puddles. We were cautious and maybe even scared as we huddled close in the van to take our photographs. Thrilled at our first encounter with the ancestors of the ancient bison depicted on the cave walls of Altamira, Lascaux and others, I knew then that I was going to paint bison.”
A painting by Shumiatcher depicts Wilson blowing a shofar on the shore of the Mackenzie River. Fleischer and Wilson brought the shofar on the trip as a gift.
“Once we got our invitation from Chief Gerry Antoine to come to Fort Simpson and collaborate with Liidlii Kue First Nation on our cultural exploration of music – cello and drums – we were very excited. We were in New York at the time, and I wanted to bring Chief Antoine something special,” said Fleischer. “All I could think of was that our nation was thousands of years old, as were the indigenous people. With that in mind, we went looking for a ram’s horn from Israel, a shofar.”
They visited several Judaica stores in New York. “It was funny,” said Fleischer, “my husband Eric blowing shofars outside the stores, on the sidewalk. He is a cellist and very particular about sound.”
The next step for the group was to approach the Zack Gallery for a joint show. The Jewish artists’ paintings complement MacCannell’s photography, showing another facet of the northern experience. Just as power and serenity dominate the portraits and the photographer’s triptych of the river landscape, the paintings add a touch of awe at nature and its symbiotic relationship with humankind.
The Zack exhibit also includes traditional clothing made by several Dene artists. “Last year, we won a grant from the Canada Council [for the Arts] to commission northern artists,” Wake said. Of the pieces on display, each has a story. In some cases, the stories are real; they happened to the artists’ family members. For others, the stories are purely imaginary or are based on local folklore. Regardless, every story has a link to the tapes Wake collected in the 1970s and the people she interviewed.
Linda Wolki, known for her needlework, created a traditional yellow coat after she listened to the recording of her mother telling Wake how she hunted seals when she was young. “The woman’s story was amazing,” Wake said. “She was out hunting in the snow and cold, and four polar bears decided to chase her. She laughed.”
A pair of embroidered moccasins, made by Agnes Mitchell, is displayed in a plexiglass case next to the pair her father wore for years. The embroidery on the old moccasins – made by Mitchell’s mother – and the new ones is equally elaborate.
“One story I asked an artist to illustrate was an ancient northern legend about an abandoned woman,” Wake said. “The tribe abandoned that woman in the forest because of her sharp tongue. She only had a few coals for her fire, but she survived. She made herself two cloaks – one of raven feathers and another of rabbit fur – and many more objects.”
Artist Jeneen Frei Njootli has brought the cloaks to life. Her creations, a black cloak of raven feathers and another of white rabbit fur, hang in a corner of the Zack, one above another, as a tribute to her people’s tenacity and their drive to survive in the harshest conditions.
“We were very proud to learn that recently Jeneen Frei Njootli was chosen as one of the five finalists for the Sobey Art Award, an annual prize given to the most promising Canadian artist under 40,” said Wake, who then pointed to a blue coat on display. Smiling, she said, “And that coat belongs to Michael Jackson. But not the Michael Jackson of pop music. Our own Michael Jackson, a Vancouver lawyer who, in the 1970s, was part of Justice Berger’s team.”
When Wake started working on this show, one of the new interviews she conducted was with Jackson. “He worked with many First Nation people,” she said, “and I asked him how come he was so empathetic to their plight. He said it was because he was Jewish. When he grew up in London, England, he experienced antisemitism. He knew hunger as a child in post-World War Two Britain. It made him sensitive to others suffering from discrimination. Made him want to help.”
During the Berger inquiry, Jackson befriended one of the local men, John T’Seleie, who organized his community to meet with the inquiry’s lawyers.
“Their friendship has lasted for decades. They’re still friends,” Wake said. “As a child, T’Seleie was a student at a residential school. Like many others at residential schools, he suffered. As an adult, he became an advocate for his people.”
The portraits of these two friends hang side by side on the gallery walls, and the film Wake made of her interviews with them is also part of the exhibit.
“That’s how our entire show started, so many years ago,” she said, “with those two and their friendship: a Jew and a Dene.”
Crossed Paths is at the Zack until April 7.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Langara College recently held the closing ceremony for Writing Lives: The Holocaust Memoir Project, a two-semester collaboration between Langara College, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Azrieli Foundation.
At the April 26 event, Dr. Rachel Mines, a member of Langara’s English department and coordinator of the project, described Writing Lives.
“In the first semester of this project,” she said, “students learned about the European Jewish culture and the Holocaust in the classroom, through studying historical and literary texts. They also researched and wrote a paper on prewar European Jewish communities.
“In the second term, students were teamed up with their survivor partners. They interviewed the survivors, transcribed the interviews and turned the transcriptions into written memoirs. The memoirs will be archived and possibly published, and they will also serve as legacies for the survivors and their families.”
Mines also relayed a message from Melanie Mark, B.C. minister of advanced education, skills and training.
“The Writing Lives project gives a voice to Holocaust survivors and teaches us about the type of courage and resilience it takes to overcome injustice,” said Mark in her statement. “These emotional and moving stories help connect people from different cultures and inspire us to do better for each other. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to building a vision of reconciliation through the adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. As an indigenous minister whose grandparents went to residential school, as the first person who ever graduated from high school in my family and went to college and university, I know the power of education. I know how transformative it is and how impactful it can be on our communities. Thank you for being truth tellers and helping to keep these stories alive in the minds of people.”
Gene Homel, former chair of the liberal studies department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, encouraged students to consider entering the fields of history, politics or literature.
“History is very important in providing context to some disturbing developments, not so much in Canada but other parts of the world, which are not as fortunate as Canada,” he said. “History is a scientific-based discipline, and that kind of approach is all the more important in the context of fake news and alternative facts. It is very important that the stories be told, and for us to take an inclusive but evidence-based and scientific approach to history.”
“When I invited the survivors in this program,” said Dr. Ilona Shulman Spaar, education director at the VHEC, “I mentioned two things: first, I expressed that the VHEC is confident that the experience of meeting with a Holocaust survivor will prove meaningful for the students and, secondly, I mentioned that I hope the survivors, too, will benefit from this opportunity. Listening to the positive feedback that I received from both the students and the survivors, and looking at the overall outcome of this project, I am glad to see that my hopes for this program became true.”
Serge Haber, a Holocaust survivor and a Writing Lives participant, talked about the significance of his memoir. “It is very crucial to me, because, for the last 35 years, I have been thinking of writing my experience in this life,” he said. “I never had a chance, the time or the person to listen to me. I hated the machines that record, so [a] personal touch was very important to me. And here it was, presented by Langara. I worked with two students, and I think we created a relationship, a personal understanding of what I went through.”
Haber added, “In fact, I have never been in a concentration camp, but it is important to know that the Holocaust happened not only in camps but also in many cities around Europe, where thousands upon thousands of Jewish people, young and old alike, perished for nothing, only because they were Jewish. I profoundly remember three words that [I was told] while I was watching what was happening on the streets below, where thousands of people had been killed – my father mentioned to me, ‘Look, listen and remember.’ And I remember.”
Heather Parks, reflecting on the passion and dedication that she and her fellow students contributed to the project, shared an emotional speech.
“For their trust in us, we poured our hearts into building their legacy,” she said. “We spent our days and long nights taking words told to us in confidence. We poured our hearts – and sometimes tears – into making a story fit for the most incredible people we have had the honour of meeting. Every part of this was hard work, and every part of this was worth it. We learned so much from them.
“Besides the lessons on history, we learned what true strength means,” she said. “We learned that love can remain even after trauma, loss or heartbreak; that new love grows as lives move forward, and that time can heal many wounds, even though they may leave scars. We were lucky to have been included in this love, this trust and this experience. I am not the only one in this project – in the experience of all of us, this project was illuminating and enlightening. It was surreal and awe-inspiring in every sense of the word. The experience taught us compassion, how to listen and what it means to love in the face of hate.”
The Writing Lives closing ceremony, however, may be an end that ushered in a new beginning. According to Dr. Rick Ouellet, director of Langara College’s indigenous education and services, his department is currently taking initiatives to continue the program. Writing Lives was a collaboration in the two years it ran. Similarly, the future project would be in collaboration with organizations that are working closely with residential school survivors, such as the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society and the British Columbia Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, to establish necessary protocols and ensure the stories of survivors are respected and the students are well prepared. Though not yet finalized, Ouellet aims to initiate the new Writing Lives program in fall 2019 at Langara.
Marc Perez, a Writing Lives student participant, lives and works on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. His creative nonfiction and fiction appear in Ricepaper Magazine and PRISM international 56.3. His personal essay “On Meeting a Holocaust Survivor” is published in Zachor (May 2018).
In the very talented ensemble of The Road Forward by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John, left, and Jennifer Kreisberg. (photos from National Film Board of Canada)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival features several films with Jewish community connections. They explore a wide range of topics: First Nations activism, Fort McMurray and the oil sands, real-life mermaids, bigotry against larger people, and being a freelance journalist in the Middle East. They will make you question your assumptions, ponder the various ways in which humans find connection, and introduce you to ideas, people and places you probably didn’t know existed.
Opening the festival, which runs May 4-14, is The Road Forward. In the very talented ensemble of this musical documentary by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John and Jennifer Kreisberg. As many of us do, St. John and Kreisberg have multiple cultural heritages that form their identity; in their instances, First Nations and Jewish are among them. In addition to performing, Kreisberg also composed and/or arranged many of the songs; the main composer is Wayne Lavallee.
The Road Forward began as a 10-minute performance piece commissioned for the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and premièred as a full-length theatre show at the 2015 PuSh Festival. The documentary has mostly traditional components – interviews, archival footage, news clips – but these are broken up by a number of songs, which add energy and emotion to the film.
The documentary uses as its starting point the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were established in the 1930s, when First Nations people were not permitted to meet and organize. The groups’ “official organ,” the Native Voice, was the first indigenous-run newspaper in Canada.
“The idea was to honour B.C.’s history, so I started researching and reading online and came across the archives of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the oldest Native organization in the country. Their parent organization, the Native Fishing Association, is located in West Vancouver, close to me,” explains Clements in the press material.
The Road Forward touches on many issues along its journey to current-day First Nation activists, who carry on in their ancestors’ paths. Though their goals are varied – some fight for particular legal or policy changes, others for restitution and reconciliation, yet others for their own voice and place in the world – they are all seeking justice, equality, understanding.
The songs highlight the immense struggles. As but two examples, “1965” is about the decades upon decades that First Nations have been denied the basic rights that most other Canadians have long enjoyed, and “My Girl” is a heartbreaking tribute to the aboriginal women who have been murdered along British Columbia’s Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.” The Indian Constitution Express, a movement organized by George Manuel in 1980-81 to protest the lack of aboriginal rights in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plans to patriate the Canadian Constitution, receives somewhat more attention than other activist achievements, and the song “If You Really Believe,” based on a speech by Manuel, is quite powerful.
The May 4 gala screening of The Road Forward is the official launch of Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake), National Film Board of Canada’s Indigenous Cinema on Tour. For the length of 2017, NFB is offering films from its 250-plus collection to all Canadians via [email protected]. The film also runs on May 10 and Clements will participate in a Q&A following both screenings.
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Limit is the Sky follows a handful of 20-somethings who have moved to Fort McMurray to follow their dreams. A few years before the price of oil plummeted in 2015 and the 2016 wildfire decimated the northern Alberta city, the average family income in “Fort Mac,” was $190,000 a year, according to the film. Working on the oil sands was where the real money lay, but others were drawn to the college or to places that serve the oil workers (and others), such as hairdressing salons and restaurants.
Most striking about the population we meet in Limit is the Sky is their diversity: they not only come from other Canadian provinces and the United States but from much further afield. The seven young dreamers featured include Max, from Lebanon; Mucharata, from the Philippines, who had to leave her 2-year-old son behind initially (for fours years); and KingDeng, a former child soldier from South Sudan, who had to help support his wife and children (in Edmonton) while at school in Fort McMurray.
“I was looking for young people who’d just recently arrived in Fort Mac, full of hopes, dreams and naïveté,” says filmmaker Julia Ivanova in the press material. “I wanted to walk the viewer through their ups and downs in a place where the men seem tough and the women even tougher. I wasn’t looking for tough characters, though: sensitivity and beauty – both inner and physical beauty – were important to me.”
Ivanova, who has Jewish roots, migrated to Canada from Russia many years ago.
“Being an immigrant myself,” she notes, “I could feel what was at stake for these young people and the challenges they face on a very intimate level.”
The main filming ran from fall 2012 to spring 2015. She felt welcomed by the people in the city, though not by the industry. “That was a brick wall I hit over and over again,” she says. “There was no filming of anyone allowed, anywhere, period.”
By the end of the film, most of the millennials featured had left the city, along with many others. “The town felt almost deserted, compared to how I had seen it in 2012 and 2013,” says Ivanova. “So many people were leaving. There was so much anxiety. I went to all the places I loved – and they’d all changed.”
Ivanova’s film shows the hope, the drive, the challenges, the loneliness of her interviewees. The dynamics are much more complex than one might assume of a city that relied on the oil sands for its prosperity. The environment is of crucial importance, obviously, but people matter, too, and this documentary shines a necessary light on that fact.
Limit is the Sky screens May 5.
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Falling into the who-ever-would-have-thought category, Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids introduces viewers to real-life mermaids, of a sort.
Rachel’s underwater job at the Dive Bar in Sacramento, Calif., helps her deal with a family tragedy. Vicki and a group of former Weeki Wachee Resort (in Florida) swimmers recall their mermaid days, including a show for Elvis and a 50th anniversary performance. Being a mermaid helps Cookie, who was abused as a child and has mental health issues, manage life, and she and her soulmate, Eric, who makes her mermaid tails, are married in a mermaid wedding, after being together for some 30 years. Last but not least, Julz, a transgender woman who was bullied as a child and disowned by her father, discovers acceptance and love in a Huntington Beach, Calif., mermaid group.
Weinstein intersperses these stories with brief summaries of long-told mermaid tales, “from the 3,000-year-old Assyrian figure of Atargatis to the Mami Wata water spirits of West Africa.”
It really is a fascinating documentary, showing just how resilient and resourceful the human spirit is.
Mermaids plays twice during DOXA, on May 6 and 13, and Weinstein will be in attendance at both screenings.
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Think of the cartoon villains and the hapless sidekicks. How are they often portrayed? As fat, dumb and/or oversexed? If those weren’t your first thoughts, think again. The documentary Fattitude convincingly shows how widespread bigotry against larger people is – so much so that it can be overlooked, until pointed out. Then, you wonder how you ever missed it.
From the old woman in the candy house that eats Hansel and Gretel, to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hut, to the evil squid in The Little Mermaid, these are just a few of the villains. Then there is the heavyset and dumb Hardy, sidekick to thin, smart Laurel; the stereotypical chubby best friend in so many movies; and the archetypal black nanny, forever cast in the caring, subservient role. Miss Piggy is a more complex character, both strong and confident in herself, but also sex-crazy over Kermit. And, in the entire Star Trek franchise – where have the larger people gone?
From the age of 3, the film notes, we are already programmed with negative stereotypes. When all put together, it’s quite depressing. However, Fattitude is a rather upbeat documentary, as its interviewees are spirited, determined and intelligent enough to effect some change, mainly via social media.
Filmmakers Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman speak to almost 50 people and, to a person, they provide an interesting perspective, connecting the body images depicted in films, television shows, cartoons, magazines and advertisements with their effects on viewers and on our perceptions of ourselves and others. The film discusses the links between race, socioeconomic status and weight, as well as the reasons why Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity was misguided.
Fattitude screens May 9.
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Being a journalist in a war zone seems dangerous and frightening, and it is. But it is also tedious and lonely. At least this is what it seems from watching Santiago Bertolino’s Freelancer on the Front Lines.
Bertolino follows Toronto-born, Beirut-based freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld hustles to get story ideas and budgets approved, waits in sparse hotel rooms for fixers to connect him with interviewees, and ventures into Egypt during its post-Arab Spring elections, the West Bank during an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and to Iraq, where they witness the fight against ISIS from the front lines.
Some of the more disturbing images are of the bodies of Palestinians gunned down in a home by undetermined executioners and the corpses of dead ISIS fighters dumped in the back of a truck, as well as tied to its back bumper. In another memorable part, Rosenfeld yells questions to a caged Mohamed Fahmy, when Fahmy and two fellow Al Jazeera journalists were on trial in Cairo. (Fahmy, who holds both Canadian and Egytian citizenship, spent almost two years in jail of a three-year sentence.)
Rosenfeld has strong views and isn’t afraid to share them, though he struggles to make eye contact with the camera when he makes his pronouncements. Some of the best exchanges in the film are between him and Canadian-Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, who hold different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Freelancer on the Front Lines screens May 13 at Vancity and will include a post-film discussion.
For tickets and the full DOXA Documentary Film Festival schedule, visit doxafestival.ca.
Bernard Richard, left, Cindy Blackstock and Jerry Nussbaum. (photo from Janusz Korczak Association of Canada)
As executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Dr. Cindy Blackstock initiated a human rights complaint against the Government of Canada, alleging that the country discriminates against First Nations by consistently underfunding child welfare services on reserves, a complaint her agency filed jointly with the Assembly of First Nations. After nine years of waiting for a decision, Blackstock, who is also a professor of social work at McGill University, was attending a graduation ceremony when she received an email with an attachment bearing the decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
“I read the first words of the decision and it said, ‘This decision is about children,’ underlined. I knew it was a good decision,” Blackstock told an audience at a Richmond hotel April 12, where she was honoured with the Janusz Korczak Medal for Children’s Rights Advocacy.
She left the ceremony and went home to put on her gumboots and collect a teddy bear, named Spirit Bear, who she said had witnessed the nine-year process with her. Then she bought a bouquet of flowers and drove to Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery.
“I walked through the snow down a little valley to a modest tombstone with the name Peter Henderson Bryce on it,” she recalled. Bryce was a federal civil servant in the Indian Affairs Department at the turn of the last century who blew the whistle on Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples, particularly alerting the government and the public to the mortality rate of 14% to 24% at residential schools and a 42% infant mortality rate on reserves. His report, The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921, was never made public by the government and Bryce was fired.
“He sacrificed his career and was retaliated [against] for it, but he would not be silent,” said Blackstock. “He kept talking even if nobody was listening because he knew that it was our job as adults to stand up for kids, to love children more than we fear for ourselves.”
At the cemetery, she read the tribunal decision, which determined that Ottawa discriminates against children on reserves by spending less on child welfare solely because of race and national or ethnic background. As a result, the decision stated, First Nations children suffer adverse impacts from funding service gaps, delays and denials.
After she read the ruling at the gravesite, she looked back up the hill from where she had just walked.
“And I saw the one set of footsteps in the snow and although those were made with me and my gumboots and the Spirit Bear, I knew that they also had the spirits of people like Dr. Korczak, of all the families who had stood up to protect their kids and hide them in the bush or prayed for them when they were in the schools, of the people, the non-aboriginal people like Dr. Bryce, who had been allies of justice for the children. So, I hugged his tombstone and I said, ‘Justice, Dr. Bryce, finally justice.’”
Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan nation in northern British Columbia, said she was honoured to have her name mentioned in the same sentence as Korczak, who is viewed as the founder of children’s rights. Before she was presented with the medal by Jerry Nussbaum, president of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada, Korczak was described by Lillian Boraks-Nemetz of the Korczak association as “a children’s advocate, their doctor, their friend and teacher.”
“He penned his own index of children’s rights, which is reflected in the United Nations Charter,” she said. “His Warsaw Ghetto diary and other writings inform us how he, through self-examination and experience, became a man with deep concern and compassion for a child’s welfare, a child’s healing not only of the body but also of the soul.”
Korczak ran his orphanage in Warsaw as a microcosmic laboratory, Boraks-Nemetz said, “where he practised and researched his philosophy on how to love a child and on children’s rights. There, he conducted a child’s court, where children expressed their grievances in front of the judges and jury made up of children.”
She spoke of her own experience implementing Korczak’s theories.
“When my children were small, my own children, I adopted this method partially and invited my own children to the family room once a week where they would express their grievances to us, their parents,” she said to laughter from the audience. “We would hear them out and discuss solutions to all sorts of problems and this worked very well, as our children needed to gain confidence in themselves and to express their feelings and thoughts, to be treated fairly with an acknowledgement of their rights to justice.”
Korczak’s philosophy, she said, was that 100 children are 100 human beings – “not some day, not ‘not yet,’ not tomorrow. They are human beings now.”
She then told the story of Korczak’s ultimate heroism.
“He would not desert the 200 orphans he cared for in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War,” she said. “This was at the time when the orphanage was marked for Nazi deportations of Jews.… Korczak was offered a reprieve from being deported, but he said, ‘My children need me’ and went with them to Treblinka death camp, where they all perished.”
Boraks-Nemetz quoted Irena Sendler, a Polish rescuer of ghetto children, who said, “When, on Aug. 6, 1942, I saw that tragic parade in the street, those innocent children walking obediently in the procession of death and listening to the doctor’s optimistic words, I do not know why, for me and for all the other eyewitnesses, our hearts did not break.”
Bernard Richard, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth, said some might think it difficult to make comparisons between a Polish Jewish man who died in the Holocaust and an indigenous Canadian woman who is still living – “and kicking, some would say.”
“But Cindy Blackstock is being given the medal for children’s rights advocacy because her work – and her life – has embodied the spirit of the man for whom the medal is named,” Richard said. Throughout the nine-year process, he added, “She was tenacious, and persistent, determined, passionate and committed, all characteristics shared with Janusz Korczak.”
Marvin Bernstein, UNICEF Canada’s chief policy advisor, said Canada has a longstanding pattern of underfunding child welfare services for First Nations children living on reserves, affecting 165,000 First Nations children and their families. The tribunal decision on Jan. 26, 2016, was a turning point for the country.
“It’s clear to UNICEF Canada that Cindy has been on the right side of history from the very beginning and has left an enduring legacy of advancing First Nations children’s rights.”
The concept of intersectionality recognizes that multiple forms of oppression and discrimination can impact individuals at the same time. For example, African-Americans experience systemically and socially both economic disadvantage and racial discrimination. Black women face an addition layer of intersectional oppression and black LGBTQ people add homophobia to the mix.
Intersectionality can be problematic for the Jewish community. As we have discussed in this space previously and will again, despite historical realities, Jewish people are often perceived by others as an advantaged, rather than a disadvantaged, minority. It does not take long on the sort of online forums where the term intersectionality is commonly used before stereotypes of Jewish power show up. Similarly, Zionism is seen by some not as the realization of an indigenous rights movement for self-determination that it is, but rather as a form of colonialism.
In one of the most self-evident examples of intersectionality’s potential blind spots, the intersection of Palestinian rights and gay rights begets ludicrousness like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, which makes common cause with extremists who throw homosexuals off roofs in order to condemn the perceived colonialism and myriad other “sins” of Zionism. Very frequently, in the discourse found in some far-left circles, antisemitism is dismissed because it does not fit the ideology of those who determine where the intersections are. Or, rather, it is made to not fit.
This is too bad, because selecting which humans are eligible for inclusion in a human rights movement based on immutable characteristic is, by definition, a human rights movement founded on false premises.
Of course, social theory and the real world are disparate points on a spectrum. A beautiful real-world example of something we might term intersectionality took place last week here in Vancouver.
Bernard Richard, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth, spoke at the ceremony for the awarding of this year’s Janusz Korczak Medal for Children’s Rights Advocacy. He observed that it might be difficult for some people to see the parallels between a Jewish Pole who died in the Holocaust and a social worker and activist who is a Canadian First Nations woman. But the inspiring intersection of these two lives makes eminent sense.
Dr. Janusz Korczak, as regular readers know, was a hero of the Holocaust who chose to accompany the 200 children in the care of his orphanage to their deaths in Treblinka, despite the Nazis offering him a reprieve. But he is a hero not only for the way he died, but for the work of his life. Seen as the originator of the children’s rights movement, Korczak insisted on the recognition of children’s innate humanity – rather than merely their potential – and insisted on seeing children as individuals fully deserving of respect and self-determination.
Far away in time and place, Dr. Cindy Blackstock insisted on the rights of indigenous Canadian children. A human rights complaint she initiated, which took nine years to wend its way through the byzantine structures of federal institutions, resulted in a January 2016 decision that Canada has consistently discriminated against the 165,000 aboriginal children who live on reserves, and their families, by systemically underfunding services to those children and youth based solely on their identities.
Blackstock was awarded the annual Korczak medal for exemplifying the values of Korczak in advancing children’s rights.
In her acceptance speech, Blackstock spoke of walking in the footsteps of ancestors and others who came before. Korczak and Blackstock are both models for all who seek to advance the condition of children in the world. It is impossible to imagine what future greatness may be inspired by their examples. A Polish Jewish man, Korczak effectively invented a concept that is now entrenched in United Nations testaments to the rights of the child, affecting the lives of potentially every child on earth. An indigenous Canadian woman, Blackstock shepherded a human rights challenge that will improve the lives of every child living on reserves in Canada, and their families.
Someday, who knows when or where, these two examples will inspire some other individual to stand up where injustice and inequality intersect with some other group of people. Then that individual will themselves become a model for others.
On Feb. 12, at Shaughnessy Heights United Church, there was a dialogue featuring Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan, director of Inter-Religious Studies at Vancouver School of Theology, and Rev. Ray Aldred, director of VST’s Indigenous Studies Program. Held under the rubric of Shaughnessy Heights’ Reconciliation Matters initiative, The Teachings of the Land: Our Oldest Relative explored the spiritual relationships between people and land.
Aldred, who is from Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta, said his understanding of the land has been formed by his Cree upbringing and his life study of indigenous wisdom. Asked about the title of the talk, he said, “For us, the land is part of the family.”
Kaplan spoke of the Jewish people’s connection to the land of their birth, Israel. A self-described “born urbanite,” she also spoke of her personal spiritual connections to the land – hiking in nature or learning from her husband how to grow food – and what she called the “eco-theology” of the Bible.
“The first chapter of Genesis takes us through the creation of an ecology, where everything is interconnected and blessed by the Divine,” she explained. “The first human is called ‘Adam’ in Hebrew, which is not just a random pleasing sound, but comes from adamah, red clay dirt, and means ‘the red clay dirt person,’ the ‘earthling.’ The Hebrew Bible is an indigenous text, which tells us ‘how to walk well on the land,’” she said, using a phrase of Aldred’s. “The Book of Leviticus, for instance, teaches us to consciously let the land rest – the commandment of Shmitah, where the land has rest from farming every seven years. The Hebrew Bible teaches that the ecosystem belongs to God, not to us. It is not ours to come in and displace peoples and animals and to take what we want.”
When Kaplan attended a course of Aldred’s in 2016, she said she realized she was a “rank beginner” in eco-spirituality. “Hunter-gatherers were specialists in sustainability,” she said. “They were not primitive; they are the next level.”
Kaplan also discussed the view of some that First Nations were one of the lost tribes of Israel, a view Aldred had also jokingly referred to earlier. Although lacking historical evidence to support it, commented Kaplan, “it works as a metaphor for a similar history of displacement.”
Aldred made another biblical allusion when speaking about how early Europeans were greeted by some Ojibwe as “Anishinaabe” (which literally means “people”) but they refused the title. “Reminds me of another story about some other people who didn’t want to be what they were created to be, but wanted to be God,” Aldred commented with a grin, referring to the story of Adam and Eve.
Aldred spoke a lot about the need for humility and the renunciation of certainty in order to find a relationship both to land and to other people. “Your perspective is always limited, it is always just ‘your perspective.’ You need other people, other creatures, to learn from. The Creator is giving us an opportunity to learn humility. If we miss that chance,” Aldred warned, alluding again to a biblical text (Leviticus 18:28), “the land will spit you out.”
Asked about practices of connecting to the land, Kaplan suggested learning about the local ecosystem, spending time exploring it and getting to know the unique creatures who inhabit it. She also spoke about connecting to members of one’s own tribe in order to cultivate a sense of home, and about getting to know the indigenous peoples of the area.
Aldred discussed the importance of really listening to the land so we can make better decisions as a community. Noting that Mary was Jesus’ mother, he asked who Adam’s mother was. “The earth was his mother, and the earth cared for him and cares for us.”
Aldred also said that indigenous people reverse Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which places basic needs like food and lodging on the bottom and spirituality and community at the top, as being less necessary. “Get your spirituality right,” said Aldred, “and everything else will be right. Take care of your relationship to the land, and take care of your neighbours.”
Asked about the ownership and economic use of land, Aldred said, “We belong to the land, it doesn’t belong to us.” He noted that treaties, in the indigenous understanding, were less about the division of land than about how it should be shared. “Of course, we should enjoy and make use of the gifts of the land,” he said, “but, in our decisions, we should think seven generations ahead – that’s 225 years into the future. That might take a little more time, but it’s worth it to our grandchildren.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Sam Bob is one of seven šxʷʔam̓ət, cast members. The play will run at Firehall Arts Centre March 3-11. (photo by David Cooper, design by Dafne Blanco)
Vancouver theatre director David Diamond, who founded the Theatre for Living 36 years ago, is hard at work this month on a play titled šxʷʔam̓ət(home), about reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. Eleven performances are scheduled March 3-11 and Diamond says anyone that has any interest in a healthy Canada will find the play interesting.
“I don’t think we necessarily understand where we live but I think we all have a vested interest in living in a healthy country,” he reflected. “The tagline for the play is, What does reconciliation mean to you? Our hope is that we’re asking real questions about how to engage in this (reconciliation), in an honourable way that isn’t a repetition of colonization.”
Diamond was born in Winnipeg and has lived in Vancouver since 1976. Why did he choose the subject of reconciliation for his latest play? “Some of it is just paying attention to what’s happening in the world,” he said. “The Theatre for Living has a long history of working with indigenous communities throughout Canada and the reconciliation issue has gained a lot of prominence in the last couple of years. It feels important to ask these serious questions about reconciliation at a time when a lot of people are questioning whether the process in Canada is even valid.”
The issue of reconciliation has many layers, he added. “Sometimes people want to imagine there’s a solution – but, of course, there isn’t one, there are millions of smaller things that need to happen, that make up larger solutions. We have a lot of conversations to have internally about legacy, colonialism and the reality of the country we live in. Some of those conversations are internal to indigenous communities and only then can we get to the conversations in between communities. All of that has to occur in order for reconciliation to be an honourable, honest and real thing.”
Diamond has been involved in the subject of reconciliation for decades. “I’ve been very privileged and honoured to be invited into conversations on issues that arise out of colonialism and to work with indigenous communities,” he said. “The best thing a production like this can do is ask real and challenging questions, questions that we legitimately don’t have answers to. And then, because the theatre is interactive at every performance, to navigate a very deep conversation every night, that helps transform people’s relationship to the issues.”
Theatre for Living is collaborating with Journeys Around the Circle Society for this production, which began with a workshop and creation process on Jan. 30. It’s the same procedure Diamond has followed for many of his larger shows over the past few decades. Diamond strives to produce interactive theatre that challenges perceptions and creates social change, and this performance will consist of life-based stories woven together, as well as challenges to the audience to make reconciliation respectful and real.