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.
Ryan Bellerose, left, in Jerusalem with Michael Dickson of Stand With Us. (photo from Ryan Bellerose)
Ryan Bellerose is not the first Métis to stand with Israel, though he might end being one of the most influential, as he works to increase B’nai Brith Canada’s presence and advocacy voice in Alberta and British Columbia.
Based in Calgary, Bellerose became BBC’s advocacy coordinator for Western Canada just over four months ago. Like many Métis of his generation, he was raised Roman Catholic but, later in life, found his way back to indigenous spirituality and decided that Catholicism was not for him.
“I try to worship the creator the way Cree people do, rather than the way white people do,” he told the Independent.
Growing up, Bellerose read about Israel and felt a kinship with Israelis insofar as the struggles they have endured concerning their ancestral land and rights. The Métis here in Canada have had less success with similar struggles, he said.
That’s how his connection to Israel started, said Bellerose. “On top of that, on my mother’s side, my great-grandmother was really pro-Israel. She grew up in Norway during WWII. She was very pro-Israel, because she was very anti-Nazi Germany.
“She would drink Manischewitz wine everyday at 4 p.m. As a kid, I asked her one time why she drinks it, because she’d always make a face when drinking it. She told me, ‘I drink this because it shows the world that the Jews didn’t die and that the Nazis lost.’”
It would not be until Bellerose was in university that it became clear in his mind why he, himself, was pro-Israel. A Jewish friend at the University of Alberta helped him see just how similar the Métis and Jewish narratives are.
“I didn’t realize she was Jewish and I used to hang out with her a lot,” recalled Bellerose. “She’d always invite me over for dinner at her house on Friday. They weren’t super-observant Jews, but they still lit candles and had Shabbat dinner. They didn’t eat meat on Friday … all things that my family did, too. So, I just thought that they were super-Catholics, and I told my grandma that my friend is totally super-Catholic and that she’d love this girl.”
What Bellerose did not yet realize at the time was that his friend was being bullied at the U of A to a degree he had never seen before. Growing up in northern Alberta, Bellerose had experienced a lot of racism and prejudice, but nothing, he said, like these verbal attacks on his friend.
“What was a shock to me was this girl – blond-haired, blue-eyed, who played on sports teams and was super-smart academically – was being bullied to the point that she was considering suicide,” said Bellerose. “We’d be walking across the quad at the U of A and someone would yell, ‘Baby killer!’ I just always assumed they must be yelling at someone else or maybe even yelling at me, because there’s no way they would be yelling at her.”
This occurred a few times before Bellerose learned that his friend had participated in several pro-Israel events and that it was some very anti-Israel U of A students who were shouting such slurs at her.
“It’s one of those things that … it’s very difficult for a rational, moral human being to even wrap their heads around…. I think that’s why a lot of Canadians don’t understand the depth of this,” said Bellerose.
“It’s simply because she used to wear an IDF T-shirt and she was Jewish. So, I mean, the excuse would be anti-Zionism, but the truth is that it is antisemitism.
“I’m supposed to be one of her close friends and, yet, I had absolutely no idea what she was going through. I should be more sensitive than that as a Métis person who has experienced that kind of thing. It really bothered me that I didn’t see it. That was when I decided that I’m not going to stand there and be quiet when this kind of stuff happens.”
Soon after, in 2002, Bellerose was on his way to his football locker when he encountered an “apartheid wall” in his way. It was made out of papier-mâché and cardboard, and had bloody handprints on it. As the wall was blocking his way, Bellerose asked politely if they could move it. A female student responded to him, “Now, you understand the persecution the Palestinians deal with on a daily basis.”
Bellerose said, “I looked at her and said that my [Métis] people were still allowed to be killed in 1939 in Canada … that nobody will do anything about that … so don’t lecture me about oppression. I lost my cool with her and said that they should either move the wall or I would. They didn’t, so I walked over and ripped it down. I was angry, so I flipped their table over. They had a bucket of propaganda and I kicked that over.”
Fast-forward about 10 years, and Bellerose has joined Calgary United with Israel. He began his involvement helping organize events on a volunteer basis, while working full-time. During his spare time, he would argue with antisemites in comment sections of published articles, but eventually realized that he would be able to get his message out a lot more quickly if he educated influential people instead, on both sides of the conflict.
Bellerose said many people in the world, out of ignorance, believe that the Palestinians are on the side of complete right in the conflict, painting Jews as occupiers as opposed to people returning to their homeland.
“That’s literally how this whole idea that the Palestinians are the native people and the Jews are the white European colonizers came about…. That’s how it was spread so easily,” said Bellerose. “Arabs flipped that narrative…. If I allowed the argument that the Arabs are indigenous to the land of Israel, then I might as well turn around and say that white people are now indigenous to Canada. A lot of native people don’t understand that until you literally put it into those terms.”
Bellerose has a fairly significant following on social media, partly because he used to play football and partly because he is a sometimes controversial personality who makes people uncomfortable. B’nai Brith Canada began following Bellerose, too, and was especially impressed with his imploring Jews to be proactive in their advocacy and unapologetic.
“I firmly believe that the biggest part of this problem is that, a lot of times, until recently, Jewish advocates were kind of taught not to talk about the settlements,” said Bellerose. “I’m here to talk about the good things about Israel. Of course, the truth is there’s a lot to criticize – but there’s so much more to be proud of.”
When BBC hired Bellerose, he could hardly believe he would be paid to do what he loves doing and would do anyway.
“I tell people that I’m going to be more professional, swear a little less,” he quipped regarding his role with BBC. But, he added, B’nai Brith itself has become “less apologetic, more proactive … a little more in your face.”
Bellerose especially likes working with young adults, as he strongly believes there are many young people who are not connected with their identity because they don’t really understand it.
Bellerose is also working hard to build bridges between aboriginals and Jews. “I think that, by building these bridges, eventually we can help you and you can help us, and it will make the world a better place,” he said. “This is best done through what I call ‘relationship advocacy.’ Instead of going out and telling everyone how wonderful Israel is and how wonderful Jews are, I think it works much better when Jewish people invite somebody for Shabbat. The moment they see you as a human being and not an abstract concept, you build a relationship with that person. And, when that person has a relationship with you, they are way more likely to stand up for you, way more likely to actually get involved.”
I was recently in Australia, where I presented at Limmud Oz, a Jewish festival of learning. One thing – among many – that struck me about the community was that, on more than one occasion, Limmud sessions or other parlor meetings opened with a public acknowledgment of the elders of the Gadigal people (in Sydney) and the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nation (in Melbourne).
Similar acknowledgments are becoming more common in locales across Canada – references to the Métis Nation at events in Winnipeg; the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh in Vancouver; the Wendat, Anishewabe and Massasagua in Toronto; the Algonquin in Ottawa. But I have only heard this done once in a Jewish context – at a Jewish Voices for Peace event in Ottawa.
Ittay Flescher, a Jewish educator at Mount Scopus Memorial College, a day school in Melbourne, has been one of many educators to call for his school assemblies to open with a similar acknowledgment, and feature signs on classroom walls “acknowledging country,” in Australian parlance. His shul, Shira Hadasha, a partnership minyan, also incorporates such a statement in its Prayer for Australia.
Flescher has gone deeper in raising awareness, having introduced a Grade 9 aboriginal studies course. These students were in kindergarten when the government issued its historic 2007 apology for the Stolen Generations policies, whereby aboriginal children were taken from their parents to be raised by whites – Australia’s version of Canada’s terrible Sixties Scoop.
Named Yorta Yorta Beyachad (beyachad means “together” in Hebrew), the course is anchored in a little-known event that bound Australia’s Jewish community in Shepparton to William Cooper of the Yorta Yorta tribe. Having been one of the first to launch an aboriginal civil rights movement, in 1938, Cooper – a person with no status, no voting rights and no formal citizenship, as was the case among aboriginals in Australia at the time – turned his sights to another oppressed people. Appalled by the events of Kristallnacht, Cooper marched to the German consulate in Melbourne to present a petition denouncing “the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany,” an act of protest that stayed virtually hidden until it was discovered by a Melbourne archivist in 2002.
Each year, Flescher takes his students to Yorta Yorta country in partnership with the Australian Jewish social justice organization Stand Up. For three days, they meet with elders, learn traditional dances, discuss issues around identity, and deepen their understanding of aboriginal history. They visit Cummergunja, one of the Catholic missions where aboriginals were forcibly placed in 1889. They even visited Cooper’s grave where they recited Kaddish for the victims of the Shoah. “It was an incredibly moving and humbling experience,” Flescher said.
The Canadian Jewish community is beginning to tackle the issue as well. The CJN reported in May on a Jewish teen cultural exchange to the Nipissing First Nation Reserve. And, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, several Jewish groups, including Ve’ahavta, the Toronto Board of Rabbis, the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and CIJA, signed a “statement of solidarity and action.” Bernie Farber, former head of Canadian Jewish Congress and now head of Mosaic Institute, has been at the forefront of moves to advance deep and thoughtful discussion about the fate of the First Nations.
These are all encouraging. And, like the dancing of the hands before reciting the Shabbat candle blessing or the kissing of the mezuzah before entering a room, there is something powerful about a ritual-like statement at the beginning of a Jewish gathering to acknowledge who came before us and how we can help repair the wrongs inflicted – even if most of us, or our ancestors, were fleeing our own private horrors when we arrived at the shores of this great country.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications. This article was originally published in the CJN.
Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond speaks at the fourth session of “How to Love a Child,” the Janusz Korczak Lecture Series. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
“Rights are paper tigers, just pieces of paper, unless there are people courageous enough to defend them, and unless there are mechanisms to enforce them and compel them. The child who has a right to be heard but no one listens to, and disappears without ever being heard, never really had a right to be heard,” warned B.C. representative for children and youth Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond at the fourth session of “How to Love a Child,” the Janusz Korczak Lecture Series.
The Jan. 21 lecture at the University of British Columbia, which is part of a six-part series co-organized by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada and UBC’s faculty of education, focused on The Human Rights of Aboriginal Children. Also speaking was Dr. Mike DeGagné, president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University, who was the executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF), which was established in 1998 with a grant from the federal government and wound down its work in 2014. Its mandate was “to encourage and support, through research and funding contributions, community-based aboriginal-directed healing initiatives which address the legacy of physical and sexual abuse suffered in Canada’s Indian residential school system, including inter-generational impacts.”
Dr. Grant Charles, associate professor at UBC School of Social Work, acted as moderator, and Janusz Korczak Association president Jerry Nussbaum also spoke, explaining briefly who was Janusz Korczak. The educator, writer and orphanage director – after whose book How to Love a Child the lecture series is named – not only wrote about his theories, but lived and died by them. When the Nazis created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, Korczak’s orphanage was forced to move there, and Korczak went with the children. In 1942, he and the almost 200 children in his care were taken to Treblinka, where they were murdered.
Nussbaum reminded the audience of Korzak’s philosophies on the rights of children and their direct influence on the content of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Korczak believed that every child has a right to love, said Nussbaum, and that “children offered love and care will reciprocate with love and care.” Children have a right to be taken seriously, to education, to protest an injustice, among other rights. Nussbaum explained that Korczak believed that the health of a society could be gauged by the health of its children.
Despite protection under the UN convention, there are many children and youth who are marginalized and, in Canada, First Nations children are among those who are the most at risk. Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald, associate dean for indigenous education at UBC, gave an example of one of the research programs at the university’s faculty of education that is trying to ameliorate this situation. Called Awakening the Spirit, “it’s about revitalizing canoeing at Musqueam,” she explained. There is cooperation among different faculties and some students are involved, “but the most important part is the Musqueam communities that partner in this research. They are the ones who determined this particular project because they felt that they wanted to have something positive in their community for the young people, for the youth.”
Canoeing, she said, was a very important part of the community lifestyle, “it was a way to build family and community cohesiveness and also have fun and learn about the environment at the same time.”
The benefits of the research project, she said, “will be realized in educational materials, in the way of revitalizing important values, the Musqueam language, ensuring we have intergenerational learning.”
DeGagné has had 20 years of experience working with the repercussions of residential schools. He said his views about rights, “especially indigenous children’s rights, I color it with the history of residential schools.”
Often when there is a conversation within the community about indigenous issues, he said, it begins with the high rates of suicide, poverty, over-representation in the justice and child welfare systems, “the rosary of our grievances.” Given that indigenous children have rights, yet the grievances continue, he asked, “How can we be sure those rights are being supported and upheld?”
When AHF began, he said, grant applicants would ask, for example, whether the foundation had an approved list of elders that they could use. “We were astonished. Can you imagine in your own community … in your own spiritual context, asking if your priest was OK, if your rabbi was OK? This is the making of the colonial mind. After years of being subjected to doing it someone else’s way, even when we came along, we could not engender people doing it their way.” He described this as “a learned helplessness,” and a lack of trust in their own culture.
To move forward, it is important to talk of the past, he said. He used the metaphor of a pebble being dropped into a pond to describe the effects of the residential school system. The child’s abuse at the hands of an adult is at the centre, it is the pebble being dropped; the next ripple out is one child at a residential school abusing another child (“learned behavior”); the next is when that person leaves the school and returns to their community and starts a family in which violence takes place; then the violence between that family and another in the community. As we look at the outcome, standing on the outside, we see the high rates of suicide, family violence, neglected children, but we, as observers, “can’t see anything but the dysfunction and so infrequently do we get to examine what happened in the middle, what happened in that first instance of violence, what happened when that child’s human rights” were disregarded. “This is why we talk about history,” this is why 100 years of residential schools is important, he said.
To change the situation, he pointed to two necessities: the establishment of fairness, “the money that we spend on First Nations child welfare should be equal to the money that we spend in the rest of the population’s child welfare systems”; and transference of control to First Nations peoples of their lives, agendas and resources.
DeGagné commended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on capturing the hearts and minds of Canadians and drawing them to indigenous issues, and for talking about system reform as opposed to tweaking or just adding money to a dysfunctional system. But, among his criticisms of the commission’s recommendations is that they do not make him uncomfortable. “It turns out that, in the reconciliation between you and me, indigenous people and non-indigenous people, that 93 of the 94 recommendations require that you do something…. I’d like to feel a lot more uncomfortable reading these recommendations because reconciliation is going to require that I work and that you work, and not that you come to stand by me, but that somehow I come to stand in the middle with you. And so, I think, too often with these recommendations, and this could be a reflection of the colonized mind, we are calling upon someone else to fix the problems with our community. That’s a concern of mine.”
The TRC, he added, also describes issues as if there has been no progress in the last 20 years – by the churches, universities, governments and others – towards reconciliation. “We have much to do, but we have to start by acknowledging the good work of all us and how much progress we’ve made.”
Turpel-Lafond spoke about how long it takes to change systems. “You have to really make that investment [in change], and it takes time,” she said.
AHF “laid the groundwork for thinking about healing” and the view of storytelling and its importance in healing, she said. “Stories, particularly the stories of grievances that aboriginal adults have – and many of our parents and grandparents have – are stories that needed to be told, that needed to be heard, that needed to be listened to.” AHF “gave resources for people to validate that process of allowing individuals who had been through residential school, their personal experience and their collective experience, to be told and listened to in a very sincere way in which they were supported, but also could create that medicine toward healing.”
Turpel-Lafond’s great-great-grandparents were the first two students at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask. She spoke of the difficulties in sharing some of the stories with her own children. “Children are not always ready to hear those stories. I’m not trying to be over-protective, but we need to think about children’s well-being … how we tell the stories to children, when we tell stories to children, and how we can put those stories in a context.”
She then went on to speak about Korczak and the lecture theme, “How to love a child.” For her, Korczak represents what it means to love children, even “where it was extremely unpopular to love and support some children, who were considered to be less worthy, who were considered to be disposable…. And also to bring forward the idea that love is a kind of medicine with respect to our society…. We express our love for our own society and its furtherance by how we love our children because we create a vision of something we may not even be here to enjoy, that we create through that very values-based process.”
We’re not talking about creating the perfect system or bureaucracy, she said, noting that Treblinka was an attempt at a perfect system, “we’re talking about values.”
The love that Korczak represents for her in the context of indigenous children is an approach that does not come from a perspective of shaming, blaming, contempt or judgment. This is “a really serious problem that we continue to have for the current generation of indigenous children, which is, we want to save them but we still want to blame their parents, and that’s a very unhealthy attitude.” We need to come “from a perspective of love and understanding and context, and seeing … [how] multiple shocks … can just devastate families, not every family, but some families.”
A second lesson she takes from Korzcak’s views is “the idea that nobody owns your story, that you have to have the courage to say it.” People may relate to your story in various ways, “but the story, and telling it, the courage to do that, to talk about the difficult things, is a very important instinct related to love and, if you can’t bring that out and you don’t have enough people in your society who are courageous, then your society is doomed. And how do you build courageous people? … [I]t’s about love and acceptance and space, but it’s also about having very strong adults to allow people like kids to tell stories.” Korczak “represented that right to be heard,” she said, and he went even further, going against the mores of the day in that he wanted “no corporal punishment of children.”
She said that many indigenous children have been “raised in an environment deprived of the type of unconditional love, culture, language and the right to know who they were and where they were…. If you love people and you’re prepared to understand that grievance and suffering is not permanent, it can be redressed.”
But, adults who love children must see something in the children that the children may not see themselves because they’re mired in rejection. “There have to be positive, healthy adults who see their potential and support them to get to their potential. That’s a very important concept because, not surprisingly, guess what, some of the children who have been most abused and ill-treated can be the most challenging to engage with in terms of their emotional regulation, in terms of their contact with adults, in terms of their anger.”
The government label is that these children are “service resistant,” she said, which means, “we will leave you alone because you’re too angry for me even to listen to your story. But, if you take a page from Andrew Solomon [author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity] and Janusz Korczak, what would you say? I am able to rise above it and listen to this story and, if I’m a good, healthy adult that’s coming from a place of love, I can probably see what’s in the story and see how it can be a medicine for the future.”
The third lesson she takes from Korczak, her experience as an indigenous person and as an advocate for children is that “rights are an important medicine.” Rights are so important because “rights are a way to reframe incredible vulnerability and systematic disempowering … into a different context that overnight takes, for instance, that residential school experience and now makes it appalling, completely unacceptable, who would ever do that to children? Because they have a right to learn, they have a right to be safe, they have a right to be heard, they have a right to their language, [to their] culture transmitted from their parents to them, and there’s nothing threatening or harmful about that.”
In British Columbia, we have a long way to go. Of the children in care, more than 60% are indigenous children. While Turpel-Lafond said we are in a better place as a society than when she left home and went out in the world, “we are not in a place where indigenous children can in any way be guaranteed equal opportunities with other children in British Columbia. By accident of birth, they’re going to be born with significant disadvantages that will only be overcome based on what we decide to do.”
In the half-hour question and answer period that followed, one of the listeners shared her story of how her child had been abused by foster parents and, when she tried to remedy the situation, she could not find help, no matter to whom or to which government office she turned. Turpel-Lafond was at a loss to respond, other than to empathize and say we don’t have the answers, “but we’ve got to find a way to get them.”
The fifth lecture in the Korczak series takes place on Feb. 18, 7 p.m., and focuses on the topic Social Pediatrics in Canada and Vancouver. The final lecture on April 6 provides a summary of the series. To register and for more information, visit jklectures.educ.ubc.ca.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society will honor Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, on Jan. 17. (photo from Jack P. Blaney Awards, Simon Fraser University)
The release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report last year was a turning point in the relationship between Canada and its aboriginal peoples. It is part of a longer and ongoing trajectory of healing, according to Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, who is being honored this weekend as a courageous civic leader.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society was founded by members of the local Jewish and Swedish communities, including the honorary Swedish consul, to recognize individuals who help others at great risk to themselves. Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation on northern Vancouver Island, is the recipient of this year’s Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award.
Joseph is ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, an organization intended to “revitalize the relationships among indigenous peoples and all Canadians,” and a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council.
“At significant personal risk and after facing severe oppression, Chief Dr. Robert Joseph courageously stood up against social injustice to help others,” notes the award citation. “As a residential school survivor, he courageously chose to publicly share his story and the consequences of the abuse and trauma he had endured. This was at a time when the indigenous community was conflicted about bringing the experiences in the residential schools to light and when the larger community was in denial about what happened. Chief Dr. Robert Joseph chose to turn his experience into a vehicle for healing through reconciliation and a will to make sure that this would never happen again.”
In an interview with the Independent, Joseph discussed the progress toward healing his community has made in recent decades.
“Our First Nations people were absolutely in deep despair, not understanding what had happened to us over the course of all that time that residential schools existed,” he said. “But, in the last 20 years, we’ve made remarkable, remarkable progress. And one of the breakthroughs in all of that was survivors like myself began to feel confident enough to tell our stories. We had been walking around in deep shame and despair and brokenness and suddenly we found a way to begin to tell our story.”
A crucial first step, he said, was the federal government’s 1998 Statement of Reconciliation. Though the statement itself was equivocal and not universally appreciated, Joseph said, it was accompanied by funds for survivors and resources for the affected communities.
“I was part of the movement because I was executive director for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, which was the only organization of its kind at the time,” he said. “So, we began to hold meetings and circles where circles of survivors began to tell their stories and it was deeply, deeply liberating.”
The process expanded, he said, to include representatives of the churches who were complicit in the schools system and later the government and other Canadians.
“We began to recognize that indeed there is a common humanity that exists between all of us and if we can’t harness that common humanity, we’re going to always have these atrocities going on around the world,” he said. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a culmination of that progress and Joseph is uplifted by the response of Canadians since the report’s release last year.
“We’ve had a tremendous interest and response from many Canadians about their desire to reconcile,” he said. Even so, the impact of the report was double-edged, he said.
“When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was submitted in June, it said that because of a whole number of initiatives and policies, Canada had created, impacted, effected a cultural genocide against the aboriginal people of this country,” he explained. “For me, even as I sat and listened to that, it was sort of a bittersweet report. On the one hand, all of our suffering had been acknowledged and identified in this report. But, on the other hand, as a country together, you and I and everyone who are Canadians were told that genocide was a part of our history.”
He added that he is humbled to receive the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award, which is named in honor of Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara, diplomats who, during the Second World War, risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.
“I’m really moved by the idea that people who suffered huge indignities, human suffering, who have been through it all like no one else has before, are thinking that somebody as little as I am can be acknowledged by them,” Joseph said.
As he prepares to receive his award, the chief said he is optimistic that Canada is at a crossroad.
“We are so blessed in this country,” he said. “We have all of the rainbow and color of the human race here and we have a chance to engage with each other, to nurture our relationships, to embrace our differences and indeed celebrate them.… But it calls us to our highest order as Canadians to be all that we can be in treating each other with respect and dignity because there is nothing more important than respect and dignity. I think that we are on the right path.”
Joseph will receive his award at an event on Sunday, Jan. 17, at 1:30 p.m., in the Wosk Auditorium at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. The ceremony will be followed by the screening of the film Carl Lutz: The Forgotten Hero, about a Swiss diplomat in Budapest who saved tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis.