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Film still from Legends of the Storm © Roxann Karonhiarokwas Whitebean

 

An interview with Roxann Karonhiarokwas Whitebean

[Editorial note:  Montréal Serai editor Jody Freeman interviewed Roxann Karonhiarokwas Whitebean in mid-May 2021, before the heart-rending discoveries of the unmarked graves of 1,148 children on the sites of former Indian residential schools.]

Jody: Roxann Karonhiarokwas, I would first like to welcome you on behalf of Montréal Serai and say how happy I am to meet you. I know I didn’t pronounce your Mohawk name properly. Would you mind telling me how to say it? Does it have a special meaning?

Roxann: Karonhiarokwas. It means “She cleans the sky.”

Jody: Despite the fact that you’re in your 30s, you already have a lot under your belt. And you’ve also had to face extremely difficult situations, even at a very young age – experiences including the 1990 Oka resistance (Oka crisis). You must have been a young child when that happened in Oka.

Roxann: Yes, I was six years old. I feel like I grew up very quickly during that time. I remember almost everything because it was so traumatizing, especially the day the tanks first rolled into Kahnawà:ke. It’s definitely something that shaped me as a person and had a really profound impact on my childhood and on who I became as a woman, as an adult moving forward in my life. Some of my family members are in the Rocks at Whisky Trench documentary (about the Oka crisis), which was directed by Alanis Obomsawin. We were very much involved, my family.

Jody: The first film that you made, Legend of the Storm, also reflects those experiences. Did your dreams and your nightmares play into your decision to make that film?

Roxann: I decided to make that film after my daughter came home from school one day – she must have been around six or seven years old – and said, “Did you know there was a war in Kahnawà:ke, a couple of hundred years ago?” I asked her what war she was talking about. She said, “Well, they blocked the Mercier Bridge and the army came in, fighting about land.” When I told her I was a little girl when it happened, she couldn’t believe it. She said, “What did you do and what did you think and how did you feel?”

It was very cathartic for me to write out the poetic allegory that inspired the film Legend of the Storm. I applied for a very small Canada Council for the Arts grant for emerging artists: $20,000. I managed to get the film done and took a very artistic approach to it, using a really old lens. I knew that I couldn’t really compete against mainstream artists at that point. But it was an emotional film and it was an opportunity for us to tell our story.

The actors in the film are not trained actors. They are the descendants of the survivors of the crisis, or are survivors themselves. Some were children when that took place. The grandparents in the film were actually there and were young adults at the time. We really pulled together to just make something special. That was my very first film.

 

Film still from Legends of the Storm © Roxann Karonhiarokwas Whitebean

 

Jody: At the end of that film, you also had some bad news personally, I think.

Roxann: Before I started shooting Legend of the Storm, I discovered a growth in my right breast and I did some research on breast cancer. About five or six years prior to that, I had gone to the CLSC (community health clinic) and asked the doctor to give me a breast examination. She thought I was too young and dismissed my concern. It turned out that the growth actually was breast cancer – advanced-stage breast cancer – and it had spread. I had several tumours, but fortunately the cancer didn’t reach my lymph nodes. I started treatment almost immediately.

We were editing Legend of the Storm while I was doing active treatment and we were simultaneously filming Thunder Blanket. It was a very overwhelming time. I didn’t think I was going to survive this breast cancer. With Thunder Blanket, I wanted to raise awareness about giving ourselves breast examinations from the time we’re 18, because my doctor told me his youngest patient was 16 years old. Imagine being 16 years old, just coming into womanhood and then discovering that you have breast cancer and need a double mastectomy. I’m grateful that I was able to live a good portion of my life before I had to deal with this.

Jody: You also went to see a medicine person named Bill Constant. Was he in Québec?

Roxann: No, he was in northern Ontario, but he is originally from Manitoba. I met him through mutual friends, like sun dancers and people who believe in our traditional system of governance and actively live the culture and practice ceremonies. It was a very difficult decision for me to agree to do Western therapy, because I grew up traditionally within the Longhouse with my culture. My parents encouraged me to do chemotherapy. For me, the biggest concern was, “How am I going to take care of my children while I’m doing chemotherapy? What are going to be the side effects?”

I was thinking that I would end up very frail and fragile, but they had me taking steroids by needles and in my stomach, and I ended up gaining 40 pounds and losing all my hair. By the time I got to the film festival, I had been off chemo for a little bit and my hair was really short. It was very humbling for me to have to go out in public and stand on a stage and speak to people, and have that be their first impression of me. It was actually very traumatic, so I tend to bury that experience.

I’m still followed by my oncologist. I had several relapses after Thunder Blanket – several operations and radiation, you know. But it’s been two and a half years now, knock on wood… I’m cancer free.

Jody: While you were going through all of that, didn’t you also form your indie company, Whitebean Media Arts? And you have your four kids, too.

Roxann: Yes, I had no choice, because when I landed the Thunder Blanket gig, I had to create an incorporated company, and I was so green. I had to do research, and by trial and error, I opened up my indie company and started getting small-scale gigs for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) digital platform, which was really a stepping stone to help me land my first feature documentary and then work on larger-scale shows like SKINdigenous, and Raven’s Quest, a kids’ series for TVO (TV Ontario). It’s been a slow and steady process, but I’ve definitely paid my dues.

Jody: And you’re also an activist, no?

Roxann: I don’t really consider myself an activist. I think that when you’re an Indigenous person who lives your culture, standing up for your people and the right to be recognized as a sovereign nation is just a way of life. You’ll never hear me say I’m an activist – to me, that’s not what it is. I grew up this way on the reserve. I’m a product of my environment and I don’t consider myself an activist that people can look to, or anything like that.*

Jody: For the last 10 months or so, you’ve been working on a co-creation, Two Horn Circus, right?

Roxann: Yes. I wrote the first draft and the co-creator is Kaniehtiio Horn, who is a Mohawk actress from my community. The film is inspired by a true story set in the 1930s – our family story – about Kaniehtiio’s grandfather and his nephew, who is my cousin on my grandfather’s side. The two boys were both named Joe Horn, and they ran away to the United States. They faked their own deaths and joined a traveling circus to survive life on the run. They stayed away until they reached the age of majority, then came home. Everyone thought they were dead.

Jody: Was this about avoiding residential school?

Roxann: We were hearing different things (about the boys’ reasons for disappearing). One is that they were trying to avoid being sent to a residential school and there was a lot of speculation as to why they really left. Then when the boys returned home, they carried a lot of guilt because of how it affected their families and their parents, and the community as a whole.

The story that I wrote for the film is an hour and 45 minutes long. I hope it can become a television series, because there are so many different things we can cover in it. I had to do extensive research on circus life in the 1930s in the United States, and there was a lot going on historically during that time: the war, the Depression, the women’s rights movement, segregation. But the characters are all fictional. Their whole journey at the circus is something that we created, and I had a lot of fun doing it.

Jody: What was it like being part of Five in Focus?

Roxann: Five in Focus: Women in View changed my life. Participating in Women in View was amazing. I met other women who are really pushing forward in their careers. I had a great mentor, Danis Goulet, who was a consulting producer for Trickster. And my script mentor, Morwyn Brebner, is the showrunner for the CBC television series Coroner. I had a chance to work with these amazing, wonderful women who were very supportive. Aside from that, I was able to build a bit of a relationship with Jan Miller, who is a great connector, and to participate in the master classes.

I’m thankful for Women in View. The whole point in creating this program is to help Indigenous artists and women develop their projects, get their foot in the door and get their project out there. I’m very grateful for this opportunity. Very, very grateful.

Jody: I’ve been going over the films you’ve made, and it seems like children and elders and traditional people are very much at the centre, at the heart. There is also a very gentle kind of energy and a deep strength that comes with it.

Roxann: Thank you.

 

Film still from Legends of the Storm © Roxann Karonhiarokwas Whitebean

 

Jody: When you’re working, do you find that your chosen medium is similar to oral storytelling? Are there things that link up with that or do you find it’s quite different?

Roxann: My artistic choice and chosen voice is to authentically explore my culture and share that, but also to document our stories with people who are living libraries, because we do come from an oral tradition. I’ve come to realize how important documenting these things are for our future generations… I know it sounds so prophetic or whatever, but I’m really just documenting stories and our history and our experiences – things that I’ve lived through, and things that I believe in as an Indigenous woman – for our future generations.

In my own life, I wish that I could have seen more (Indigenous) content or witnessed my ancestors on screen to know what they were thinking, to get a sense and a feel of the culture, to hear the songs… With some of the material and the content that was created in the past, before Indigenous artists really started coming to the forefront, you could feel that it really wasn’t authentic. Our stories were always told by non-Indigenous people.

I watched television and saw the way we’ve always been portrayed in the media, and I never thought it was fair, especially the way we were talked about during the 1990 Oka crisis. We were always the villains and it was always about “dirty Indians” and “drunken Indians” – and that’s not who we are. Like all cultures, we have people who struggle emotionally. We have people who struggle with addiction issues. But so many of our people are very kind and humble. And we’re coming out of extreme oppression. It was only about 40 years ago that the “Indian agents” left our communities… That’s not a long time.

There is a class system in Canada. We had the residential schools and Indian day schools… we had the 1960s scoop, and now we have the millennium scoop, which is a whole new thing that’s coming into play. And it’s because of systemic racism by the federal government, and the funding that’s given to children on reserve for social services and education. We are dramatically underfunded, as we don’t receive provincial funding for education or social services. Just by being born as an Indigenous child on reserve, we’re born into a disadvantage.

I made that film about Karihwanoron, the Mohawk immersion school, because I was a parent at the school at the time and my children were attending the school. We were very scared that year and unsure if we were going to be able to keep the school open.

Our Mohawk immersion school didn’t receive adequate funding. To keep it going, it was exhausting. On top of our careers, we had to fundraise and attend meetings – it was like a second job. And we still had to be parents. We were still struggling and this was our reality, so I decided to make the film Karihwanoron: Precious Things. I’m very happy I did.

I can’t say that the documentary contributed to or is the reason why this came into being, but the Canadian government started negotiating legislation for the Indigenous Languages Act to support the language. There were a lot of people who wanted this returned to us.

In my family, Mohawk is my mom’s first language. She grew up in a household with her great grandmother. My great grandmother passed away when I was five years old and she didn’t know how to speak English. To me, having so many family members who spoke the language was a very beautiful thing. Our language school is necessary.

Jody: Language and voice are very central in your films… you’re recording elders, what they have to say and also their voices, the way they speak, and everything that’s behind the language, the kind of musicality in how they speak.

Roxann: This is something that I’m very passionate about – sharing our voice with the world, giving our people a platform.

Jody: What new projects are on the horizon for you?

Roxann: I have an exciting project coming up. It’s a half-hour short film called Rose, and it’s funded by Telefilm. It is inspired by my mom’s birth story. There’s a lot of intergenerational trauma in my family. My great grandmother was a residential school survivor, and the trauma just kind of trickled down the line. When they tried to steal my mother and have her adopted out, she was saved by very amazing, strong women in my family. This film is in loving memory of my aunt Nancy – Nancy Diabo – who saved my mother.

 

Nancy Diabo – Photo © Roxann Karonhiarokwas Whitebean

 

In the film, I also want to show how important one child is. If government authorities had removed my mother from her family, I probably wouldn’t exist. But my mother ended up having six kids and 19 grandchildren. The government removed a hundred thousand kids from their families during that time period… so you can only imagine how much was lost.

I want to honour the 1960s scoop survivors and their descendants. Some have reconnected with their families, but there are many 60s scoop victims who still haven’t found their way home, who are still missing and have no idea who they really are. This is why the film is important to me. The work I do is healing for me as an Indigenous woman…

 

* Please note that audio-video excerpts of the interview were added on July 12, 2021.

 

Filmography

2020 Haudenosaunee Canoe Journey (Documentary), a firsthand account of Onondaga knowledge-keeper Hickory Edwards and his 5-year-old daughter, exploring the traditional waterways

2020 Skindigenous (TV series documentary) (2 episodes) on tattoo as an ancient art around the world, with links between today’s tattoo culture and ancient tribal rites

2020 Kahnawake – Skindigenous (Film featuring Kanen’tó:kon Hemlock of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, who is helping to revive tattooing traditions that were lost as a result of colonization)

2020Nimkii – Skindigenous (Film honouring Isaac Murdoch, a respected storyteller and traditional knowledge holder from the Fish Clan, Serpent River First Nation)

2018-2020 Raven’s Quest (TV series) (14 episodes of the series for TVO Kids)

2017 Little Hard Knox (TV series short) profiling 10-year-old boxer, Shatekaienthokwen VanDommelen (“Tugar”) from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake.

2017 Karihwanoron: Precious Things (TV short) about Mohawk language revitalization

2016 Thunder Blanket (TV mini-series short), on the experience of having breast cancer

2015 Legend of the Storm (Short) allegorical film inspired by Roxann’s experience as a child living through the Oka Resistance (Oka Crisis) in 1990

 

Awards

In 2015, Roxann Karonhiarokwas Whitebean won the Best Drama Pitch Prize at the ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival, and was selected by the Whistler Film Festival as an Aboriginal Fellow for her short film, The Paradigm. She is an Alumni of the 2016 Aboriginal Documentary Program with the National Screen Institute. Roxann was a recipient of the REVEAL Indigenous Arts award, and a nominee for the Lindalee Tracey Award for emerging Canadian talent, presented at the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in 2017.

For Roxann Karonhiarokwas Whitebean’s latest projects, please visit Roxann Whitebean Films on Facebook and @RoxannWhitebean on Twitter. Her website will be ready soon.

 

 

 

Michèle and her brother Benoît in 1975 – Photo courtesy of Michèle Audette

 

Introduction

Michèle Audette was born in Wabush, Labrador in the early ‘70s, after her mother went into labour on a train taking her home to Schefferville, Québec. Her mother was urgently airlifted from the train to the nearest hospital. Within hours of Michèle’s birth, her Innu mother and Québécois father were once again boarding a train with their baby girl in their arms—in a segregated train car reserved for “les sauvages.” It is no exaggeration to say that Michèle has been engaged in the movement for Indigenous rights, women’s rights and social justice since her earliest moments on earth.

Montréal Serai editor Jody Freeman interviewed Michèle in mid-November 2020, a time of deep mourning in Indigenous communities and beyond, following the death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, in a hospital in Joliette, Québec. After suffering grievous mistreatment and racist insults at the hands of hospital staff, Joyce livestreamed a painful cry for help, exposing her cruel treatment in the final hours of her life. Her video sent shockwaves through Québec society, where the government continues to deny the existence of systemic racism.

Our interview began with a question about Michèle’s personal and professional choices and the path her life has taken, linking her to the stories and truths of so many others.

 

Michèle Audette: The way I see it, I’ve made choices in a context that was imposed on me. Since my birth, I was taught a beautiful legend shared by many (Indigenous) nations: every child is a little star in the sky before they choose their parents. In the actual world I chose, I didn’t know that from the time I was born, I would be in a space and time where segregation was officially fostered between “whites and savages,” as they put it back then. I decided to leave my mother’s womb while she was on a train in the middle of nowhere, heading north toward Schefferville.

An emergency helicopter picked up my mother and took me to the closest hospital, which happened to be in Labrador. A few hours after I was born, my first experience on earth was with my parents at a train station, standing between a train car for “savages” on the left and one for “whites” on the right. My mother had experienced that for years… for generations. But for me, that was my very first experience. That realization hit me really hard a few years ago.

That’s why I say that I made choices within an environment that was imposed on me: one of segregation that was transformed into other forms of systemic discrimination and policies that continue to marginalize us. I grew up in an environment where my parents, who were from two different cultures, tried to offer us the best of both. My mother’s culture was decimated by colonial violence, the effects of residential schools, the dispossession of our territorial lands, and everything that Indigenous women faced back then (and unfortunately still face today). My Québécois father wanted to discover wide-open spaces. But I was too young to understand that I didn’t have the right to live on my traditional territory and go to school and learn Innu, and awaken my five senses in a normal way—not by having to push people out of the way just so I could nurture my Innu identity.

I had fun in my childhood and my parents gave me love. But the context in which I grew up wasn’t healthy at all, and I went through trauma. I later discovered that the school I had to go to wasn’t a real school, it was a place where I had to follow the rules. I hate rules. At a very early age, I detested rules and I still am revolted by rules. I couldn’t speak my language. I couldn’t live in my community. The priest ruled. I wasn’t able to savour life in an environment where my language, my culture and my identity were protected.

It was hard. At school I was told that I didn’t have the right to make love before marriage, otherwise I’d get pregnant. I was told how to brush my teeth and which room to go to for vaccinations, but the school didn’t teach us about life. I didn’t get the same quality of education as my cousin who was Québécoise. When I went to another school later, in Montréal, we were treated as if we were slow learners and couldn’t understand anything.

That was imposed on me. And later I made some choices that hurt me, like not finishing school. At the age of 49, I know I’m going to finish school one day. For me, teaching is a powerful weapon to ensure popular education and reappropriate my history as an activist or artist—to provide the education that was taken away from us. Activism and defending causes came naturally to me because of that.

I have five children, who are young adults and young adolescents. They want to do the same kind of things that I do in my life, and ask me what I studied. I try to find out what it is that they think I do. They feel my influence, impact and power—but not power in a negative sense. There is not one single teaching that led me on a path of self-learning—there are woundings, traumatic events and other experiences and adventures that resulted in my being self-taught. They have the opportunity to go to school, and I’ll do everything I can to ensure that they do, so they don’t have to follow the same path as I did. They can share my experiences but learn in school, too.

Education wasn’t talked about in my family when I was a child. My mother was a nurse and my father, an intellectual who knew about American and European politics. I don’t know what degree he earned. He learned from life. My mother learned from life, from love, and from our traditional lands.

 

Mushuau Nipi, a place of healing and empowerment – Photo courtesy of Michèle Audette

 

Jody Freeman: When did you start to be involved in women’s groups?

Michèle Audette: At birth! When my mother married my father, who was not Indigenous, she lost her right to live in the Innu community [under Canada’s so-called Indian Act]. And when they were divorced, she was still denied the right to return to her community. [She started fighting to change the Indian Act.]

I was born in 1971. My mother and I went with the Atikamekw, the Abenaki, the Mohawk, the Huron-Wendat and other nations, and we all created the association of Québec Native Women in 1974. From ‘71 to ’74, I was cradled and rocked by many women leaders. There is a ceremony in various regions to welcome newborn babies, including in Québec. A circle is formed, and each person takes the baby in turn and blows gently on the child, sending the child a thought. I think I had a lot of women leaders from those nations who infused me with their message when I was a baby. I can feel it. Most of those women are dead now, but they would remind me about that ceremony when I saw them. “You were so little, you slept on the floor while we held our meetings, and we rocked you.”

That’s when it started. But I was officially elected president of Femmes Autochtones du Québec at the age of 28, after serving as a young representative for two or three years.

 

Jody Freeman: Were you working with Indigenous women’s shelters at that time?

Michèle Audette: It was in that period that I met Françoise David and Manon Massé—encyclopedias of women’s rights—who were seeking Indigenous women’s support for the World March of Women. With the WMW, I realized that non-Indigenous women’s shelters and crisis centres were receiving far more funding ($300,000 in 1999-2000 for 9 beds) than we were ($116,000 for 16 beds). My priority battlefront shifted from changing the Indian Act to pushing the Canadian and Québec governments to play a role in Indigenous women’s shelters. Because of the demands—and battles—of the World March of Women, a national centre for women’s shelters was created in Canada, and a network for Indigenous women was created in Québec.

 

Jody Freeman: Was the 500-km march from Québec City to Ottawa also held during this period?

Michèle Audette: No, that was much later. When I was 33, I ran into a wall, emotionally and physically. I was depressed and burned out and felt ashamed about it. I passed out in front of a deputy minister and government officials, as I was defending an issue. The shame of it kept me home for weeks afterward. In politics, there were declarations and denunciations, but very little change. It seemed like what I did had no impact, and I was tired. And after I had my second family, including twins, I felt that I had to fight for my older son, whose right to have his [Indigenous] status recognized by Ottawa and his Innu community was still being denied. My younger kids were recognized, and my older child was not, because of a stupid law [the Indian Act].

I decided to go to Ottawa to denounce this injustice. Organizing a [500-km] march was a concrete collective action—a social and political action that mobilized people. And today, 45,000 people are able to claim their Indigenous status thanks to the march.

It changed my outlook. I realized that there were things I wouldn’t see in my lifetime, but I still had to fight for them without any immediate change in sight. That’s when I really started to break in my moccasins as an activist. I prepared for the march for a whole year, but on the fourth day of walking, I collapsed. We held some ceremonies and I understood that the spiritual aspect had been missing. After that we conducted ceremonies every day, and I arrived in Ottawa feeling very strong.

 

MMIWG Inquiry Commissioners Michèle Audette, Marion Buller, Qajaq Robinson, Brian Eyolfson, wearing white – Photo courtesy of Michèle Audette

 

Jody Freeman: In your role as Commissioner for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, were you in contact with families all across Canada?

Michèle Audette: Yes, it was in a very legal setting. I met with human beings in a legalistic context. I could have behaved like a judge—as an appointed commissioner, I could have worked in a setting that was cold and impersonal, not because of my biases but to be impartial. I wasn’t comfortable with that and had to be faithful to my own culture. My colleagues accepted that.

I would go to the families’ territory two days ahead of the hearings to meet with elders from the community, women, men and families, to partake in ceremonies with them so I could share their experiences with them. In each territory, I would take part in sweat lodges, pipe and tobacco ceremonies, sunrise ceremonies and visit the traditional sites that belong to our nations.

After the more formal part of the hearings, in the evening, our little Québec team would go and visit organizations that work for people who have lost a loved one, or people who are homeless, grappling with addiction, or working in the sex industry. In all the cities we visited, I went to meet with volunteers and spend time with people.

The community made it possible for me to open doors. Sometimes people would show up at 4:00 am or at midnight, because a body had been found. Sometimes my colleagues from the federal or provincial civil service were shaken up by all that, but I’d say “That’s why there’s an inquiry. When you’re back at work in your government offices, don’t forget them. They are real human beings.”

 

A march on the Highway of Tears with the family of Lorna Brown – Photo courtesy of Michèle Audette

 

Jody Freeman: You are also working to address the roots of violence against Indigenous women, tied to the violent colonial takeover of Indigenous lands and plunder of the earth. And women are closely associated with the earth.

Michèle Audette: There is a film about Colten Boushie by Tasha Hubbard at the National Film Board, called We will Stand Up. It talks about everything you just mentioned. Because we were the First Peoples, people of the earth, whose conception of life was circular and interdependent—our relationship with animals, animals’ relationship with the earth, the earth’s relationship with us, with water, etc., our human interdependence—this healthy interdependence and natural reciprocity (“thanks, I’ll take some and give you some,” “nothing belongs to me, each of us takes and receives in a way that is respectful”)—all that was flouted and violated. And there, we see one of the major effects of destabilizing the balance between women and men. Colonialism is the No. 1 source of what I heard and witnessed during the National Inquiry. Colonial violence and religions— the role of women was denied to the point where we were not even human. […]

 

Jody Freeman: After the death of Joyce Echaquan, you travelled to see her family in the Atikamekw community of Manawan.

Michèle Audette: Yes, the day after she died. I went to her funeral with my daughter.

 

Jody Freeman: Joyce touched a lot of people, in her despair and courage. Like George Floyd in the US.

Michèle Audette: Yes, and her death reopened deep wounds and rage. She exposed the status quo [of ongoing systemic racism] that we’ve been denouncing. [Until her video, there was] total denial: “Racism is a problem in other places, not here. We’re ok here.” After that, it takes a lot to stay calm.

At her funeral, if you could have seen her husband and family… the resilience, the silence. We were all in silence. No one even cried out. […] Joyce’s husband told me, “Madame Michèle, it’s not over. We’re going to fight. Thank you for being here.”

After the funeral, my university wanted to honour Joyce on December 1, 2020, with her husband present. Its action plan entitled Université Laval en action avec les Premiers Peuples (Laval University in action with First Peoples)—and the major shift it embodies—is dedicated to Joyce and to all the silent voices that Joyce represents.

Mushuau Nipi 2014, Michèle with her partner Serge Ashini Goupil – Photo courtesy of Michèle Audette

 

 

Amrit Wilson speaking at Trafalgar Square demo on reproductive rights 1979 © Photo Michael Ann Mullen

 

“We see the entry of COVID-19 wreaking havoc on capitalism itself –
a result of the very nature of neoliberal economies.” Amrit Wilson

 

Montréal Serai recently had the opportunity to interview Amrit Wilson online. Amrit Wilson is a writer and activist on issues of race and gender in Britain and South Asian politics. She is a member of South Asia Solidarity Group and the Freedom Without Fear Platform, and a former chair of Imkaan, a Black, South Asian and minority ethnic women’s organization dedicated to combating violence against women in Britain. Her 1978 book, Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain, was republished in 2018 with a new chapter by younger South Asian women.

 

AW: My greetings to Montréal Serai from London, and thank you for inviting me to this online discussion around the theme of COVID-19 and globalization. As your theme description puts it: “COVID-19 has laid bare the past forty years of globalization spawned by the Thatcher-Reagan years of de-regulation, union busting, dismantling of the welfare state and assault on traditional liberal capitalism.”

 

MS: Do you think that this is a turning point or a turning away from the notion of de-regulation, globalization and so-called free trade? Will the state return or be forced to steer itself to an economy where public needs and essential deliverables from the state to the people – like a minimum income (whether you have a job or not), guaranteed health care and pharmacare for all, guaranteed pensions, regulated elderly care, guaranteed housing, free education and free public transport, among other things – become a permanent aspect of the state, whether it is ruled by conservatives or liberals?

AW: When we talk about turning away from de-regulation, it is important to remember that we are not simply talking about neoliberalism, but about the shaping of hyper-neoliberalism into fascism. This is certainly the case in India, Brazil, and Hungary where we now see full-fledged fascism, but also in the US and increasingly in the UK. This was the situation even before the pandemic, and it was being resisted strongly by mass movements.  Against this background we see the entry of COVID-19 wreaking havoc on capitalism itself – a result of the very nature of neoliberal economies and the failings of right-wing governments, with their (mis)managed lockdowns and poorly funded or non-existent health care systems. Seeing it this way it is not surprising that India, the US, Brazil and the UK are among the countries worst hit by the pandemic.

Some of these governments have responded to the chaos that their policies have caused, by ramping up repression through a variety of measures including brutal lockdowns, arrests and incarceration of activists in COVID-infested prisons, heightened surveillance systems, and increased support for state-sponsored ultra-right forces. Despite the extreme difficulties involved, people are fighting back, resisting in whatever way they can!

In some places this resistance may at first glance seem reformist rather than revolutionary – I am talking now about the abolitionist movements (against incarceration and imprisonment) springing up across the world. But in my opinion, this is a false dichotomy. Defunding (if not dismantling) the police, rethinking and restructuring welfare in revolutionary feminist ways will not mean people will sink into a state of torpor. On the contrary, it will engage the masses in further revolutionary change, which will be required to challenge corporate power.

 

MS:  Incidentally, we are stunned by how billions of dollars have suddenly appeared (at least in Canada) out of nowhere (Canada does not print money like the US) to provide COVID relief at various levels. And of course, there are various benefits being extended to corporate interests as well. Why is there such desperation? Is it purely to save lives or to save the image of capitalism?

AW: The money was always available. It was invested in policing surveillance, wars, and perhaps most strikingly of all, in financial wealth. As Keval Bharadia has explained brilliantly, financial wealth is used to buy assets “for a passive income: more houses, shares, land, business and political influence, widening inequality.”

In the UK, the main expenditure by the government to assuage the pain of the pandemic is on various ‘furlough’ schemes, supposedly to pay workers a proportion of their wages if they could not go in to work. This scheme ran for a limited period and has now been terminated, and much of this, as was recently revealed, has found its way into the pockets of the Tory government’s corporate friends.

This is also happening on a global scale through aid money. For example, British aid was supposedly to help garment workers and other vulnerable workers affected by the pandemic, but as The Guardian newspaper recently reported, most of it went into the pockets of wealthy companies. Of course, these schemes and the way they are projected in the tabloid press also serve to create an image of government benevolence – so there is also an aspect of social control involved here, an attempt to manage working-class rage.

 

MS: Could we descend into a barbaric form of capitalism (essentially neo-fascism), which could be easily engineered through a new “Cold War” with China? There is clear evidence of that, now.

AW: The point you make about China is a very important one. This may well go beyond a “Cold War.” Two blocks have now emerged clearly, with the US under Trump and his coterie of loyal followers like Modi, Bolsonaro and others. Also, Israel, Saudi Arabia and now the Gulf states are ranged against China, Iran, Pakistan and a number of other countries, with the European Union sitting on the fence. If Trump is defeated, Biden is likely to pull the EU into the US block. So, yes, there is a very real possibility of war.

 

MS: What type of resistance, what sorts of coalitions, what type of thinking can prevent a return to the old “normal?” What kind of actions and strategies do you think women need to amp up?  How can the current grassroots uprisings against systemic racism have optimal staying power and impact? What is the role of workers in all this?

AW: I have already talked about the abolitionist movement envisioned by Angela Davis. I think this is crucially important in confronting fascism and ultimately corporate power. And yes, coalitions against fascism are essential, uniting workers’ organizations, community organizations, Black and anti-racist organizations. At the same time, international solidarity is now more important than ever before. This is why we in the South Asia Solidarity Group are doing everything we can to stand with those fighting fascism in India. We are very much aware that the Hindutva forces are spreading their tentacles deep into the diaspora and building a global Hindutva lobby. We also know that we are up against a British government, two of whose key figures, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak, are staunch admirers of Modi.

 

Protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London in July 2016, after the death of teenager Mzee Mohammed in police custody in Liverpool (Amrit in sunglasses on the left) © Photo Sanaz Raji

 

MS:  In Britain, you are considered a stalwart of the struggles against racism and for the rights of South Asian women, fighting especially for workers, as well as refugees. You have been at the forefront of anti-racist struggles. Can you reflect a bit on how you started out and how things have changed since then? What are some moments that you consider electric and inspiring?

AW: My memories of the struggles I have been honoured to have been a part of are full of electrifying and inspiring moments, from back in the late seventies till today. In the first national demonstration against police brutality, which we in Awaz, a small group of mainly young South Asian women, organized with support from our sisters in Brixton Black Women’s Group, also a small organization, I can never forget how hundreds of South Asian workers began to pour in holding their banners high, led by the Indian Workers Association GB. Or how a sea of miners, led by National Union of Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, came to support the Grunwick strike – an iconic strike by South Asian women workers. Or much more recently, how we marched in our thousands on the eve of Republic Day 2020, in a mass demonstration against Narendra Modi’s exclusionary and Islamophobic citizenship laws and processes. There have been many more such occasions.

But this is not a simple continuum. There are, of course, extremely important changes through this long period of four decades. When we confronted the racist immigration laws and procedures back in the seventies and early eighties, we did win some victories. The horrific treatment of women in Britain’s first immigration detention centres at Harmondsworth near Heathrow – their sexual abuse in the guise of “virginity tests,” for example – was stopped. But despite our efforts, the immigration detention centres and brutal immigration laws remained and increased in severity. Through the last decade, detention centres have proliferated. Whereas in the seventies and eighties, the immigration detention centres were run by the state, today they are run by corporates like G4S, a company that profits from the torture of Palestinians and was implicated in Britain in the murder of Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga, during a forced deportation. This provides an inkling of the harsh reality of today compared to earlier times.

 

MS: And from our issue’s theme statement: “How would diversity, our gains in the fight against racism and marginalization, and all the achievements of the past decades of resistance be preserved? And can that resistance achieve some institutional and systemic relevance and authority?”

AW: In Britain, we have a long-established struggle against racism, which the state has consistently tried to weaken and destroy through divide and rule, co-optation and draconian laws. It is through an awareness of these strategies that we can move forward and not lose what we have achieved over the years.

 

MS: And, of course the inevitable question: Why are South Asians (in general) so dismissive and racist about Black Lives Matter? Why do they not consider themselves “Black?” Is “Brown” a refuge?

AW: In Britain there are enormous class differences among South Asians. Some have done extremely well and are hedge-fund managers and corporate bosses. Others, a much larger proportion, are impoverished, often long-term unemployed or in precarious work. People have also come to Britain in different phases. A very large proportion came in the 50s, 60s and 70s to work in low-paid, unpleasant jobs and rebuild Britain after the destruction of WWII. A significant proportion of this group is today very badly off. They are the ones worst hit by the pandemic. This group includes Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and many Indians.  In addition to this group, we have those who came in the 70s as refugees from East Africa where, as an intermediate class between the British colonizers and Africans, they looked down upon Black people. They brought their racism with them when they migrated. Plus, we have the most recent immigrants who work in tech companies. So you can see how difficult it is to generalize about South Asians in Britain.

In the seventies and eighties and early nineties, the term Brown was unheard of to describe a human being’s identity. South Asians in Britain were part of the Black movement. Black identity was a political identity. Today, identity in Britain is being shaped by what we hear from the US, where South Asians were never part of the working class in the same way, except in California. At the same time, Indians are influenced by the virulent anti-Black hatred and casteism of Hindutva. Another important factor is that in the absence of the broad and powerful Black movement of the past, identity is centred not on collective struggle but on individual experience.

Having said that, it is important to remember that while there are South Asians who criticize BLM (usually middle-class Hindutva-supporting Indians who are also the most caste-ist), there are many others who are part of Black Lives Matter or actively support it.

 

 

 

Photo Alexei Anikine. Rabbit, Rabbit by Amy Lee Lavoie. Directed by Guy Sprung. With Ashley Dunn as Britney & Howard Rosenstein as Larry/Cosmo. Set & costume design by Ariane Genet de Miomandre. Light design by David-Alexandre Chabot. Sound design by Tai Timbers. Stage managed by Kathryn Cleveland. Infinithéâtre, November 2009

 

Montréal actor Howard Rosenstein in conversation with Serai’s Rana Bose

 

Serai:  Good afternoon, Howard!  The theme of this issue is Performance as Change. I will begin, though, with a slight diversion. I’ve come across your opinion on various contemporary issues on social media and I believe there’s a studied frustration in you about the state of the world…

HR: (laughs) Ha ha!

Serai:  So my question is, when you get cast for a role or are being considered for one that could be totally socially irrelevant or quite contrary to your opinions, do you actually squirm and get it over with, make a purpose out of it?  (And by the way, I’ve seen you in the Oka crisis take, where you play an old school police interrogator, cold and calculating. It paid off for me and I also love the Elvis impersonation, likewise, for Mike’s Pizza!)

HR: (laughing) Well, Diana Fajrajsl, a pillar of the theatre community, an outstanding actress – and I really love her whacky and yet completely connected view of the world – she posted that as a director you have no business attempting to direct something you either cannot appreciate, understand or want to do. And I wrote in response that this also applies to actors, but it beats the hell out of dry walling. Her response was, “No, it does not!” It made me really think, you know. What would seem like banal exchanges on Facebook actually make me think sometimes, and I decided this year that I no longer wish to partake in anything that I disagree with on overall message… I don’t care… I mean, that excludes playing a murderer or rapist or pedophile or any of those things that I don’t approve of personally, but if it is for an overall story that serves humanity, then great. I became an actor, I chose to sacrifice much of my life in terms of what people expect one’s life to be, you know, (with) a house, a wife, a child, in terms of the normative way of looking at this world anyway… and I didn’t do that in order to work on stuff that I find offensive, distasteful and contradictory to my own world view.

Serai:  I appreciate that quandary, the conflictedness that you have to deal with in your life, and you have to pay your bills. Moving on to the next question that I have, about two terms that are kind of bandied around a lot these days in theatre and journalism, which are: Orwellian and Kafkaesque. Do any of the plays you have done so far reflect either of these conditions? What is Kafkaesque in your world of acting? And what does Orwellian mean to you today and how has it affected your life in general?

HR: Um yeah, well… I currently play one of Kafka’s characters, Redpeter, in an adaptation by Guy Sprung. So I’m quite familiar with Kafka’s words in one of his short stories, A Report For An Academy, in Kafka’s Ape. So, yes to your first question. The current state of the world I find Kafkaesque, in the sense that all those things that we thought were not possible to actually be, are – and I don’t mean technology, I mean the ways we deal with people, the norms of mistreating people, including our reducing carbon emissions to 30% below 2005 emissions by a date perpetually twenty years from now as we continue to increase our emissions year over year.

Serai:  Also, the process of obtaining justice has become almost like an act of absurdity… anybody seeking justice, anybody seeking any kind of redress is subjected to an ordeal that is totally absurd and it is almost as if the theatre of the absurd has become the theatre of reality, in some ways… Injustice has become acceptable.

HR: …I find theatre so fucking bland it kills me these days, but absolutely! I find it horrific at so many levels that the 45th President of the United States can commit crime after crime – actual crimes, not just faux pas (which he does on a regular basis) – and not only is he not considered impeachable [Editors note: This interview was conducted well before there was any talk of impeachment proceedings] or capable of being prosecuted in a court of law, he’s going to run in the next election and he will probably win it… It’s just as you say, completely absurd, but I think a lot of people attach too much importance to who is the President or Prime Minister because ultimately they have little to no power, and yeah it’s true, they’re entertainment.

Serai:  … or diversion … from a larger spectre of a shadowy cabal (without sounding like a conspiracy buff) … that decides how much unemployment should a society actually budget, so as to keep wages low and thereby have a reserve army of the unemployed ready to jump in, into a gig economy, and sort of sabotaging all the past progress in terms of social compensation, pension, leisure, health coverage, everything you need…

HR: Yes, unions…

Serai:  Everything is kind of arranged… The other question I had that is related to this is…

HR: Yes, the Orwellian thing…

Serai:  Yes … How much of this intrudes into your creativity in terms of how you feel you are being watched, how you feel you are being judged, and what has the world come to in terms of theatre as to how you feel you’re being followed, you know?

HR: Well, I mean I’m an actor so I’m constantly being judged no matter what, in terms of my work anyway, and then of course I’m on Facebook, so I’m stating all kinds of opinions that are not in line with…

Serai:  Like fuck nationalism! As you did recently…

HR: Yeah!  Like fuck nationalism! Nationalism to me is something that is being used by leaders, so-called leaders, at the top… for centuries… and they will continue to use it to divide and conquer people.  Religion and nationalism are the same… slightly different words… the same core… different words… same passion… the same feeling… Identity politics… you can get people to do anything… life or death… us versus them… that’s what I mean by fuck nationalism.

Serai:  That’s a very concise point. We will now move on to another area: the play, Kafka’s Ape, which you have been doing for six years or more… So, does every performance of Redpeter leave you grunting in a primal manner at least for a few hours after you have already taken your bows? Just kidding! I just want to know what is your background in training… what kind of school of acting you feel most comfortable with… or have you found a groove of your own? I am just curious as to know how you have worked out a model in terms of character representation on stage in front of an audience.

HR: I do Kafka and I just get in it… I feel that all art, all performance art, and even that which is not performance art, even if it is writing or painting, it’s a channelling… of the universal subconscious, if you like… when a musician or dancer or writer or painter does what they are doing, they are in a zone, a trance… or as you say, in a groove… and they are really channelling… I mean, there is the occasional thought involved but it’s more of really working with the subconscious, working with instincts… Now in terms of getting involved or doing work(s) of art or work of value, then, yeah, there is training involved… and I have trained in methods – various methods – Stanislavski (well he uses as if)… the method that was introduced by Strasberg, by the Adlers…

Photo Cécilia Bracmort. Kafka’s Ape based on the short story “A Report For An Academy” by Franz Kafka. Adapted & directed by Guy Sprung. With Howard Rosenstein as Redpeter & Alexandra Montegnese as his companion. Make up & prosthetic design by Vladimir Alexandru Cara. Set & costume design by Ariane Genet de Miomandre. Light design by Eric Mongerson. Sound & video design by Nikita U. Stage managed by Michael Panich. Infinithéâtre November 2013

Serai:  Group theatre, yes…

HR: Yes, Stella Adler, after coming back from visiting Stanislavski, their idol, she is famous for saying “Stanislavski is wrong!” and I think it is because she felt there was a barrier to entering the true state of being in Stanislavski’s way – I don’t go for the method per se that they helped to introduce, because it just, I think, gets in the way of actually working in the aquarium, where you have to work within the created space and you have to create safety for the other actors… you can’t just be in that zone, full-on imagination, and divorce yourself from the reality that you are in… you can’t just show up drunk or without sleep to do your scene because you are playing a drunk or someone who is sleep deprived… ha!… like Hoffman did for his performance in Marathon Man. Laurence Olivier said something like, “Well, my boy, why don’t you just try acting.” Ha ha!

But you know, there is certainly a divergence there between… not to say that the Russian method and the British method are the same… but they seem to have a certain detachment which I think is necessary, so that you are able to have a certain control. And the beauty of the American method is that you ideally have no control. You never know what you are going to see – Marilyn Monroe peeing all over her chair in a master class… And there is a certain beauty to that, a reality to that, which is fantastic… but there is the danger that you find yourself in a dangerous situation not only for yourself, but for others… falling off a stage, for instance.

I find when I am in my channelling thing, whether it is Kafka or anything else, especially if it is well-written, then you lose yourself… you lose yourself but still maintain something, some small voice at the back of your head, saying “Oh! Don’t go out of your light…” or “try this or that” or my favourite, “forget your next line and find it again” … or take into account that somebody is sleeping right in front of you… that sort of thing. So I… ha!… I was not there in Shakespearean times, nor was I there in centuries past to watch Bernhardt’s performances, amongst others… I can only look at what was documented in films from the 1910s onwards or in theatre since the 1980s and so on… And I can see that we have moved from a far more presentational performance to as real as possible, and I really commend that, even if you are speaking the poetry of Shakespeare, Molière, or anything else…

There is a certain dedication to being there, in the moment, as real as possible. So there is a sweet balance between those two methods that you can find (as I feel that I have, most of the time), that brings you into the perfect place to feel real and at the same time allow for the technical constraints of what surrounds you… a fine balance between freedom and accountability.

 

Serai:  So, as a kind of follow-up to that question the way you defined it – you know, your rigorous and dedicated training in methodology and how you developed a mature compromise between reality and your acting career – I appreciate that, but you know, you may have also participated in plays of a different sort, a sort of epic but agit-prop style maybe, especially like you did with Guy Sprung’s Fight on! Part One and Part Two, which was a reading…

Did you feel that this was a different kind of theatre, more detached? And like it was poking the audience in the eye and saying, look, we are doing it but we’re not pretending it’s reality, we are on a formal proscenium stage with costumes and props – which I know you did – but you were at least undermining the notion that the audience should be in the dark like plebeians there, and up on stage are the Greek gods, preaching… it was clear from the snarky comments by a First Nations writer, projected on the screen in opportune moments. And that was a different staging. Did that deconstruction really happen?  And you know, the multimedia effect of Fight on! I kind of liked it.  What do you feel about that, what is your feeling about that kind of theatre?

HR: I think the overall effect of having staged it that way was fabulous in that space, and very ambitious (and expensive) for a workshop production. I love pulling audiences out of their place of security and comfort because for me – and I don’t see it very often and I don’t just mean English theatre in Montréal but across this country – I find that theatre is no longer dangerous, it’s no longer thought-provoking, it’s not… it’s like having a Rothko in your room and saying, well that’s my red piece of decoration or whatever it is – there’s no appreciation of what theatre is anymore.

I mean, I went to see a production of Little Menace, which was a combination of short plays of Pinter at Soulpepper Theatre Company – critically raved, “how Pinter should be played,” etc. – which has more money than almost anyone (save perhaps the Stratford Festival) in this country for theatres, so they can afford to pay their actors and designers and they have these great spaces and a great bar in the Old Distillery district. Anyway, that was my problem right there in the title: there was very little menace, you know? Like Tim Horton’s is not really coffee… it’s more of a caffeine-delivering liquid device that you put cream and sugar in. It’s hot liquid dessert.

What we’re doing is not real theatre, most of the time. Yes, people pay for tickets and they sit in a space and the actors are on stage and there are usually curtains, but those actors, generally speaking, are not in it, they’re not entirely committed. They’re very proficient, very professional, they know their lines and their blocking, they’re going through it, but it’s just it’s not emotionally connected work. That’s not their fault. The dynamic is off. Whether it’s the choice of play or the direction or the simple fact that all of us in the theatre are playing to expectations, it’s dead in the water.

Theatre in this country, generally speaking, is bland to the point of exhaustion, like listening to muzak in an elevator – it will put you to sleep. People who have worked their asses off or just put in a lot of time doing whatever it is that they’re concentrating on doing during the course of the day come to the theatre in the evening after a glass of wine at dinner and are just comatose. So I love the idea of taking audiences out of their comfort zone – firstly, so they don’t fall asleep and secondly, so they are actually in a position where they’re put off balance…

Serai:  … they are disturbed, yes, they leave the auditorium disturbed. And even feel a bit galvanized, you know…

HR: Ideally, yeah… Now Fight On! itself is a white saviour story, and I hate that we are still doing white saviour stories in the 21st century. It’s ridiculous at this point, and I understand that Guy (Sprung) has a love of Charles Dickens and wants to emulate his style in the present day. I say feel free to read Charles Dickens. He is a wonderful writer, he’s created some amazing characters and stories, but the white saviour story is dead and has been for decades.

Serai:  … so we’ll move on…

HR …ha ha…

Serai:  …what? what!

HR: I told you I would give you some answers that may not feel very good… but to me, ultimately, what going to the theatre is… I came out of a Tableau D’Hôte Theatre production of Encore recently at the Mini Main at Mainline, a two-hander with a violinist re-enacting the same seduction scene every anniversary of this couple over the years of meeting, marrying, having a child, breaking up and finding each other again after many years apart. I… I was crying, not boohoohooing, just constant tears going through…

Serai:  …drainage happening…

HR: …drainage yes for the last half hour of a 70-minute show, and when I came out of the theatre I went down into the street and I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know who I was, I was very…

Serai:  …disturbed!

HR: Very disturbed, yes! I had somebody come up to me that I know very well, Geoff Agombar of Mainline… I didn’t know his name, you know. I didn’t know anything at all. He saw that and left me alone. I ended up going into Segal’s Grocery and doing a mundane thing, buying food… it slowly brought me back to my reality. But in that place of imbalance, that place of not knowing what your life is, because we contain everything in boxes tied together with ego – when all of that is gone (which is ultimately what ideal theatre does to people at least for short periods of time), that’s when we have the potential to change, to learn, to see a different point of view, to unblock to and see parts of ourselves, previously hidden. Theatre can be that catalyst for change, but only if it risks being true, addressing things that need addressing.

Serai:  OK!  Thank you very much for (that)… I’m thanking you, as it also simultaneously clears my brains about the same kind of things that I think about all the time anyway. Now I just want to ask you some relatively banal questions, like what are some of the best roles you have played and some of the best plays you been in, and why?

HR: I have two roles that I’ve done with Infinithéâtre: one is Redpeter, a talking ape in Kafka’s Ape, which I’m still doing… and the other was a birthday clown pedophile, Larry, who becomes Cosmo the Clown in Rabbit, Rabbit, written by Amy Lee Lavoie. That was the first time I worked with Guy, and I must say his direction was exceptional. I would love to do those shows in tandem someday, but, you know…

Serai:  What is it about those roles you played that…

HR: Well… because they’re so far outside the realm of the everyday that I can express myself, given the circumstances of the play, in ways not expected, especially to me. They both required a great deal of research and work in rehearsal to get to where I needed to be to portray them as ultimately human and real. They both have the ability to show us our humanity, which again is what theatre is supposed to do: show and allow us to feel our humanity and not to make us feel great that we went to the theatre and deserve a gold star for culture! It’s to show us our humanity, so we feel… I mean, everything that these oligarchs want us to do just prevents us from feeling – with our daily dose of Celebrity President – so we don’t rise up and bring them the torches and pitchforks to their front gates, forcing them to hire even more security people with guns to defend their property, even if it’s only a mansion. These roles on the outside of the normative, these heartbroken weirdos, these are my favourite roles because they allow me to be the best I can, communicating and sharing the human experience with the audience. Theatre is full of possibilities rarely realized and it’s really something…

Serai:  Now I’ll fire off three quick questions in a row… Have you ever directed plays at any time, would you like to direct sometime soon, and would you feel comfortable acting in a play where you have to play an African American slave?

HR: Right. No, I have not directed a thing yet and yes, I want to direct a play very badly, and I actually made the decision this year that I am going to start directing more than I am acting, and one of the reasons is because I feel that after all this time I actually have something to say to other actors, that I have a certain opinion as to what directors should be doing and what they should not be doing. To me the ultimate director doesn’t need to have their name as big as the playwright’s on the poster or anywhere else, and has no business being seen anywhere. (As Spencer Tracey once told Paul Newman about acting, “Don’t let anyone catch you doing it.”) And this applies to film as well. The direction of the story and everything else is going to be influenced extremely (for good or for bad) by the guidance of the director, but the director’s job is to get out of the way and to allow the actors to get out of the way of themselves and to say things that the actor can actually understand and work with, as opposed to some sort of speech that would be better served in a classroom…

There are far too many academics working in the theatre right now and consider themselves directors and/or run theatres, and frankly they have no business directing, so I’d like to at least have an opportunity to show what I think a good director does. I’m sure there are good directors in this country. Finally, one of the reasons why I want to become a good director is that the progressive… the political correctness of what is considered to be good theatre these days, I think, is adding to the blandness of what is going on. I mean, at this point, as an actor, I’m supposed to only feel comfortable playing normative white Jewish cis male characters?

I think the whole process of this political correctness is not currently conducive to the best work, and I understand that the pendulum is swinging the other way and it’s going too far in the direction of… let’s be careful we don’t offend anyone… well, theatre is about offending everyone. Everyone! So… while theatre, whatever that is, is going through this pendulum swing, to take it to its logical conclusion, the only people who are capable of or “should be” playing murderers are murderers, and they are all in fucking jail! Or in hiding, you know. Or rapists. I am going to explore working as a director so that at least I feel there is something else I can do, so I’m not limited by others’ opinions of what I am allowed to do or not. As far as playing an African American slave, I would feel comfortable doing it, but only if other people of colour were doing other roles and there was no sense of colour and terms of what the rules were…

Serai:  You could dissolve in that…

HR: Yes, I could dissolve into that but I couldn’t play an African American slave if there were other people of colour, specifically African Canadians or Americans, playing alongside me as slaves – unless there were enough of a balance on the other side of things, the masters, traders and overseers. But God knows there are enough African Canadians out there to play all the slaves in a play, if that’s what they want to do… And until we actually employ actors of colour, and I’m talking about everyone now, in roles where their skin colour is not part of a character description, until that becomes routine, I don’t feel comfortable taking away work from someone who can play a black man better than me in his sleep.

Serai:  Fair enough! I mean, just a comment here, is that you know, like, you are talking about the pendulum swing… We can just indulge in all sorts of identity-based politics, and basically it is dividing the opposition to the oligarchs, the economic power-holders. Because I also believe that if you don’t fight cultural dominance you will never be able to assail the centres of power. Thank you very much, Howard. It was a fantastic interaction and I loved it.

++++++++++++++

Howard Rosenstein is a Montréal-based actor who has worked across Canada, the US, Scotland, Germany, Japan and China. Audiences may be familiar with his extensive work with Infinithéâtre including as Redpeter in Kafka’s Ape and as Larry/Cosmo in Rabbit, Rabbit, as well as in The Dumb Waiter for Theatre Esperance, amongst many others.

Please visit howardrosenstein.com for access to demos, pictures of past productions, headshots and further credits.

 

 

 

As Cinema Politica turns 15 in Montréal, Dipti Gupta and Raphael Cohen-Demers interview co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton to walk us through their accomplishments, challenges and vision.

 

“If it’s still just a few profit-driven corporations that control all the platforms, venues and channels, then the radical work, the work that is process-oriented and not product-oriented, the work that is about community and not about the market, then those works are still going to be pushed out, and that’s definitely the case in Canada. It’s not even just the radical edges, it’s actually documentary as a whole, struggling to find venues, platforms and channels whether on television, online, anywhere.”

 

“One of the biggest problems for documentary in Canada is that people really cannot survive off of making documentary films. Documentary filmmakers as well as producers have a really hard time breaking even, have a really hard time sustaining a career dedicated to that noble profession. Many young people that we know resort to corporate jobs and non-sustainable gigs and different types of work that have nothing to do with documentary in order to be able to subsidize and fund, even self-fund, a lot of the work that they are doing.”

 

“Another enduring problem that is being addressed but has a long way to go is that the documentary financers and people making decisions around curating and what plays/what doesn’t, what gets in the festivals/what doesn’t, what gets funded, largely still do not reflect the diversity of the audiences and the subjects of the films.”

 

“Currently there’s a big move towards gender parity… but gender parity is not enough. There needs to be a lot more work done in terms of representation and participation that is truly reflective of the body of media makers and documentary makers.”

 

“Good documentary filmmaking is, for us, about building reciprocal, equitable relationships that are framed around equitable social justice.”

 

 

 

Interview with Catherine Bainbridge and Ernest Webb

 

 

Introduction:

The evening of the interview, I showed up at Catherine and Ernie’s door. Ernie had just come back from a rehearsal with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra for Tomson Highway’s opera, Chaakapesh, The Trickster’s Quest.[1]

When Catherine got home, we talked a little about our theme for this issue, “Beyond the Pale,” focusing on renegade filmmakers who honour their vision and put their heart and soul into it, defying the resistance and obstacles they face.

I brought up their film Power of the North[2] from the early ‘90s, which portrays what happened when the Québec government massively flooded the Cree territories around James Bay for hydroelectric power. The flooding caused high levels of mercury in the water, which was disastrous for the fish and everyone who depended on them for survival.

As soon as we got talking about Power of the North, Ernie and Catherine started singing a song from the film, “Daba jeegajee mwoh’némas” (“You can’t eat the fish”). The first time I met Ernie, he and Catherine had come to hear Choeur Maha[3] rehearse that song. They had given Maha’s director a refrain in Cree and asked her to create a song out of it for Power of the North. I can still see Ernie there with tears in his eyes, listening to a choir of non-Native women singing in Cree.

 

Jody: You seem to naturally create Native/non-Native collaborations that are based on respect, leadership, recognition, teamwork. And you bring a lot of heart to your creative projects. How did that come about?

Catherine: For me, the spirit of collaboration (and understanding it as something natural and fantastic that humans do) came from improv,  as the rule of improv is that no one is in control and you’re sharing… and you’re not blocking. Not blocking is the No. 1 thing. You’re just building on each other’s idea and no one can control it. When it’s not shared, that’s when it’s not good.

I think we’re taught to block at a very early age. To say “no” because we’re afraid. We’ve been taught to block very early, I think, sometimes by being put down for our ideas. Women know what that looks like. Most people of colour know what that looks like, to not be listened to… to not be heard.

Improv breaks all those things. The people who really get it wrong are the ones who try to control and shut down and not listen. If you’re not listening, you’re doing it wrong. All you have to do is listen. That’s the awesome thing. It’s transformative, for me.

Ernie: One of our mantras, I keep repeating this, is that the right people get together at the right time for the right project. And when it’s right, it’s right, and when it happens, it’ll happen. And hopefully magic will be there as well, too.

Catherine: I think part of it is that you put it out in the universe… like, this [refrain] would be an awesome song. I can’t quite remember how those pieces came together for Maha. Do you remember how it happened?

Ernie: Shawn [Goldwater] rapped it.

Catherine: Shawn rapped it, and then we thought that with Choeur Maha it would be amazing…

Ernie: Yeah, ‘cause we’d just gone to their show the week before…

Catherine: (laughing) There we go! It’s as simple as that: they’re awesome, let’s put them in the film! […] Whenever you’re making a film, or writing an article, or painting, or in the process of doing anything, you’re curious and completely open to “How do we tell this story?” And then every experience is feeding into it, every person you meet…

Ernie: And there’s the way you approach it, as Catherine said: “How do you tell this story?” You get to look at all the different angles, the different perspectives… One thing that we learned early on is that you don’t pull your hair out and go crazy by trying to tell the story. You try to tell a story.

Catherine: Another one we learned that we always stand by is that we go at everything with love… that no one in anything we do will feel humiliated to be in it or embarrassed in any way… even when discussing difficult things. That’s a super important thing that we follow.

Jody: Back in the early films as well?

Catherine: The one person that I slightly worry about was the Hydro Québec public relations representative whom we had dancing on the dams, doing a jig on the dams. He was so funny and lovely, and I hope he didn’t get into too much trouble for it, ‘cause we really loved him.

Jody: I had a feeling that you two took that kind of approach, that but didn’t know how conscious and deliberate that was.

Catherine: Super conscious… but not from an intellectual point of view, just as human beings.

Jody: … that everyone should feel valued in this…

Catherine: … even in difficult discussions.

 

Jody: It also seems that the stories you tell – it’s almost unavoidable – look at power relations, but not from an abstract way of doing it. Like with Power of the North, it was really what happened to the Cree community when their lands were flooded, right? And what happened to the fish.

Catherine: Yeah, and how to make it entertaining. Just like the opera that Ernie’s in right now, the opera written by Tomson Highway.[4] It’s really funny. It’s exceptionally funny and goofy, and yet parts of it are very serious. It does speak about Chaakapesh, the main character …

Ernie: … who’s on a quest

Catherine: … who’s on a quest to save the Beothuks from being murdered by the Europeans, the “moniasses”…

[Jody:: rhymes with boney-asses!]

Ernie: … which is what they call the white people out west –“monias.”

But at the same time, he’s talking about it in an absurd way. There’s so much truth in absurdity. You know, it’s the contrarian kind of view, ‘cause we have the sacred clown as well, too, who’s free to tell the truth no matter how biting it is.

Jody: And doing it clowning around…

Ernie: It’s the sacred clown. You say what needs to be said and what follows might be uncomfortable laughter but it’s still the truth, you know? And that’s how I feel that Tomson, as a storyteller, is. He was born on a trapline in northern Manitoba and he grew up with the same traditions (you know, with Chaakapesh). We have the tradition of Chaakapesh, too, as a folk hero, as an archetype, as a character in a legend. So it’s actually quite universal in the north-eastern nations. Some call him “Little Brother.” And so what Tomson’s done is he’s brought to light and started a conversation on something as horrific as genocide, but he’s using an archetype where you can laugh, where you can sort of point and say “hahaha,” but that truth, that deep truth, is still there.

 

 

Catherine: And here we are at Place des Arts with 2,000 mostly non-Native people in the most European setting you can imagine, right? With the MSO (Montréal Symphony Orchestra) there, and that is what’s on stage, that’s what’s being seen, these white opera singers singing about that, and it was awesome. I was weeping and laughing, it was magnificent. And there were definitely people being a bit uncomfortable…

Ernie: … (wondering to themselves) should we laugh?

Catherine: Yeah, they didn’t know whether to laugh or not… We were laughing loudly, so we were trying to help everyone laugh, trying to make everyone laugh loudly! But it was wonderful, it was magnificent. Like we were saying, you know, Robert Lepage didn’t get it. That collaboration you can feel in the [opera] performance that they doing here – it’s all over it! So that’s the thing when people talk about all these questions – [it’s about] collaboration, sharing…

Ernie: reconciliation…

Catherine: yeah… It’s collaboration… It’s the voices being heard.

Jody: Right.

Ernie: (laughing) Right, good night!

 

Jody: So for Rumble,[5] more than 25 years after you two started… Rumble takes you to such high places and it has so much depth at the same time. It really feels like a coming-out party, celebrating people who many people didn’t know what or who they were calling on for their music and for the rhythm of their being.

Ernie: Well, I think I’ll pick up on what you said, “Welcome to the party.” There was that Native North America album[6] that was released a year or two ago. I was playing all those songs thirty years ago on the radio, on the community and regional stations…

Catherine: Like Morley Loon and Willie Dunn and all those people…

Ernie: And so I’m like, “Welcome! You’re 30 years late, but welcome to the party!” And picking up on what Catherine was saying, you take on this project and you don’t know where it will take you.

And I have to honour Catherine’s efforts in our projects. She took Rumble – you know, Rumble is based on a song by Link Wray and it was banned – it was an instrumental song, but it was banned…

Jody: from the radio

Ernie: … ‘cause it might incite teen violence. And so from there we explored the blues, we explored jazz, we explored the Choctaw fiddlers. We went to Coeur d’Alene and saw where the jazz vocals and stuff were born. And through it all, Catherine was the brains behind the operations. She’ll deny it, but she’s the brains… and hopefully, the two of us together make the heart of whatever project we work on. She was engaging scholars of the blues and telling them, “You have to look at the blues and the origins and where it comes from in this way now, and they would keep denying it ‘til the end of the phone call. But then she would talk to them a week later and they’d be, “Well, let’s see now…”

Catherine: But what Ernie said is way too nice and wrong!  It’s not like that.

Ernie: Oh, please!

Catherine: But I’ll tell you how it is. How it is, is (and I’ve said this before): women can direct in any way – quote unquote like men or just like women – they can have a vision, and know it, and do all that. But there’s something I always say: there are hunters and there are gatherers, and women can be gatherers, too. And we do that exceptionally well. It’s one of our talents that doesn’t have as much place in the industry…

Jody: or as much status…

Catherine: … or as much status in the industry. It’s very hierarchical, it’s sort of military, and I understand why. There’s a lot of money on the line and a lot of time on sets, and it was built in that manner. But women gather super well and, again, in that spirit of improv. Ernie and I have always seen the world the same way, and he’s the rock of everything underneath how we look at stuff. You know? And that’s the most important thing. And then, within Rumble, when I say gathering, the people who truly are responsible for the storytelling in that film are not us. We went to them… and that’s why there’s that depth. They’ve spent their whole lives knowing this stuff… knowing it very, very, very deeply. Like Pura Fe[7] from Ulali. It was lived knowledge and oral traditions…

 

 

Ernie: With Catherine, though, she helps bring those people, those things, those ideas, that information together in a cohesive and loving manner. These people spent their lives [researching]… like the Choctaw fiddlers. There are two photos of them in the film, but that’s the result of somebody’s 15-year, 20-year research journey.

Catherine: This brilliant academic who’s in the film spent seven years researching in the Library of Congress in the basement, finding these stories, and we get the results of that…

Ernie: Even if it’s just two photos in a two-hour or three-hour movie…

Catherine: And they’re brilliant photos. And there are other researchers in the film – there’s a ton of them.

And another thing that’s super important is to mix things that aren’t normally mixed together. Like Stevie Salas[8] is a rock star, and he comes from LA… rock!

Ernie: Whiskey-a-go-go.

Catherine: Rock, you know… chicks! and

Ernie: … big hair!

Catherine: … big hair, and awesomeness, and wanting to make it! A real balls-to-the-wall rock star kind of guy, you know…

To mix him, who was very much a muse in the film, very much, coming from that world – and someone like Pura Fe, who were the two …

Ernie and Catherine (in unison): pillars!

Catherine: … And then a third person, Tim Johnson,[9] who’s Mohawk – he comes from a scholarly point of view and he was the head of programming for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. So those three people, content-wise…

And logistically-wise and business-wise, there’s 9 thousand million people, too – unsung heroes of huge proportions …

Jody: who are still trying to catch up on their sleep…

Catherine: yeah, exactly, who are still slightly traumatized from when we didn’t have money to finish…

But those [three – Stevie Salas, Pura Fe, Tim Johnson], in terms of content – they were the pillars. And we were following them. We don’t have a lot of fear, ‘cause we have each other. Right? I think that’s why we don’t have fear. And in not having fear, we absolutely believe it’s possible. And early on, we felt there was something there that other people were saying wasn’t there. We’ve had a whole history of our society telling people that Native people aren’t there, that their music’s not there, that their culture’s not there, that they’re not there…

Ernie: that our culture’s primitive…

Catherine: yeah, that it’s primitive, it’s disappeared, it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter, it’s dead, it’s gone, it’s whatever… And knowing that that’s not the truth, and then knowing there’s something buried there, ‘cause we could feel it! When Pura Fe – Pura Fe was not believed for so long! And we talked to all the blues scholars and they said, “No, no, no, no, no. Native people are not there [as a major musical influence.]”

Ernie: “It’s from Africa”

Catherine: “It’s all from Africa.” Which it certainly is – the whole blues and jazz, as we say, none of that is possible without African people… African-American culture. But it was the African experience in America that created all those genres, and that experience in America involved Native people – at the beginning, hugely. Hugely! And that part was wiped out, that chapter was missing for a million reasons that you find out in the film. Why? That was the question. Why? Like, a) Is it true [what we felt]? We would push and push and everyone would say, “No!” All the official channels would say, “No.” And we kept pushing, pushing, pushing. Stevie, Pura Fe and Tim Johnson – they believed, and we believed. They hadn’t put it all together, and that was our job to go and put everyone’s story together. Once you put all the stories together, then it’s undeniable.

 

 

Jody: The part that stopped me cold was when someone interviewed in the film talked about wanting to pass as black so people wouldn’t know they were Native.

Catherine: That was Monk Boudreau. He’s from New Orleans.

Jody: The extent of the violence is not something white people want to acknowledge.

Ernie: Get over it.

Jody: There’s denial, yeah, but what I’m saying is that the stories have to be told and told and told.

Ernie (sighing): No matter how many times you tell the story, there’s always going to be echo chambers.

Catherine: What does that mean?

Ernie: When you go to a website and hang out with people who only share your views. So it’s just like an echo chamber…

Catherine: I feel like Rumble got out of the echo chamber, ‘cause people felt a safe place… that’s the power of music, ‘cause music connects you to the divine. That’s what it does. And it connects people together. It connects us together without fear, and by doing that, it leaves you open to hear things. I saw so many white people at screenings and film festivals understand the violence and feel it from [another perspective], and they weren’t being blamed for it. They were inside, with the people, and were feeling what they felt, so it was another experience. Maybe that’s the thing – we’ve got to get out of the echo chambers.

Ernie: But this music that we featured in this film, everybody grew up with that. And everybody had ideas about where it might have been from, who was doing it and why. But these people who’d come up to us and say, “Holy shit, I thought I knew!” Like even this radio disc jockey from the Mohawk nation. He comes up to me after a screening and says to me, “I thought I knew it. I thought I fuckin’ knew it. But apparently I didn’t.”

Catherine: I love running into all the musicians who really know and love music history, who say that. The musicians who really know their stuff know it’s true what the people are saying… what the storytellers are saying.

Ernie: Even writers from Rolling Stone…

Catherine: They said they didn’t know. David Fricke in the movie was awesome – he was one of the main interviews. He’s from Rolling Stone. He’s a brilliant speaker and writer and knowledge keeper for the music industry, and he was so awesome. But he, too, said he didn’t know all that.

Ernie: But every film for us is a journey. And you learn from every one. If you see our films in a chronological way, you won’t see too many of the same mistakes repeated with each subsequent film.

Catherine: We’ll make new mistakes, I suppose (laughing).

Ernie: But they’ll be, I think, philosophical from this point on as opposed to technical (both laughing). Hire the best and get out of their way!

 

Jody: Your editors must have been pretty intense.

Catherine: Yeah, it was a very intense process. We had great editors. It really was like a village. I have to say, Alfonso Maiorana who is co-director and director of photography… the visual beauty of the film is his – it’s his gift. And he’s a real lover of music. That was such a gift, all of that.

And then Meky (Marie-Pier) Ottawa[10] is the animator. She is Indigenous from here, and she didn’t know all those people [in the film]… She was like, “What?” and you can see it in her animation. She has this very funny, edgy, beautiful style. She was just featured at the Musée de Beaux Arts. She’s a brilliant artist.

And Stevie [Salas], I have to say, is a real great collaborator. He was always saying that he wanted famous people [in the interviews] ‘cause [otherwise], they’re not going to believe us. I’ll quote him: “If a bunch of Indians say we had something to do with this, they’ll be like, (tsk) Shut up!” But if, uh,

Jody: Tony Bennett says …

Catherine: If Tony Bennett says it…

Jody: or Martin Scorsese says it…

Catherine: you know? Or if what’s-his-name, the punk guy… Iggy Pop! If Iggy Pop tells you, you’re going to believe it. So if you look at the structure of the film, there are a lot of very famous people telling you stuff before we get to Pura Fe telling you stuff. That’s in the Link Wray section – it’s stacked with famous people, right? Well that was Stevie’s contribution, 1,000%. He wanted those famous people in there, to set it up. You know, you’re going to believe that Iggy Pop knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Link Wray, and Martin Scorsese…

Ernie: Ignatius Pop!

Catherine: (laughing) Ignatius, you know? Right?

So those kinds of tricks you learn as you go. We’ve been doing Native content for a long time now. And it’s only now that anybody is actually interested, outside of Indigenous communities.

Ernie: When we would pitch ideas and documentaries, one time this guy said, “Ah, I don’t want any more Native crap.”

Catherine: He was head of CBC! Seriously, you don’t know what to say. You’re just shocked. I remember pitching to this gal – I won’t say which network she was from – and she said, “Well, what would people find interesting about that?”

Ernie: But I think, to get to talk about your theme “Beyond the Pale,” there’s a price to be paid to be beyond the pale. Sometimes you carry like a debt, or something that you need to pay – an indebtedness … And sometimes you get offers where you could pay off that indebtedness by not being beyond the pale. Sometimes it looks like a way out from your struggles and hardships that you’re going through. There are a few instances where a “yes” would have resulted in an easier go for us in terms of doing what we love to do and what we’re compelled to do, and what we’re asked to do. And one of the things we’re most proud of as storytellers, as people who are tasked to tell [other] people’s stories as well, too, is that we never gave up or we never sold out…

Catherine: We didn’t sell out, I guess is the thing. If we’d got a yes… we tried [to get a yes]! We just never were successful at it. We were so bad at pitching commercial-league, “viable” ideas – we were just terrible (laughing). People would say, “Uh…no.”

Ernie: But the one thing that we’re most proud of is that we stuck by our principles and our values.

Catherine: Yeah, it’s true. So the hardship comes…

 

Jody: Is it true you had to remortgage your home?

Catherine: Yeah, numerous times. We put our house up on mortgage so many times. Yeah, you have to pay enough to cover your bank loans to finish films. So you’re on a wing and a prayer. Ergo, in the finance department, Linda Ludwick, brilliant woman that she is, is still (like you said) traumatized about finishing a film that doesn’t have money to finish. You go on a wing and a prayer and you do it. But they’re all such brave folks that we work with. You know Christina [Fon]. Christina is a salesperson, getting out there and selling. So you have all these different characters, everyone doing their bit.

Ernie: You guys complete each other.

 Catherine: Yeah, totally. I’m very nerdy in my thinking, you know. [Ernie sighs. I start laughing and challenging her.] Like a complete egghead. I like thinking and talking about intellectual things, and then trying to find ways to make them entertaining. I like big thoughts and ideas. Not academic, but I love ideas and how things work. But Christina is a trained athlete. She was a national gym champion in Canada. Athletes are great to work with, ‘cause they’re focused, they’ve got a goal, and they work towards it. And they’ve got their eye trained on the prize.

Ernie: To get back to Reel Injun,[11] Christina called the assistant of Clint Eastwood once a week for a year before we got the interview with him for Reel Injun. And we only had 45 minutes on a specific date. We sent him beautiful Cree mitts made from Waskaganish, and maple syrup.

Catherine: He almost cancelled because it was raining or something, and Christina pleaded with his assistant. And because Christina had talked to her for a year, the assistant got him to show up for the interview. And because the assistant did that, and because Christina had developed a caring relationship…

Ernie: (laughing) a loving relationship!

Catherine: A loving relationship with that person – it really was like that. That woman really came through for us and for Christina.

Ernie: The right people get together at the right time.

Catherine: And now we’re working with Neil again – Diamond – the Neil Diamond, not the singer – on a movie called Red Fever, about cultural appropriation and all that it entails. And the complexity and nuances and questions and cool shit – conversations and stories – that it can bring up. Neil’s line is: “Why do you love us so much? What did we ever do to you?” Like, why are you wearing your head-dresses to Coachella and all the music concerts? Fashion, why are you appropriating it all the time, like music? Why do you love us so much – what did we ever do to you? You know, that Jewish/Indian thing that always works. Similar humour – you know, genocide, they get it.

Jody: I read that you were working on a film What’s up with White People?

Catherine: Yeah, we’re in development on a film that, for now is called White Privilege aka What’s Up With White People? And it’s the history of the creation of white privilege. What actually happened, how was it built. The actual moments. This is straight-up history, not an emotional thing. A factual thing.

 

Conclusion:

The discussion went on about a book called Before the Irish Were White, and Theodor W. Allen’s book, The Invention of the White Race, and Nell Painter’s book, The History of White People. Ernie disappeared to make pasta with Bolognaise sauce. Catherine was jotting down ideas in her notebook, sparks flying off her pen! Then we all converged in the kitchen with two of their daughters and their nephew, and took the feast to another level. I still have a smile on my face. Welcome to the party!

For more about Catherine Bainbridge and Ernest Webb and their wild and wonderful team, check out Rezolution Pictures:

http://rezolutionpictures.com/about-us/.

 

Postscript on Rumble: The film has also started to air on certain television networks in French, English and German. Keep an eye out.[12]

 

 

[1] For details: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-opera-trickster-1.4816085

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxolq7IuiqA, Power of the North, 1992, directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Anne Van Der Wee, produced for MTV (USA) and Much Musique Plus (Canada) by Wildheart Productions (Belgium, Canada)

[3] A Montréal women’s choir founded by director Kathy Kennedy and visual artist Su Schnee in 1991 and still going strong. http://choeurmaha.org/

[4] http://tomsonhighway.com/biography.html

[5] https://www.rumblethemovie.com/

[6] https://nativenorthamerica-variousartists.bandcamp.com/

[7] https://purafe.com/

[8] http://www.steviesalas.com/

[9] See the bio on Tim Johnson at: http://www.celebrationofnations.ca/about/

[10] http://www.wapikoni.ca/recherche?Keyword=marie-pier+ottawa

https://www.cbc.ca/8thfire/2011/12/marie-pier-ottawa.html

[11] https://www.nfb.ca/film/reel_injun/

[12] The film Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World had its television broadcast premiere in English on The Movie Network / HBO Canada, where you can still stream it. It aired in French on Radio-Canada last fall and had its European premiere in French/German on ARTE. It has also aired in French on APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) and will be in English as of February 2019. Its US broadcast premiere is set for January 28, 2019 on the PBS series, Independent Lens.

 

Journaliste de longue date, lauréate du prix Hyman-Solomon pour l’excellence journalistique dans le domaine des politiques publiques, et professeure adjointe au département de journalisme de l’Université Concordia, Francine Pelletier nous livre le fond de sa pensée sur le populisme qui s’immisce dans le débat public pour se hisser jusqu’aux plus hautes sphères du pouvoir

Propos recueillis et adaptés par Simon Van Vliet.

 

S.V.V. : Il a été question, dans les dernières années, de l’opposition entre un populisme de droite – incarné par des politiciens de carrière comme l’ancien maire de Montréal, Denis Coderre, le chef de la Coalition Avenir Québec, François Legault, ou celui du Parti Québécois, Jean-François Lisée ou par des nouveaux venus en politique comme le président Donald Trump – et un certain populisme de gauche – représenté par des partis progressistes comme Québec solidaire, Projet Montréal ou encore par la « gauche radicale » de Bernie Sanders, aux États-Unis, ou de Jean-Luc Mélanchon, en France. Que pensez-vous de cette nouvelle dichotomie politique?

F.P. : Je trouve qu’il y a une facilité à faire du populisme une espèce de fourre-tout un peu trop large.

Traditionnellement, le populisme était de droite et faisait référence à des gens qui parlaient avec le « gros bon sens ». C’était une idéologie qui ne se reconnaissait pas. Cette droite qu’on a longtemps vue au Québec, avec le Duplessisme notamment, était anti-intellectuelle. Elle n’était pas basée sur l’idéologie ou sur des principes, elle s’appuyait juste sur le fait que « la vie devrait aller de même ». Il n’y avait pas de pensée derrière. C’est comme ça qu’on s’exprimait. On disait ce que M. et Mme Tout-le-monde pensait, et c’est sur cette base-là qu’on se rendait populaire. Ça, c’est un fait, qui existe encore.

Aujourd’hui, il y a un populisme qui opère une espèce de blanchiment des pensées un peu extrêmes pour se rapprocher des gens, pour dire : « nous, le peuple, on est tanné de se faire tasser, on est tanné de se faire ignorer ». C’est encore un langage très populaire, mais qui cache parfois des sentiments un peu plus noirs, un peu plus dangereux. Il y a ce populisme-là, à la dernière sauce, avec la montée d’une certaine droite. On l’a vu notamment aux États-Unis, mais on en a des courants ici aussi.

Et il y a le fameux « populisme de gauche ». Pour moi, c’est autre chose. C’est essayer de rejoindre plus de gens. C’est essayer de parler de façon à ce que tout le monde nous comprenne et de montrer qu’on n’est pas des « pelleteux de nuages ». Je ne mettrais pas ça dans la même catégorie. Ce n’est pas pour cacher une idéologie. C’est chercher à rendre l’idéologie plus accessible. Ce n’est pas la même chose, à mon avis.

 

S.V.V. : En anglais, on utilise le terme popularization pour parler de vulgarisation scientifique, par exemple. Est-ce que ce qu’on appelle le populisme de gauche serait en fait  une tentative de populariser, ou de vulgariser, les idées de gauche pour les rendre plus accessibles?

F.P. : Absolument, c’est ce que je constate. Je n’ai pas vu, aux dernières élections à Montréal – on pourrait parler aussi de Québec solidaire ou de la campagne de Bernie Sanders – je n’ai pas vu, dans aucune de ces instances, des gens qui essayaient de faire comme s’ils ne croyaient pas à ce à quoi ils ont déjà cru. Je n’ai pas vu un reniement de principes ou idéologique. J’ai vu une façon de s’exprimer, de montrer qu’on est proche des gens.

Il y a ces tentatives-là, et pour de bonnes raisons, parce que la gauche est traditionnellement vue comme intellectuelle, et donc forcément plus éloignée de la personne de la rue, disons. La gauche vivote dans la marge depuis 40 ans, alors il y a raison d’essayer de ratisser plus large, de rejoindre plus de gens, mais je ne vois pas ça de la même façon que le populisme traditionnel, ni sa nouvelle incarnation que je mentionnais tantôt.

J’ajouterais à ça — je ne sais pas si c’est du populisme — la confusion des genres et des esprits. On a Alexandre Taillefer qui se lève pour se dire un bon libéral, qui va diriger la campagne libérale aux prochaines élections au nom du progressisme… On a le Bloc Québécois qui va embrasser le parti on ne peut plus conservateur du Canada, alors que le Bloc a été aussi à gauche que le NPD pendant de nombreuses années. Tout le monde mêle tout. Et je pense qu’il y a un manque de respect, une espèce d’ignorance assez répandue.

On ne peut pas être progressiste et néolibéral en même temps. Pourtant, Alexandre Taillefer — un de nos héros de la classe d’affaires, qui est devenu aussi un sauveur de médias, qui siège au Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, un homme qui est partout – mélange tout ça. Est-ce que c’est du populisme ou est-ce que le populisme est en train de faire en sorte que les idées, les catégories ou les principes ne veulent plus rien dire? Je ne sais pas, mais il y a certainement une confusion.

Ceci dit, le populisme que je considère le plus dangereux, c’est celui que j’ai mentionné en partant, c’est le populisme de droite.

 

S.V.V. : Alors que le populisme de droite semble rallier de larges pans des classes populaires et ouvrières, on l’a vu avec l’élection de Donald Trump aux États-Unis, la gauche électorale québécoise ne semble jusqu’ici être en mesure de faire des percées que dans les quartiers urbains où l’on retrouve de fortes concentrations de gens aisés et éduqués, et où la classe moyenne évince progressivement les classes populaires. Comment expliquer cette incapacité de la gauche à reprendre du terrain face à la droite?

F.P. : La gauche a été longtemps dominée par le marxisme. Toute l’idée de la classe ouvrière et de la lutte des classes frappait l’imaginaire et avait un véritable impact à travers l’Occident – et pas seulement en Occident – jusque dans les années 60-70, où la gauche s’est aussi exprimée à travers le féminisme. Le néolibéralisme est arrivé si vite qu’il est tombé comme une guillotine sur toutes ces années-là, sur le féminisme, sur le marxisme, sur la social-démocratie.

La gauche n’a pas beaucoup d’emprise aujourd’hui, parce qu’elle n’a convaincu personne. Québec solidaire en est un parfait exemple. Il reste à voir si Projet Montréal va réussir à se maintenir au pouvoir.

On a l’impression que la gauche ne sait rien de l’économie, qu’elle rêve en couleurs. Donc, ce n’est pas à la gauche qu’on va confier notre bien-être économique. Ça explique pourquoi la classe ouvrière est du bord de ceux qui prétendent pouvoir la sortir du trou : c’était jusqu’à maintenant les néolibéraux et maintenant le dernier en qui on a cru, Donald Trump, si ce n’est que parce que c’est un homme d’affaires. Avec l’arrivée en politique d’Alexandre Taillefer, on pourrait bientôt avoir deux hommes d’affaires à la tête de partis politiques : Pierre Karl Péladeau et Alexandre Taillefer. C’est un signe des temps!

C’est le drame de la gauche. Il faut avoir étudié, avoir pensé ou réfléchi ou lu un peu pour pouvoir comprendre ce qu’elle avance comme théorie, comme valeurs. Et c’est pour ça qu’elle s’adresse à une faune essentiellement urbaine et éduquée.

 

S.V.V. : Alors que la gauche paraît plus ou moins capable de sortir de la marginalité, la droite populiste semble séduire les classes populaires, mais aussi certaines catégories particulières d’individus comme les jeunes hommes blancs désemparés accusant la gauche de leur dérober leurs privilèges au profit des femmes et des minorités. Est-ce que la violence haineuse à l’origine des tueries de masse de Polytechnique, de la Mosquée de Québec ou de Toronto, prend racine dans une espèce de populisme machiste et réactionnaire?

F.P. : C’est une question très difficile. La définition du populisme varie beaucoup. On l’utilise tellement à toutes les sauces. Si ça veut dire simplement une façon populaire de parler, je ne suis pas sûre.

Marc Lépine citait du latin. Alexandre Bissonnette est allé à l’université. Alek Minassian, je ne sais pas trop. Ce qui est intéressant dans ces trois cas-là, c’est que ce sont tous des jeunes hommes de classe moyenne, des blancs. C’est la catégorie par excellence à qui tout avait été promis traditionnellement. C’est à eux que la Terre revenait. La Terre, avec tout ce que ça veut dire : un job, une femme, des enfants.

C’est l’homme blanc qui parle. L’homme blanc qui est censé être au sommet de la montagne, qui a dégringolé et qui va faire payer quelqu’un. C’est vraiment la revanche de l’homme blanc « dépossédé » à laquelle on assiste. On a vu avec les élections américaines qu’il y a une certaine frange de cette classe-là qui a décidé : “we’re not taking this any more”. C’est la colère de l’homme blanc qu’on a vue avec Donald Trump : la colère de ne plus avoir de travail, de ne plus être valorisé, d’être déplacé, par les femmes, par la mondialisation. Et avec ces meurtriers de masse, c’est ça aussi. Ils se sentent dépossédés et en rendent certaines catégories responsables : les femmes, les musulmans, les minorités.

Est-ce que le populisme vient jouer là-dedans? Est-ce qu’il y a un certain machisme qui est influencé par le populisme? Je ne suis pas sûre. Je pense qu’il y a des machos de droite et des machos de gauche. Et là-dedans, il y a les fous furieux et les machos de tous les jours. C’est trop vaste comme catégorie pour que je puisse m’y retrouver.

À cela viennent s’ajouter les parcours personnels : Lépine haïssait sa sœur et sa mère. Ce n’est pas pour rien qu’il a ciblé des femmes. Bissonnette y a peut-être pensé, mais il a trouvé que ce serait plus sensationnel d’attaquer des musulmans dans une mosquée. Minassian quant à lui amène une dimension encore plus claire, beaucoup plus troublante : il cible les femmes pour une question de propriété sexuelle.

Alek Minassian appartient en effet au groupe des Incels. Cette sous-culture regroupe des hommes enragés de ne plus pouvoir, à cause du féminisme, s’attendre à ce à quoi ils pouvaient toujours s’attendre dans le passé : soit les faveurs sexuelles d’une ou plusieurs femmes. Sur les réseaux sociaux, les Incels s’expriment d’une façon virulente et méchante. Ils utilisent une espèce de langage haineux qui ressemble peut-être à celui d’un certain populisme de droite.

 

S.V.V. : Si le lien direct de cause à effet entre la montée du populisme et la violence haineuse misogyne ou xénophobe est difficile à établir, on peut dire que le populisme est une menace sérieuse pour les droits des femmes, pour les minorités, mais aussi plus largement pour les valeurs démocratiques. Quels sont à vos yeux les principaux dangers qui nous guettent avec la vague populiste qui déferle actuellement sur l’Occident et qui encourage la montée de la droite partout dans le monde?

F.P. : Le populisme, c’est de l’anti-intellectualisme. Pour moi, c’est dangereux de dévaloriser l’idée; de dévaloriser le fait de penser, le fait de réfléchir, le fait d’asseoir nos gestes sur de la connaissance et pas uniquement sur des émotions.

C’est pour ça que l’élection de Donald Trump est une catastrophe. Il n’est pas juste catastrophique comme administrateur, comme président des États-Unis. C’est une catastrophe de par le message qu’il envoie. Il disqualifie les institutions, le savoir, la connaissance, au profit du me, myself and I : « C’est ce que je pense, c’est ce que je sens qui est important. S’il faut que je vous mente en pleine face pour me rendre plus intéressant, je vais le faire. »

Il n’y a plus de vérité, il n’y a plus de connaissance, il n’y a plus d’institutions qui vaillent. Il n’y a plus de respect des traités. C’est de la folie! On se fie à quoi?

Pour moi, c’est ça le danger du populisme : le à la va-comme-je-te-pousse qui nous laisse Gros-Jean comme devant. On ne peut pas avoir une société démocratique, une société qui tient compte de tout le monde – la majorité et les minorités – de cette façon-là.

Le populisme dénigre la pensée au profit des émotions, et ça, c’est dangereux.

 

[Depuis 2012, Simon Van Vliet travaille comme journaliste multimédia en presse écrite et audiovisuelle et s’intéresse aux grandes questions de culture, de science et de société, et ce, de l’échelle (hyper)locale à l’échelle globale. Lauréat de la Bourse de journalisme en développement international 2013 du CRDI, il cherche à mettre en lumière les initiatives qui proposent de solutions locales aux problèmes globaux et de solutions globales aux problèmes locaux. Ses œuvres, en français et en anglais, ont été publiées ou diffusées autant par des médias alternatifs ou spécialisés que par des médias grands publics. http://mais.simonvanvliet.info/]

 

 

Preface

As our editorial team was brainstorming ideas for this issue’s theme on heritage, I kept thinking of La Meute, a white nationalist/white supremacist group in Québec that proudly calls itself “The Pack.” Like its chilling counterparts in English Canada, the US and other parts of the world, La Meute’s official line is that it’s not racist or anti-Muslim. It is merely defending its legitimate patrimoine[1] – its heritage harking back to its white European roots (in this case, in France).

I was also thinking about the Indigenous women in the remote community of Val d’Or who, with the steadfast and painstaking support of the Val d’Or Native Friendship Centre, gathered their courage and stepped forward to denounce the intimidation, abuse of power, and physical and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of some Québec police officers. After learning that no charges had been laid against the officers, eleven women wrote:

What we ask for is true justice: justice for ourselves, justice for our daughters, justice for our grand-daughters…

What comforts us is that we know we are not alone. And today, we solemnly call upon all the Quebec people, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal, to extend a helping hand to Indigenous women so that we may create the strongest support and solidarity network ever.

This is also what gives us hope, a new hope.[2]

In their situation of extreme vulnerability, the strength of these women’s vision of a vast community of support got me wondering. What are the words in their mother tongue – their rightful matrimoine – for the heritage they dream of? What are the words that call us all together and lift us up?

The words of Alexa Conradi do exactly that. A courageous “shift disturber”[3] (i.e., whose words and actions call for a major shift in perspectives), Conradi challenges Québec’s racist and misogynist colonial heritage, and plants the seeds for creating the kind of solidarity-based community and society that the women of Val d’Or invoke.

Alexa Conradi has been a feminist and social-justice activist in Québec for the past 20 years – one who challenges the ravages of austerity policies front-on and stands with all those whose lives have been made more precarious. She was president of Québec Solidaire in its early years from 2006 to 2009, helping shape its social democratic, environmentalist, feminist, LBGTQ and sovereignist program. From 2009 to 2015, she headed the Québec Women’s Federation (QFF), which took a lot of heat – and hateful vitriol – for its solidarity with Muslim women and its opposition to Québec’s Charter of Values.

Conradi’s new book of essays, Les angles morts, Perspectives sur le Québec actuel (Les Éditions du Remue-ménage, 2017), is intended to do some serious shift disturbing. Conradi interweaves the personal and the political as she invites her fellow Quebeckers to take a good hard look at their blind spots. Time to tear off the rose-coloured glasses about how egalitarian, fair, welcoming and non-violent Québec society really is.

The following interview with Alexa Conradi is a slightly abbreviated version of our conversation.


MS:
  First of all, congratulations! We just heard the news that your book has been nominated for the Political Book Award presented by the Québec National Assembly. Did you have any inkling that it might be considered for an award?

AC:  Absolutely not. I certainly didn’t write it in terms of awards or recognition. I wrote it to be able to think through the unbelievable, unique and sometimes difficult experiences of the position I have been in, which gave me access to people, events and possibilities in ways that very few people have access to in the course of their lives.

I was more motivated to look at the times we’re in, really. The question of recognition is an important one, and one that I’ve struggled with, because as someone in a minority situation but nevertheless at a privilege in Québec society, I haven’t been able to completely free myself up from the wish to be seen, heard, understood and recognized as being part of the society. I didn’t write with awards in mind, but I’m not completely outside of the wish for the book to resonate meaningfully with people in that society and reclaim a space inside it. So it’s not so much about rewards and awards as spaces of mutual understanding. That was something that did drive the writing of the book.

MS: A great deal of research and reflection, first-hand experience and soul-searching has gone into this book, which covers almost every angle (!) of what has happened in Québec since the Quiet Revolution. It is a tour de force of historical, political and feminist analysis and reflection that offers us a feast of thought-provoking ideas and insights.

You cover a lot of ground. Your book raises hard-to-duck criticisms while showing a lot of love and respect for your fellow Quebeckers of all backgrounds. You clearly embrace bell hook’s perspective on “love as the practice of freedom.”[4] What does she mean by that? How do we go about cultivating movements that are anchored in an ethic of love? And what does love have to do with it when we are up against such systemic violence?

AC: To be honest, I can only say that’s an unresolved question. In the world of struggle, the changes or aspirations that I’m talking about in the book require envisioning but also tremendous struggle. And in the face of violence, struggle, non-recognition and experiences that people have of being completely excluded, or huge moments of injustice, it’s very hard not to get tight and cold, defensive, angry, bitter.

It’s very difficult to sustain a sense of wonder and joy in the middle of so much pain and struggle. And so, when I was working through some of the struggles that I think were personal but at the same time very collective in many ways, I myself went from “oh I’m feeling angry and bitter at people, at situations, at the world, and that’s not a place that I find I can survive from. I can’t blossom, I can’t grow, I can’t breathe, if that’s the main feeling” to somehow thinking, “ok, how do we change up some of what we do? How do we think it through and organize collectively in a context of struggle?” Not a kind of naïve idea of change, but in a context of struggle, how do we sustain that, how do we create something that is spiritually and ecologically sustainable for individuals and for life?

I’m not sure I have answers to it, but we need to have those conversations and make that a subject of our discussions and our practices. So instead of coming in with a recipe of “ok, here are the 10 ways to do that,” that’s not even really a discussion. And when there is a discussion of self-care, for example, it’s from a very individualist perspective and takes a kind of neo-liberal approach, almost. So in talking about the conditions under which we organize, how we organize and how we think about how we bring about change, this needs to be a subject of discussion. It needs to be present.

What does love mean in a situation like that? It’s not a flowery “let’s just step above how we feel, how the anger, the injustice feels,” as if those feelings aren’t real. That’s not what I mean. I mean some kind of openness and vulnerability and trust, at the same time as risk-taking and claiming our strong feelings of anger and sense of injustice, but in a way that is more acknowledged. [I mean] somehow loving – finding a way to acknowledge the pain and trauma – in the way we organize and think about mobilizing and social change movements. If we were to acknowledge the power dynamics and how much energy it costs us to go through these things, maybe we would do better at looking after them as a group.

When we get together, we would figure out what we need then, acknowledging the cycles and rhythms of the world of nature. We have four seasons; we have night and day; we have hot and cool times of the year. And those are completely disconnected from how we organize ourselves politically. That makes no sense. I think we’re coming actually to the end of a time, a whole era. We’re coming to an end of it. There’s an end of a cycle, and both environmentally speaking and socially speaking, the pressures are everywhere. Capitalism is reaching certain kinds of limits. It has an incredible ability to reinvent itself, but nevertheless, ecologically, we’re coming to an absolute limit. I somehow believe that this idea of love is deeply an ecological concern, too, in a spiritual and connected sense to one another. I know that’s not a short or very coherent answer, but it’s what I’ve been trying to think through.

Love vs Hate (Nov. 2017 – Montréal)


MS:
  The existence of systemic sexism in Québec is not that difficult to discuss, thanks to feminist debates dating back to the 1970s. But engaging in civil debate about systemic racism has become almost impossible in many circles in Québec, and politicians engaged in xenophobic nationalism have shamelessly fanned the flames of demagoguery that stifle reflection and self-questioning. As you point out, the divide between Quebeckers of diverse backgrounds and those of French-Canadian descent has become deeply entrenched. What’s it going to take, do you think, to break the impasse we’re currently facing and go beyond knee-jerk denial and defensive evasion?

AC:  Today there are a number of different types of possibilities that could really make a difference. First, this tendency in Québec is situated in a pretty Western tendency at the moment. Québec has its own particular history and its own particular form, but all over Europe, for example, we’re in a time where people – where many white people – are feeling anxious and expressing that in very racist terms.

So, Québec is not an exception. But in terms of possibilities for the future, one of them is that younger people aren’t showing as much racism as an older generation of people. We have to remember that the ones discussing in the public sphere are not the only voice out there. Politicians who hold power are usually much older, usually white, and usually more established, let’s say. They’re not necessarily always a good reflection of all people’s sentiments. And that goes for media people as well. If you look at who are the commentators in media, they tend to be older white men as well. We have to be careful not to take their voices as being the truth.

There is some incredible organizing in Québec at the moment around anti-racism work, led by people of colour – black folks and Indigenous people, and Muslims as well – and they are doing a lot of really important work of making connections in places that are fairly invisible to the media or to the public discourse. But it’s happening and it’s making a difference. After the launch of my book, I had twenty-five stops all across the province and met with people who are concerned about this rise in racism in Québec society and the consolidation of certain racist sentiments – the freeing-up of racist speech. And that was in every region: people who are willing to get organized, think about it, speak up against racism and get involved. That’s encouraging.

Fuck la xénophobie (Nov. 12, 2017, Montréal)

And at a much more difficult level, this [intensification of racism] is something that happens typically in a time of tremendous economic insecurity. This happened in the ‘30s all across the West, and it’s not surprising that it’s happening now after years of neoliberal policy. So I think that anti-racist work per se, in and of itself is absolutely necessary. It’s also necessary to keep in mind that racism gets worse under neoliberal and economically insecure times. So when governments speak about prosperity – and you know, the Québec government tends to speak about being great at job creation and about having sustained prosperity since it’s been in power – at the same time, people’s work is more and more unstable. It’s insecure, it’s part-time, it’s on contract, and we’re living in times where the idea that one can make a decent living from one’s work is not a given for many, many people. The social safety net is no longer a given either.

Those two things, combined with other kinds of insecurities like free trade, global transfer of companies to different places around the world, and all that kind of competition that pushes people’s working and living conditions down – all of that combined makes people’s sense of security fragile. And unfortunately in the history of white people, that has often turned into racism and that type of insecurity.

That’s a really important piece. There are many people in black communities, for example, who say that working with white people is exhausting, and they would prefer to focus their energies on lifting up black people. That’s an absolutely fair response to racism. Those of us who are concerned about this question have a responsibility as white people to talk to other white people. Québec has the advantage of having very powerful, very deep-seated organizations across the province in ways that are quite unique – and more and more of these organizations are taking some responsibility for the discourse around Indigenous people. That wasn’t true when I first got started.

And there are more and more organizations that are ready to take up some of the questions around systemic racism and anti-Muslim racism. I think anti-Muslim racism is one of the hardest ones because of the relationship to religion.

Those are some of the ways that we need to be working on. But ultimately there needs to be a kind of acknowledgment in these organizations (which are so important in Québec society) that there’s actually a problem. Some are doing it and many are not. That’s one of the big challenges: how do we move forward with an acknowledgment in civil society – or uncivil society – of how to think this through?

Each sector needs to think about it. If you work in health and social services, what are the ways that systemic racism plays out, and then how do you integrate that into your work? This [kind of questioning] is not necessarily happening. You know, the unions aren’t necessarily thinking about it in those terms, nor are community groups. They may think about systemic racism in terms of access to jobs. They might not think about it in terms of “how is it that people of colour are received in our health and social service system with unconscious bias against them? How does that play out? And how do we train our people to work differently?” We’ve got a long way to go.

Decolonizing our minds (Little Burgundy’s heritage)

MS:  Your book alludes to the Black Panther movement, Angela Davis, and the teachings of Malcolm X and James Baldwin on the importance of decolonizing the mind. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings, the inquiry hearings into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the #MeToo, #BeenRapedNeverReported movements, the Black Lives Matter movement, the earlier Idle No More and Occupy movements, and the protests for a decent minimum wage are like a vast, sprawling truth-telling caravan.

Decolonizing our minds is an on-going process, and your book incites us to re-examine our default positions. Since it was launched last fall, what kind of feedback have you been getting about readers’ willingness to undertake this kind of personal and collective introspection?

AC:  What comes to mind is a woman in the Gaspé, who organized events there so that I could meet people and we could talk and think about the book. She was blown away by the book and found it both extremely confronting and challenging. She works in a women’s centre […] and she has made sure that they’re having an on-going conversation in the centre about how to take up some of the challenges that are posed by the book. She also wrote a piece for all the other women centres, saying “it’s time that we do this work.”

That’s the kind of feedback I’ve had on it. I’ve also had CEGEP [Québec community college] professors write and say that they’re using this book now in their philosophy courses, for example, because it gives them both a theoretical and a practical “in” to think about questions that are deeply philosophical. It’s really encouraging that people see the use and relevance of having students read it.

And then I recently had a young girl of fifteen who wrote to me saying that she’s a feminist and for her, the book was really an eye-opening experience.

A philosophy professor at a university, who is a black woman – one of the rare black philosophers in francophone Canada, let’s say, in Québec – said that in reading this book, she felt that I had been listening to black women. If a few people like her and like some of the Indigenous women and Muslim women who are out there, leading the way, feel like they have a bit of an echo chamber with this book and feel supported by what it does, then it is also contributing somehow to the decolonizing process. Because that’s a dynamic, a relationship. We can’t decolonize by ourselves. We work on something together. White people who are in positions of privilege, like I was, need to show that we deserve to be trusted… and then it makes it possible for other people to say: ah, it’s possible to be heard; it’s possible to be understood; it’s possible to feel recognized by people in positions of privilege or advantage – you know, the white-patriarchal-capitalist bell hooks-style reference.

MS: In your book, it’s clear that you have been deeply committed to the cause of Québec sovereignty, despite having been the target of wrath as a feminist leader committed to defending minority rights, particularly those of Muslim and racialized women and Indigenous communities. The narrow way that the national question has been framed for the past quarter century has made it difficult for many progressive Anglophones and Allophones in Québec to align with the sovereignist movement (even the more inclusive Québec Solidaire). So much energy is going into fruitless and hurtful debates that divert our focus from essential issues. Social justice issues are regularly getting pushed to the side. Neoliberal forces are placing the population and the environment in an increasingly tenuous position. Given our current political structures, how do you see us moving forward in Québec, building greater social solidarity?

AC: What I’m trying to argue in the book, I think, […] is that it’s possible to have a fairly integrated struggle against forms of domination, where one takes into account the effects of capitalism, the effects of patriarchy, the effects of racism, the effects of colonialism, and find points on which solidarity can be built. Here’s another example that refers back to your earlier question: someone from a bookstore said that he was afraid of intersectionality as he thought it was a divisive tool, but after reading my book, he saw that it could actually be a uniting tool.

You know, it’s not so much a theoretical concern around intersectionality; it’s a practical, political, organizing structure for me, in the sense that I think we could build coalitions that are moving, coalitions that form and de-form, but that commit to this anti-domination perspective. And that means really deeply having a feminist analysis of economic relations. It means having an anti-racist analysis of culture.

It means taking what we’ve learned politically as root causes of injustice, and then trying to build out together what that could mean concretely in terms of changes. But we tend to work in isolated ways. I think our times call for a less isolated approach. The environmental movement works on the one side, and social justice folks work on another side, and then feminists in another corner, and then anti-racists in another corner. For people like me and also for broad strokes of the feminist movement in Québec, I think, that’s too confining as a way of working, and doesn’t meet the struggles of our times.

Toutes Unies (Nov. 12, 2017, Montréal)

Like I said earlier, we are living in a time that requires fundamental rethinking of how we build social, political, economic relations, because of the environmental disaster that we’re facing. And so I think it’s time to take a risk in how we organize politically, and try and find ways of building those lines of solidarity concretely. But none of those will be easy struggles. What gets called a women’s issue, to me, I never see as a women’s issue. I always see it as a society issue. And it changes the relationship that men can have to themselves as well, and to us, obviously. Or it changes definitions of gender; it changes dynamics of sexuality.

Same thing if we were to talk about environmental questions. If we were to completely rethink how we work the economy around production, what’s production, what’s socially relevant, what’s social reproduction, how do we rethink all of that? Well of course we need to think through, then, immigration. We need to consider what work then gets attributed to men and what work gets attributed to women… and who gets paid for what, and who gets recognized for what. These are things that to me seem so naturally integrated, but for social movements that have been organized in other terms, that’s not a natural approach. That’s not an automatic reflex. But I think we need to go there.

There would be a lot of strength there, but struggle, too, because it means changing ways of thinking; it means changing power dynamics; it means allowing other people to have things to say, who right now don’t have that power. There is a strong anti-racist movement in Québec, but they’re not where the coalitions are. And that’s because those coalitions have never really expressed an interest in taking seriously what they have to say. So, this work is very difficult work. And it has yet to be seen, for me, whether, with changes in dynamics within Québec Solidaire, it will be able to take up some of those challenges in a positive way. It has done some really good work but has not taken up such a role, and has avoided much of this [more radical program].

I think this is a more radical program, but not necessarily only in a classic Left/Right sense. It’s a more radical program to get to the deep-seated structures of power that create the kind of inequalities we’re talking about. I think Québec Solidaire is constantly in this mix between fitting within popular discourse and reflecting the goals and aspirations of a diverse Left. But that tension… I think most of the time they’ve looked for approval more than [going for] the more brave position, let’s say. But those currents are inside Québec Solidaire. It’s not like they’re not there.

MS:  There’s also a kind of radical rethinking needed, of what we want work and non-work to look like, and how much time spent in work, and the lack of down time for a lot of people or too much forced down time because of unemployment. All of that is not really being addressed, like what our vision is of what would be healthy within our current resources and given our needs.

AC: There are so many different layers to it because, like you said, some people are highly overworked and there are people who are underworked, yet everyone has something to give to society somehow. So that even the concept of work… these are all questions that we need to be raising, because for many people these are balances of life somehow, being able to sustain oneself and one’s community: what do we need for that? That should be the starting point of the question: what do we need to have to be able to sustain ourselves and our communities and our earth? And then go from there.

The 3 Iroquois Sisters – Corn, Beans and Squash (Montréal)


MS:
One of the last essays in your book invites us to rethink our relationship to the earth, and to reproduction, from a perspective that puts life and all that sustains it at the heart of political and economic activity. Building on ancestral Indigenous knowledge is central to this vision. Could you give our readers an idea of what the Buen Vivir movement is all about? And how would you say that in English: well living, or something like that?

AC: That’s it. It’s not the idea of “better,” it’s about living well. These are movements based in Latin America that have come out of discussions largely centred on Indigenous peoples’ histories, organizing, and struggles for recognition and decent lives inside Latin American countries. But it has translated in political terms into trying to find ways of moving away from a capitalist logic of governance and production to placing the sustainability of communities and the earth at the heart of how everything then flows.

This particular idea is a spiritual concept at the same time as a political one – spiritual not in the sense of a religious idea, but in a sense that ultimately we are all connected, all of us, every living creature, every part of life is connected, and so then we are highly responsible for those relationships. And that needs to be translated into how we organize ourselves economically, politically and socially.

And then there have been feminists organizing within this tradition to say: “in that context, we need to completely rethink production and reproduction and that division where production has always historically been associated with male labour, and reproduction with female labour that was highly undervalued.”

If we put the maintenance and the reproduction of life at the heart of things, then that actually changes the dynamic altogether of, and even our understanding of, what is productive. Instead of seeing production as being how many more products we produce, [it would be more about] “how do we look after one another properly?” That’s a very different logic. Of course, anyone can say, “yes, but that’s very naïve, a very Utopian kind of perspective.” But […] we can’t get anywhere if we haven’t thought about it – imagined it, thought about it, started to try and find ways to create it.

There are countries in Latin America that are starting to try and think this through, and they’ve given themselves the possibility of doing so at a structural level. We don’t have any of those mechanisms in Québec society or in Canadian society at this point, but that would be pretty exciting.

MS:  There are some very powerful experiments in community self-emancipation that are unfolding in place like Jackson, Mississippi. Activists there are building what they call “solidarity economics.” They’re pooling resources, labour and community wealth, in combination with communal land ownership and agriculture and 3-D manufacturing. And they’re not limited to Jackson. They intend to take this movement and spread it through Mississippi and beyond Mississippi. There’s a book called Jackson Rising[5] that just came out last October. I don’t know of anything like this that is happening here or in Canada. This is coming out of the black community. I mean, we used to have community economic development projects here, but that wasn’t the same thing.

AC: I’m not familiar with this movement in Jackson, but are they coming out of a context like in Detroit, of complete collapse of the surrounding economic environment, and very little government support? You know, Québec society nevertheless still has a much more active social safety net than (I would think) Jackson, Mississippi. These types of initiatives tend to come out of collapse. And people’s willingness to think in new ways comes out of collapse. The challenge that I think we face in wealthy environments – which doesn’t mean that the individuals inside these environments are all wealthy – but the challenge we face is, will we have the impetus to make these changes in the face of tremendous [countervailing] interests […] and also, the difficulty in making changes unless we have to. Those are big challenges for more comfortable societies. Even though we have tremendous poverty in this society, […] the push for inertia is very, very high.

Free, Proud – Street art by MissMe


MS:
Your book is grounded in the personal, in experiential life, and that makes a difference in terms of how readable and how touching it is.

AC: I was brought into the world as an activist, let’s say, through the feminist movement and through women’s centres. Through them, I learned that we are always in a relationship between an “I” and a “We” and an “Us” in the way we’re working. And I found this to be such a powerful tool to embrace consciousness, to bring solidarity, to make things real and concrete, to translate ideas and concepts into real life. Then later, in studies at the university level, I read about traditions in Latin America where, if people were speaking or giving a speech in a political moment, they would get up and say, “I am so and so, and I am part of this tradition,” and would move from this “I” position to very quickly situating themselves in a “We” tradition. You hear that with Indigenous rhetorical traditions, with black North American rhetorical traditions, and in the feminist tradition.

I find these very powerful ways to make shifts possible, but also to build an “Us” and a “We” that is not based on the domination of one type of discourse or a false universal “Us” that incorporates the stories of many different perspectives. That was a motivation in my activism and also in the writing, to keep that kind of a tension and a dynamic present. I wanted the book to be not so much for the academic world (although I think it still could be relevant for people studying), but written in a way that people didn’t go, “oh God, I have to get through this book.” I wanted it to be true stories and concrete situations, and real moments of possibility or tension that connected with my life but also the lives of other people whom I’ve met. So that was the reason for the form of the book. There’s always a certain amount of risk-taking in being so personal in public, but such is life. I’m asking lots of people to take risks, so if I don’t take any, it doesn’t make any sense.

MS: Your book is being translated, right? Do you know yet when it’s going to be coming out in English?

AC: I don’t know the publication date, but I would think in the fall.

MS: With your same publishing house?

AC:  No, it’s with Between the Lines in Toronto. Between the Lines is a really engaged publishing house that does a lot of translation of books to keep the dialogue going between English-speaking Canada and Québec and French-speaking Canada, let’s say, to keep diversity of French in Canada visible.

MS: In closing, I’d like to acknowledge the compassionate and incisive kind of feminism that infuses your book. I find it heartening on many, many levels. Your imagination takes us deep into the wisdom of the ancestral land that sustains us, and far into the dreamings of life beyond capitalism. So I’d like to thank you, Alexa, on behalf of all of us at Serai, for sharing that with us.

AC: Thank you for those lovely words.

 

[Note: All photos in this interview, except for the one of Alexa Conradi and her book, were taken by Jody Freeman.]

 

[1] My hunt for a feminine noun in French that was equivalent to patrimoine as a term for heritage turned into a wild goose chase. The literal equivalent, matrimoine, means matrimony, of course, with no hint at a broader concept of maternal inheritance or heritage through the mother line.

[2] “Declaration of the Aboriginal Women of Val-d’Or,” November 17, 2017, published by NationTalk on November 18, 2016 – http://nationtalk.ca/story/declaration-of-the-aboriginal-women-of-val-dor

[3]The expression “shift disturbers” is credited to Lee Rose in Alexa Conradi’s book, Les angles morts, Perspectives sur le Québec actuel, Les Éditions du Remue-Menage (Québec, 2017), p. 12. http://www.editions-rm.ca/livres/les-angles-morts/

[4] Ibid, p. 31.

[5]Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, by Ajamu Nangwaya and Kali Akuno (Daraja Press, October 2017). https://darajapress.com/catalog/jackson-rising-the-struggle-for-economic-democracy-and-self-determination-in-jackson-mississippi

 

 

 

Helen Quewezance Photo Credit © Darren James

 

Introduction:   Shanti Kumari first took a course on the history of Native Americans in Canada at Dawson College in Montréal, but her interest in the First Nations has its roots in her native Mexico. Shanti is a Mexchica ceremonial dancer / singer.  She recently had the immense honour of meeting Ms. Helen Cote Quewezance from the Cote First Nations Reserve in Saskatchewan, one of the bands in the Treaty 4 area, during an Ojibwe language course given by Ms. Cote Quewezance at the St. Kateri Center in Chicago, Illinois. What follows is her interview with Ms. Cote Quewezance.

 

SK:    Tell us about yourself and where you’re from, please.

HCQ: This is how the State and the Church brainwashed us as little children. They wanted to assimilate, enculturate and colonize us.

My real identity is and my traditional spiritual name is Ninzo Mikana Ikwe Ka Pimoset (Woman Who Walks Two Roads). In 1955, at age 6, I had to go to residential school. So the Indian agent, the priest and my parents took me to the band office and registered me with an English name. I was registered with the Government of Canada (a birth certificate). I was called Helen Cote on my birth certificate.

When in residential school, the Catholic Church St. Phillip’s Indian residential school changed my name again to Sylvia Helen Severight (my parents were not married yet). My parents married in the 60s; after that I was Sylvia Helen Cote. I married in the 1970s and my name changed to Helen Quewezance – apparently Sylvia was not on my birth certificate and was not my name at all. I chose to put Cote back in my colonized name: Helen Cote Quewezance.

The Government of Canada, the State and the Church changed residential school Native children’s names as often as they liked so we would never know what our real identities were. The purpose I believe was to brainwash us and to confuse us. In residential school I was given a number to further humiliate me. I believe the purpose was to assimilate the children. I did forget who I was and believed Helen to be my real identity. Helen has no meaning, it is just blank, but my real name and identity has a purpose. My dad told me who I was, and I am glad he told me.

I am Saulteaux/Ojibwa (People of the Rapids) which are the names given to us by the newcomers.[1]

Our original tribal name is Nekawa: Good Speaking People, Fundamentally the Good People.

Originally the Algonquian people migrated from the East and the Great Lakes centuries ago as one of the twelve Algonquin Families which include the Salteaux / Ojibwe, Chippewa, Cree, Cheyenne and more.

 

SK:    What place do women hold within your clan, tribe or tradition?

HCQ: First of all, the Nekawa people were socially, culturally and politically matriarchal. One of the sayings is: “Grandma made the rules, the laws, and Grandpa enforces them.”

Since the making of the Peace Treaties, Sacred Treaties were made in the presence of God and as such those treaties can never be broken. The Native people are the only people in the world to have “The Great Law of Peace.” We do not settle disputes with war. Treaty men have been making deals with immigrants. The immigrant men assume that the Native men make all the decisions and laws. Which is not true. The women have a council and they chose their leaders. Only the kindest, bravest and medicine people were chosen to be leaders. It did not matter if you were a woman or a man. There were many women warriors and medicine women. The women watched carefully who would become leaders.

Women sanctioned and chose the leaders and the women headed and kept sacred lodges. IKEW (a woman) owned half of some ceremonies. She owned the home and the soil of the lands. If these were not sanctioned by the women councils, it was not legal. For example, the home and the lands are owned by the women. In fact, lands were never given away or loaned out to immigrants by the leaders of this land.

The newcomers did not know Turtle Island laws. Immigrant men talked to chiefs and warriors and basely talked to men, believing they are the leaders. Far from it, the Nekawa people have a well-structured social, cultural and political system which existed for centuries. The tribe did not have elected chiefs and councillors, they had headmen and a traditional chief. Headmen and chiefs were not voted in (we did not have the vote). The clan mothers from each Algonquin family chose a leader. Clan mothers would not sell their children’s food.

Usually the newcomers, government officials or premiers of Canada will seek out the men to consult before breaking the forest or digging mines. They will say it is their duty to consult, so they seek out the men, the chiefs. In our language we used to call a true traditional chief Ohkemancan, a chief who follows the laws of his people, a sovereign and self-determined chief. The chiefs of today we call Ohkemanca-nuk – a false chief who follows the laws of another race of people, not sovereign and not self-determined. In fact, many times the local people are warned “not to talk politics in meetings or gatherings.”

In times past, the white man did not seek out Native women to consult with about important matters like buying land. If European men at that time treated their own women like property, like cows, why in hell would they come talk to Native women? In those times, even today, Native women are not respected. European men make Natives their servants. When the Spanish first came to our lands, the pope told them to invade the lands and take all their gold. After all, he said, they are not real people; they just look like us; they have no souls, and God says Christianize them or kill them. In fact, Canada still believes that Doctrine of Discovery. Court cases are won based on that doctrine.

We have a council of elderly women, spiritual ladies who have children, grandchildren and young girls as well. Native men support these councils.

When you move into the age group of 50, 60, 70 years old, it is a rite of passage into a Kici Anisnabek (elder per se). You become everyone’s teacher. You help everybody. You are the communities’ Grandmother and teacher of young men and women.

All young men and women are in training to become the new leaders and the keepers of lodges. One saying was “Young men, if you never learn anything from the women in your family, you know nothing.”

The role of a woman has nothing to do with being a wife or a mother but: who are you? Know who you are.

We don’t have that European “thing” where you are 18 years old, you leave home and you never have contact with your old people or your community. Then when you are old, sick and dying, you wonder why your children are not there for you.

My job is to teach my people what they have. Their identity. Who they are and what they are. I teach them the meaning of Ojibwa: fundamentally good people, couldn’t be bad if they tried. I take my job seriously. I teach the language and the values, the laws that are tied to that teaching.

We’re born with gifts. Everybody, little kids are wiser than a mature person, or even a bishop. I was taught to respect other religions. I might refer to religion to make a concept clear. I know the Catholic sermons and prayers. I was in a residential school for ten years, but I don’t criticize it. We sued the church for physical and sexual abuse. It is never completed. We have claims against the government for taking our children away.

 

SK:    It is still happening today, right?

HCQ: Yes, the stealing of our children is still happening but under a different name. The same practices continue and the same cruel practices.

SK:    The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, conveyed a message to the Pope and Church to ask for pardon for what they have done to the First Nations. Has that helped in any way?

HCQ: They say they’re sorry it happened. But our definition of an apology is different. Long ago, if you kill somebody, you go right up to the victim, right up to our face, right here, and go through a ceremony and give us gifts or whatever you are potentially able to give. If you can give a jacket, you give a jacket. If you can give financial help, you give financial help. If you can give programs and social services, then you would give that. An apology is nothing without the destruction of those cruel institutions that have tried to destroy our Native race. Knock down and label past Prime Ministers that have paid for the killing of Indians and their children.

For example, if you killed a son, then you give wood and water to the parents, whatever the son would have done. It is a lifelong obligation. But the Catholic Church does not scream over the ocean: “I’M SORRY.”

That is not good for us. Sorry does not mean anything to us in our language. There is no word for sorry in our language. When children are stolen, I look at it in this way: My children were taken away from me. The presiding judge said after I begged him to please don’t take my children away from me, he looked at me with contempt in his face and said, “You come from a family of criminals and you will never amount to anything.” I cried and begged some more. He slammed his hammer down and took my children away forever. My world was shattered, my mind shattered and I lost my sanity. I had a nervous breakdown. My babies were gone.

I know the newcomers, the immigrants of my land, think we are stupid people. In defense of the laws and behaviours of mainstream society, the immigrants say, “I never took your children away; it wasn’t me so why should I apologize?” Well I say society people could have said “Give those children back – it’s not right to take a child from its mother’s arms.” It’s against God’s laws – only barbaric people would steal children and abuse and kill them.  Society did not do an outcry. The immigrants joined right in and took in foster children, adopted our children and changed their names. I say an apology is not worth anything. Stop taking our children now, let us work out how to decolonize ourselves and at the same decolonize yourselves. You’re a messed-up society.

 

SK:    If you would like to include something written by you as part of this interview, it would be nice. You write, don’t you?

HCQ: Yes, I write stories and I would like to publish my short stories and publish my MA [Master’s thesis]. Even though my tradition is oral. If you don’t know Native people’s demise orally and then try to help us, you can’t until you practice it… if you listen here in your ears and put it here in your heart and then live it the right way with kindness.

 

HCQ: My son was adopted out. They told him I was an alcoholic, a drunk. I think he believed them. But now in his 40s with a family and children, he wanted to find me. He found me one year ago, through Facebook. He didn’t know my name. He found my other son.

I wrote a thesis about this for my Master’s at the University of Saskatchewan. The title is “Damaged Children and Broken Spirits.” You can find it if you Google my name, Helen Cote, and the title of my thesis.

I lost four children. Two came back when they were 10 and 12, the other at 17 and then Darren at 41. I thought he died because he never found me. He wants me to meet his adopted parents, but I said I didn’t want to because if I did I could slap her, that is how I feel. But I won’t do that because of him. He is my son. I respect him.

Canadians – immigrants – should know you don’t take a mother’s children just because they’re not like you or because you think they’re poor. You don’t use an army to push those evil kinds of values. You just don’t do that. Like the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), to be precise. The priest came with the RCMP to help them remove children. Child welfare agencies still use the RCMP and city police to remove children from their homes.

My son was born in Winnipeg, and they took him from the hospital as a newborn. I dedicated my thesis, “Damaged Children and Broken Spirits,” to him, Desmond Cote, and to my other children. He changed his name. It is now Darren James.

 

SK:    Regarding traditional cultures and the environment, what direction is our Grandmother Earth and her Aboriginal peoples and traditions taking?

HCQ: Well I can speak just on my own life. I went to university to learn about these abusers, the State and the Catholic Church. My Dad told me to study both sides: my culture and the new peoples’ culture. You can’t just jump into fixing the environment. You must know who you are. My professor said, “You’re going to be an expert,” and I said, “How can I be an expert if I don’t know who I am?” So I asked my medicine man dad who I am. He told me my name, my purpose in life, and my strengths.

I am a teacher of my people. I am a Clan Mother and I am a traditional leader. Doing my thesis, studying our children and then those who kill and beat their own children. Even I wanted to understand where that comes from, and at the same time, I am learning through my dad and my professor. Now I know who I am!

Then I thought I should help Mother Earth, so I went on to get my PhD. And along comes Mother Earth and all her wild dog packs, moose and elk who are sick with chronic wasting disease. The animals have treaty rights. I am fighting for their treaty rights, too.

SK:    I have more questions. Is it okay? Do you have more time?

HCQ: I don’t mind. I like passing the message on. When I tell people a story, it is your responsibility, your duty to pass it on like smoke signals. It is going, it is going, and it goes a long way. You don’t need an official paper letting you pass it on. You have it from high up: a Clan Mother. (Ms. Quewezance smiles.)

 

SK:    What would you like to share with people regarding the Plant Kingdom, its importance and any changes therein?

HCQ: First, the plants are known as people; they have a culture and values of their own. They are smarter than us and can teach us many things. Plant people could protect us. Plants are not meant to be bought and sold. The way I do it, I like to choose one plant at a time. First, I learn about the trees: fir, spruce, Douglas, and tamarack trees. The other trees that are imported from other countries are no use to me.

I teach my children and grandchildren and other people who want to learn. I put out tobacco first and honour the tree. We believe the trees are our grandfathers. Science has backed us out on that one, we have the same DNA as a tree and the trees are good parents. We look. We learn together. We find a spruce tree, I pick spruce gum, some spruce gum is shaped like marbles, some tear-shaped. It is fun. When I am picking spruce gum, I know it is strong medicine. I will do one thing only. I do not pick a bunch of different kinds of medicine. I pick only what I need.

If it is sage I want, then it is only sage I will pick that day. Now the young people come with many jars. It’s already picked and dried, sitting inside jars, grounded already. I don’t know how you can learn that way.

Like the Labrador tea by fir trees or moss on ground. They don’t have too much places to grow. They are considered weeds. They’re food for animals. Labrador tea is medicine and helps us with colds.

When animals get sick, they go to the bush. They lay down and eat the different types of grass. It is good to watch the animals, what grass are they eating when they get sick. They heal themselves and then go home. Animals were our teachers. Now we don’t have them. Too much crops. Too much pesticides.

They say organic is expensive. Well, “TOO BAD,” I say. They can’t filter out chemicals. We need sloughs, not ponds, but clean, wild sloughs. But people are dumping in these. They should be cleaned for wild life and plants. We need to help the plant life.

I am trying to teach my people that animals and Mother Earth have treaty rights and should also be protected by Canadian Laws because they are living breathing lives. We’re related to them. They are our brothers and sisters. They always say, “Out of sight, out of mind.” I don’t think you should think that way.

We all like to go to the bush. We all feel refreshed, and massaged. You need water for everything. We are the magic people and we can communicate with plants and water.

Mainstream should work with Native Peoples for water and everything. Stop saying, “I didn’t do that, why should I have to pay?” Lame excuses. We are all involved. I used to say, “Somebody ought to do something, not me.” Now I take risks.

Like those people taking our kids saying, “I didn’t do it, they gave them to me.” You’re lucky we gave you some land to rent while they didn’t want you in your country. Aboriginal people don’t ask for much. They just want to get along with you.

What I am trying to do right now is environmental law. I write for grants for wild dogs. Indian Affairs is not recognizing that animals have rights. You can do anything to them, to the land. It’s just a piece of land. I’ll just buy it and sell it. No emotional value. Just crops to sell. No responsibility to the land; after all, land is free and stolen. And how could you respect it, it’s not your land. No endearment for the land. That is the biggest hurdle I must go through.

If you have problems with animals, well, kill them. If you have problems with cancerous cells, well, kill them. That is not the Indigenous way. No relationship.

You come here and become a citizen. That is not good enough here. It can be a paradise again. You cannot just come here and live like you did in your country. You need to adapt to the ways of the Indigenous people here on Turtle Island.

I must try and change the attitudes of the immigrant people, the newcomers. Universities should have Indigenous cultures as a discipline all by itself. It is starting to be that way. Before it was as an inter-disciplinary, here and there.

The hiring committees must change. You must have Kici Anisnabek (elders) in every committee. Just because they don’t write anything down doesn’t mean they’re uneducated.

Attitudes must change.

Structures must change.

Birch tree chaga

With us, with plants, the lily comes from the stars. The lily can come and visit you any time. One day we woke up and there was a lily outside our door growing. It is hard to grow a lily, but they might come. Birch tree chaga grows on a tree that is going to die. At its death, it’s giving strong medicine to the people. We’ve been using those plants for a long time. We know them like people.

Some cures take a day. We don’t believe in miracle cures. We believe it takes respect and patience. We call it a way of life. People like learning about that life. But I don’t know why they don’t follow it.

Plants need water. They like music. They like talking, like corn cries when you hurt it. You can’t be mean to them.

But they need a place to grow. You have flowers; they need freedom, with plants growing around them. Weeds give food to a flower to let it grow large. But weeds get plucked.

SK:    Is the Ojibwe language being remembered?

HCQ: First, the Algonquin people were the biggest tribe in North Americas. It consists of 12 families and [their language] should become the language of the country. Like in Canada, English and French are not the founding languages. Aboriginal languages are above them. Everyone should learn to speak them. In my culture, people knew one sign language for all of them. But they knew many languages to trade from top to bottom of the world. They had the command words.

Not uncommon for Indigenous people to speak three languages. The language is very picturesque. One word can explain everything.

With one word you can see them all, the seed growers, transplanting, all the flowers – you can see them all in one word.

Ojibwe ought to be preserved. You can see the whole life situation of the flower by one word. Like the poppies that were born there, who put them there? Like the lily in my yard that appeared. They were born there and suddenly, they left. You must respect that it is visiting you.

Language is so important. We still speak our language. You cannot learn the Ojibwe way of life if you do not know the language.

 

Feather on Lake Michigan © Shanti Kumari, photographer

 

SK:    Is there any good thing that has come out of the residential school system?

HCQ: You mean “residential schools, slash, prisons.” It was not just a school, it was a prison. The [good] thing that came out of there is a determination to hang on to my culture and my language. My parents told me – my mom and dad and my grandfather and grandmother told me, “Never forget who you are.” So I hung on to those things. And my parents also showed me how to talk to God in my hardest times. So a lot of good things came out of that, out of my teachings.

 

SK:    Are the schools still open?

HCQ: They’re closed now, but the buildings are up yet.

 

SK:    Can you tell us about the eastern migration of the Ojibwe people?

HCQ: I can tell you about the Seven [Fires] Prophecies of the Ojibwe. Long ago, centuries ago, we used to live on the East coast up to the Great Lakes, Québec, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia… That was all Algonquin land. The Algonquins are made up of 13 families. Some have been killed off, exterminated by the newcomers. The prophets came walking out of the ocean and walked at different times.

First prophet came and told them they had to leave and move inland to a turtle-[shaped] island. The Megis shell would guide them. “You have to leave the area,” they said, “because you will be killed off,” because they saw that white-skinned people would kill them off not through war but through disease. Because we were here through time immemorable, I can’t give you a time or date. They told the Indians to go. Of course, the Indians laughed and said, “Ha! How could anyone kill us off? We’re healthy!” They didn’t even know diseases.

They said, “Brothers will fight brothers,” and the Indians laughed and said, “Ha! How can we kill our brothers? Ha!” The prophets were god-like people. They said, “You’ll kill your families.”

The last one that came had green/blue eyes. Coloured eyes. He looked funny because all people had brown eyes. The last ones who came were two brothers. But Natives usually listen to their prophets. They said, “Take your scrolls.” They had scrolls made of birch bark with pictographs, and belts with colours, and stories told on them with green for trees, blue for sky, red could mean blood or fire. Red is a sacred colour, too. I don’t know all the interpretations, you know. I am still young. I am still learning. I am still a student. There is no end to our learning. We’re never completed. It’s like the more you learn, the more you need to learn. Like you get dumber and dumber.

A lot migrated and travelled like this, and some stopped in Ontario and called themselves the Three Fires Society. Those are Algonquin People.

The Ojibwe language has not changed much in centuries. Centuries! Can you believe it? Just maybe the slang is different. You learn all the words I taught and you can talk to twelve different languages. You can communicate. I taught you sign language and how to talk slow with tenderness to children, a sweetheart, mother, even God, to plants and animals.

It’s good to learn the language. You’ll learn the secrets. You have to know the history and worldview before you can really learn the language. But I have to teach my own way. University people were trying to make me teach their way with the sounds, verbs – we don’t have verbs in our language. We don’t have words like goodbye, blessings, or fear of death. We didn’t have that. I have to do it my way or I won’t do it at all.

That’s what I got from residential schools: do it my way, or no way at all. My Ojibwe way. That is not egotistical. It means I have a right to teach the way my ancestors did. And for that, we are [considered] bad. I was a bad girl at school. I was bad. My mom was bad. But we were bad because we did it our way. So residential school made me more protective of our culture. I have to protect it. I have to teach it. But I did lose a lot.

 

SK:    What do you see for the children, the coming generations, the plants, animals, the earth?

HCQ: What do I see for the future?

DIVERSITREE, Peru Dyer, 2008. Produit par M U

SK:    Yes.

HCQ: I see for the future a lot of confusion and continued destruction of the planet, Mother Earth. That’s all of our Mother Earth, because we came from that and we are going back to that. We came naked and we go naked. We cannot own anything. So we cannot – did not – sell you the land.

People have to learn the way of life of the First People of this land, and you have to recognize it. You can’t get away from it. You have to recognize and learn it in order to reverse the destruction that is happening now.

So my name is “Woman Who Walks Two Roads.” The newcomers have to learn that there are two roads in life: the good road and the bad road. Just like there are two gods. The good god and the bad god, and each god and each road deserves respect.

You have to respect both of them equally or they will destroy you. The good god can destroy you just as much as the bad god can.

So the Ojibwe way of life can teach all of society now that there is a spiritual road and a technology road. The positive and the negative roads.

People must choose one of those roads. If we choose the technology road, we are going to destroy the Earth. It’s already destroying. We’re not going to live here more than one thousand years. But if society chooses the spiritual road, we can live on this earth a long time and the eighth prophecy fire will light up. If we choose the spiritual road, we can live here a long time. Not we, but the human species.

But it is a slower-paced way of life.

 

 

Note: Ms. Cote Quewezance’s Master’s thesis can be found at

https://ecommons.usask.ca/handle/10388/etd-06052008-100527

 

 

1 Editorial note: Ms. Cote Quewezance refers to European settlers and colonizing forces in Canada as “newcomers” and “immigrants” in her interview.

 

 

 

Tango class in the park © Serena Sial


Montréal Serai
editor Nilambri Ghai had the opportunity to interview Serena Sial about her recent experiences in Russia.

M.S. Serena, you have achieved a lot within a short period of time: a degree in Engineering from Concordia University, a degree in environmental studies from York University, a degree in law, admission to the bar in 2010, and a promising career in the Department of Justice up by Parliament Hill!

But you gave all this up to travel, to teach English online to adults, and to explore new horizons. Recently you have been in Russia, and are going back in March. What is it that inspires you to make the kind of choices you make? What is it that attracts you to Russia? I am asking because there is little today that you read about Russia that is positive, from the doping scandal in the Olympics to the carnage in Ghouta, where Russia is fighting with Syria and Iran not far from a coalition force led by the US! It is an international crisis waiting to explode into “chaos” – a word bandied about dangerously by the world’s most powerful. Tied to this are multiple investigations into Russian collusion, hacking, leaking of documents, and propaganda – a world gone mad over the race for “impenetrable” nuclear weapons.

It would be difficult to imagine a more “holier than thou” approach demonizing one side as being all “bad,” while idolizing the other as being all “good.” And no attempt is being made to identify any shared needs, locating a meeting point that brings us back to our essentials as human beings. I am looking forward to hearing about your love for Russia, and your interaction with its people.

S.S.: I’m a curious person. I enjoy exploring what is unknown to me or confronting something unexpected. A certain element of uncertainty and adventure motivates me. My appreciation for Russia and Russian culture came about this way. Through my work, I began to teach English online to several students in Russia. I realized how little I knew about their culture, and how few Russian people I had really ever met. I was immediately struck by the warmth, humour and sincerity of my students. I realized that, but somehow, I hadn’t expected that. They were also curious about me – wanting to know about my Canadian and Indian backgrounds. Many of these relationships developed into genuine friendships, and I think it was their kindness and energy that inspired me to visit Russia.

Despite the portrayals of Russia in mainstream Western media, I think most of us are well aware of, and have been exposed to the beauty and power of Russian culture – for example, literature greats like Dostoevsky and Chekhov, or the deeply moving music of Dmitri Shostakovich. I also find the Russian language to be very beautiful; it has an inherent poetic rhythm. Russian culture is full of soul, and I think that in the midst of the messages we hear today about Russia, it is easy for these impressions to become overshadowed. A friend and former student, Sergey K. from St. Petersburg, had this to say about the portrayal of Russia in the Western media (paraphrased):

“It’s not a gentle portrayal of Russia in Western media. I read about a study conducted where they calculated that [a well-known Western media news source] made 400 mentions of Russia and 399 were negative. Of course, you hope people can understand that no place can be completely bad, that this is just a slant. That’s the reality of propaganda: it’s not always about telling lies but about telling facts from just one side. We have the same situation in Russia. To have the possibility of challenging these opinions, you need to educate yourself, you need to have access to information. I can read in English, so it’s possible for me, but of course not everyone has this privilege.” 

M.S.: I am reminded of something I read a while ago: “The first step towards becoming more informed is to avoid seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising ‘foreign’ governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.” [The Guardian, August 2, 2016][1]

S.S.: I think Sergey’s comments relate well to this. When I stayed in Russia, I was amazed by the diversity within Russia. It’s such an enormous country with borders touching so many others. The extent of diversity seems endless to me. There is beautiful throat-singing music that comes from the regions of Russia that border Mongolia (for example, the musical group, Huun-Huur-Tur). I have a dream to travel to the eastern-most parts of Russia, cities like Vladivostok, where you can take a cruise boat to Korea or Japan.

Once I saw a young woman at my school in Saint Petersburg whom I immediately took as being from India. When I asked her where in India she was from, she responded in Russian that she was from Ufa, Russia. It was a learning experience for me!

I also learned about Georgia while there – a beautiful, small country bordering Russia to the south, where I later lived for 8 months. I was prompted to go to Georgia by Russian friends who described it as an oasis in Eastern Europe, full of green mountains, friendly people and delicious food. I would add that Tbilisi, the capital, is an artistic and fashionable city and the Georgian language is completely original – unlike any language you hear anywhere else in the world. Although both Russia and Georgia are part of the former USSR, I was impressed how completely distinct are the cultures, landscapes and languages of the two countries.

Another student, Irina K. from Yekaterinburg, wanted to share this story about Russia (paraphrased):

My grandmother and grandfather lived in the North Caucasus. We lived in Ural. From September to May we studied in school, and when the summer started, we would go to our grandparents. They lived in their own house with big fruit trees and with a lake behind the garden.

We took sunbaths, we ate a lot fruits and fresh vegetables and berries, [and] we helped our grandparents, of course. We looked after animals like ducks, pigs, cows, chickens. That was an interesting experience for us because we lived close to nature, we became healthy and happier, and my grandparents taught us so much. 

In my opinion, most of the people from Russia think like me. We are friendly people, we want to have good friendships with all people, from all over the world. We are not politicians. We have a big culture and a great heritage from our ancestors that is so important for our country. Our nation is strong, and all the cultures [within Russia] support each other. We have a large territory with many natural resources – we are proud of this land.

M.S.: What about life in a big city? Were you ever scared since you placed yourself in a new country, a new culture, a new language?

Canals of St. Petersburg  © Serena Sial

 

S.S.: Life in Saint Petersburg, where I lived for 3 months, is not unlike life in any big city in the world. I lived downtown in one of the central areas of Saint Petersburg. It was a busy neighbourhood with great cafes, restaurants and shopping, all within walking distance. Saint Petersburg is a city of canals and bridges, lovely to stroll through. My apartment was renovated – cozy and comfortable by any standard. During those days, I was studying Russian at a local university. The university has a great language program for foreigners, where I met interesting people from all over the world. My classmates were from Greece, Poland, Colombia, Mexico, and I also often bumped into students from different parts of Africa and the Middle East. I quite loved the curious reality of all of us trying to converse with each other in Russian.

Scene outside my apartment  © Serena Sial

 

I travelled to school each day by metro. The metro systems I encountered in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are amongst the most efficient I’ve ever used. In all my time there, I never waited more than a few minutes for a train. Moscow is known for having some of the most beautiful metro stations in the world, though I never got to visit them myself. On my days off, I enjoyed excursions to the symphony, ballet, or just walking through city parks. One of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg is the Russian Museum where I could wander for hours. The city is full of culture and charm and very liveable for a foreigner. People are kind and helpful. I felt as safe there as anywhere.

Musicians playing outside the metro  © Serena Sial

 

While in Russia, a friend from Japan came to visit me. We travelled together to Novosibirsk to visit a student of mine, Alex K., who, until that time I had only ‘met’ online for our lessons.  Alex invited me to his home with so much sincerity and expectation. I was honoured to make the trip from Saint Petersburg across more than 3,000 kilometers and 4 time zones to meet him and his loving family: his wife, Lyudmila, and their two-year-old daughter, Rita. Being invited into their home was really special for me. When we had dinner together, I remember a moment where I was overcome by how natural it was, how safe I felt, the feeling of family that they shared with me, and the almost surreal fact that this was occurring in Siberia, in the middle of Russia! In the span of two days, Rita was calling my Japanese friend ‘uncle,’ and we had solidified a bond that I will cherish always.

Sergey K, another student, has also become a valued friend of mine. It turns out that Sergey, a Russian man from a small town in Siberia, and I, from the suburbs of Montréal, have much in common, including our desire to travel, our musical interests and our love for each others’ languages. Sergey responded to my visit to Russia by organizing a visit of his own to Canada.  Shortly after I returned to Montréal from St. Petersburg, I was touring with Sergey and his friend Dimitri through the streets of Montréal, Ottawa and Toronto. The awe and curiosity I had felt in Russia, they were able to experience as they explored Canada for the first time. That’s the power of human connection; our bonds inspire us to learn about and understand each other beyond the stories in the media.

M.S.: Tell me about your upcoming project in March.

S.S.: It’s a dream project. A few months ago, I knew I wanted to return to Russia ideally to volunteer. After randomly sending out queries to almost a dozen organizations, the first one that responded was for a teaching opportunity in a rural community outside Moscow. The main concept of the community is to provide orphans in Russia a holistic, safe and community-driven environment where they can develop. Orphans are invited to reside in the home of one of several foster families that live in the community. As a volunteer, I’ll live in a home with one of these families and teach English at the local school. It’s also asked that I assist in sustaining the community: working in the kitchen, helping in the garden or with other odd jobs. I’ll have the opportunity to spend time with the children, to learn about foster parenting, and to practice my Russian language skills. It all sounds wonderful to me – I’m so thankful for this opportunity.

M.S.: Some final words?

S.S.: The people I know in Russia are very dear to me. Through them, I have come to feel sentiments of love for their land and heritage. I wish for them to have opportunities in Russia to realize their dreams and prosper, just as I know they wish that for me in Canada.

 

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/02/russian-propaganda-western-media-manipulation

 

 

The South Asian Film Festival of Montréal (SAFFM), launched by the Kabir Cultural Centre in 2011, has grown year by year in scope and reach. This year it runs over two weekends: October 27-29 and November 3-5.

http://www.saffm.centrekabir.com/en/

 

Veena Gokhale spoke to Dipti Gupta, member of the programming committee. Gupta teaches at Dawson College in the Department of Cinema and Communications. She curated the SAFFM with Karan Singh, a Montréal-based writer and filmmaker.

 

V.G.   The films chosen for this year look really interesting and innovative, taking on various issues. They include short films and feature-length movies. What, for you, are the highlights?

D.G.   We have a diaspora panel with four Montréal-based, South Asian filmmakers (Eisha Marjara, Arshad Khan, Karan Singh and Ameesha Joshi) and one from San Francisco (Pallavi Somusetty). Our aim is to encourage and engage with the diaspora filmmakers, and start the conversation on the kinds of films they have been making, what more can be made, and the stories that are part of this community. I hope we learn more about their journey.

We are celebrating the work of Ali Kazimi, a distinguished filmmaker based in Toronto who has made some very important documentaries. We will chronicle his work and show one of his latest films – Random Acts of Legacy.

We have award-winning films, and films that are premiere presentations in Canada. The wide range of stories include refugee camp uncertainties and longings in Northern Pakistan in A Walnut Tree, observations on the Maoist movement in the mountains of Nepal in Kalo Pothi, deep insight into North American immigration in From the Land of Gandhi, and a film that celebrates colour but is shot in pristine black and white, A Billion Colour Story. Also on the program are films like A Ballad of Maladies, which captures the struggles of artists and their survival in highly militarized Kashmir, and Mukti Bhavan (Hotel Salvation), a comedy about family and relationships, the rigidity of religion and the demands of blind belief, while debating life and death.

Some of the Festival’s bolder films include Lipstick Under My Burkha, the story of four women who attempt secret acts of rebellion to break the monotony of their lives. The film attempts to shift the male gaze in cinema and was censored for several months, finally receiving clearance from the Censor Board in India. There are also films sponsored by Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival’s Global Initiative, focusing on LGBTQ issues in and around South Asian communities: Transindia, Normalcy and Any Other Day, along with Escaping Agra.

 

V.G.   I noticed quite a few LGBTQ films featured this year. Can you speak about them? Was it a conscious choice to include LGBTQ films?

D.G.   I beg to disagree. Of the total 19 screenings, we have only 3 short films that speak to LGBTQ issues. Our aim is to bring in a variety of issues, and we like to explore themes that are underrepresented or have had no visibility in the past years. There are several artists/filmmakers in South Asia who are focusing on marginal communities and identities that had been taboo in the past, including LGBTQ, migrants’ stories and stories of people who have not been part of the mainstream. If you look at our program, you will see a lot of these voices represented.

 

V.G.   One of the films you are opening with is Manto. You are screening an extract from this bio-pic about the Indo-Pakistani author Saadat Hasan Manto. He is a towering figure in South Asia, but audiences here may not know him. Could you tell us who he was and why he is important?

D.G.   I read Sadat Hasan Manto, an Indo-Pakistani writer and playwright, during my tweens and was fascinated by the strength of his writing. His story “Toba Tek Singh” still resonates in my psyche. Here, the author addresses the fact that in 1947, when India and Pakistan became independent, the people in both these nations continued to remain slaves to prejudice, religious fanaticism, barbaric acts and inhumanity. Sadly, to this day, we are embroiled in the same tensions and we witness this everywhere.

When I heard that Nandita Das was making a film on Manto, I was intrigued and wrote to her and her company. They immediately replied and sent us the short clip that we are presenting. We hope to show the full-length feature film next year.

Manto is a statement and represents an ethos. Today, in a world where free speech has become a privilege and is no longer a basic right, Manto speaks to the core of this debate. Thus we hope to start our festival introducing this idea to our community members. SAFFM would like to be a forum where free speech is celebrated and encouraged.

 

V.G.   The second film on the opening night is the Cannes prize-winning Cinema Travellers, described as “a journey with the traveling cinemas of India.” You say on your website that distinguished filmmaker Rock Demers will be in attendance. What’s the link between the film and Demers?

D.G.   We are very fortunate to have Rock Demers inaugurate our festival and do the talkback for Cinema Travellers. It is a story about exhibiting films in the remote villages in India where there is no access to theatre or cable television, and people watch films once a year!

Rock is an important producer of this province and of this country, and has been a huge fan and supporter of films from India. I also think that he knows more about Indian cinema than many people from India in Montréal.

In 1999, Rock produced Hathi (Elephant) directed by Philippe Gautier. When I saw that film, I was spellbound by the beautiful story of a mahout and his elephant. It was the premiere, and Rock talked about his love for India and Indian films. This registered with me, and I got to know him through some of my connections in the field.

Through the years, we have had several exchanges with Rock and learnt from him. Karan and I interviewed him in 2013 for our short film At Home in the World, where he talks about the kind of films he has watched from India, and their directors.

We felt that Rock would be the best person to talk about Cinema Travellers, given his background as a producer in Québec and the struggles he has gone through to circulate the work he has produced.

 

V.G.   There are quite a few films by women film directors, and not all of them by middle-class women, as one would expect. It was heartening to note, for example, that there is a film by Manasi Deodhar, who lives in a small village in Maharashtra. Do you think it’s easier now for women to make films in South Asia?

D.G.   Today, with changing technologies and greater awareness, I hope that the landscape is changing, and we have seen this. I agree that people in cities had/have more access, but I believe that there is strength in every sector, and everyone has a story. Today, a lot is being done on extremely low budgets. We received this film through a FilmFreeway submission.[1] This is a perfect platform for everyone to submit, and creates a kind of a level playing field. Both Karan and I choose offbeat themes and are keen to introduce filmmakers who are not that well known.

 

V.G.   You are taking some of the films to Chicoutimi this year. How did that come about? I would imagine most of the films are subtitled only in English. Would this be a problem to taking the festival around in Québec?

D.G.   Kabir Centre is always willing to explore presenting events in other cities in Québec. For this we need a local partner who can take care of the logistics and who can mobilize an audience. In Chicoutimi, we have Bibliothèques de Saguenay in that role, and this is the reason why we have been able to think of taking a mini-version of the Festival there.

French subtitles are very desirable for a location such as Chicoutimi, and we are planning to take some movies that already have French subtitles.

V.G.   You decided to charge an entrance fee this year, which I think is a good idea. What was the reason for this change?

D.G.   Running a festival such as SAFF Montréal involves a lot of expenses. In addition to resources that can be allotted from Kabir Centre’s own reserves, the board members are exploring the help that can be obtained from various funding agencies, donors in the community and local businesses. Ticket revenues are a small part of the solution needed for making the Festival financially viable.

 

V.G.   There is a lot of emphasis on after-film screening discussions at SAFFM. Why is that?

D.G.   I have always believed that any art form – cinema, theatre, painting, literature, mainstream or underground – only comes to its fruition after one shares it, discusses it. It is in the multiple interpretations and conversations that we reach the depth of its true expression. We hope that the talkbacks with the audience, with the filmmakers in attendance, with film scholars also present can push the conversations above and beyond what we see on screen. Festivals such as ours enliven local life. They are an attempt to start multiple dialogues, create understanding and build bridges across communities.

 

V.G.   How would you describe the evolution of SAFFM?

D.G.   Festivals always take time to take shape, and funding is always a challenge. It is never easy to find a permanent place to screen the films, procure the rights for them and invite filmmakers. This takes a lot of time and effort. Karan and I have been working on this for over 10 months.

Before 2011, Kabir Centre used to screen interesting movies as part of its film club. The decision to organize the screenings into a festival format was taken in 2011 in the context of the Year of India in Canada. In the initial years, the Indian High Commission helped us with copies of films that they had and also with auditorium rental. As the choice for the films expanded beyond old classics or current Bollywood films, we stopped approaching them.
Some years we have had a specific theme. For example, in 2011, we presented three films based on Rabindranath Tagore’s writings, as it was his 150th birth anniversary. In 2012, the theme was “Through a woman’s lens;” in 2013, “100 years of Indian Cinema;” and so on. In 2016, for the first time we invited submissions from independent filmmakers through web-based FilmFreeway, so our presentation was a combination of submitted and invited films. In 2017, we are continuing the same format, and have added awards for the best short and best feature films.

With time our vision has strengthened, and we have a better idea of what we wish to bring to the Montréal audience. Our attempt is to get a wide range of films, and each year we are slowly trying to reach more filmmakers.

The Festival is meant to be a window into the dynamic world of cinema from South Asia. South Asian cinema is not homogenous, and is in many languages. I often see that the language aspect is lost in translation, and the subtitles do not do justice. This is always a challenge during programming. We hope that as the festival strengthens, we will be able to attract more representatives who speak multiple South Asian languages.

SAFFM is a platform for artists to not only submit their work, but also be present in person. We have guest filmmakers who are travelling from South Asia and other parts of the world to join us this year for audience talkbacks and panel discussions. Our attempt is to encourage intercultural dialogue through our choice of films.

 

[1] https://filmfreeway.com/

 

Hōshanō:[1] how to portray an invisible enemy

Hideki Kawashima

An interview with curator Amandine Davre and artists Michel Huneault and Ai Ikeda[2]

After the triple catastrophe in the Tohoku region of Japan in March 2011 – the tsunami, the earthquake and the ensuing explosion of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant – curator Amandine Davre, who had already been interested in Japanese art for a number of years, decided to focus on the representation of the nuclear imaginary.

For this project, Hōshanō: Art and Life in a Post Fukushima World, her goal was to open a dialogue of divergent perspectives between Japan and Québec, where (like anywhere else today), the danger of radioactivity remains a silent, intangible presence.

The exhibition shows the work of four artists: Ai Ikeda, who became interested in radioactive contamination and its effects on the human body after making a return trip to Japan (from Montréal) three days after the tsunami and Fukushima incident occurred on March 11, 2011; Stephen H. Kawai, whose mobiles representing atoms and radioactive particles portray the common ground between art, technology and science; Hideki Kawashima, also based in Montréal, whose installation invites visitors to open their eyes and see into the darkness; and Michel Huneault, who transitioned from academic and humanitarian work into art, in his quest to find more effective forms of representation to convey the insights of his fieldwork to a broader audience. Huneault had documented the oil explosion following the train derailment in Lac Mégantic in 2013.[3] Not long before that, he had travelled to the region of Tohoku in 2012, and decided to return there in 2015-2016. Eight of his photos and the video 10 minutes at Tohoku can be seen in the show.

Stephen Kawai, Atomique
Stephen Kawai, Atomique

Can you talk to us about the title of the exhibit?

Amandine Davre: Hōshanō is the Japanese word for radioactivity, but it is like a taboo term in Japan. It is too painful to use, except in the context of a public-awareness campaign designed for its shock value. I decided to include it in the title because I wanted it to retain its secret, hidden quality for visitors, like radioactivity: invisible.

How did the exhibition take shape?

Amandine Davre: I put out a call to artists at Concordia University, with the help of Hideki Kawashima. I was already in touch with him and Ai Ikeda. That went well, but once my dossier was ready, many galleries refused the project. My topic wasn’t commercial enough; it was too political, too difficult, until Bettina Forget from Visual Voice Gallery, a space that highlights the connections between art and science, opened her doors to such a difficult topic.

In parallel, I organized an international symposium at the Université de Montréal, about the history, the aesthetics, the imagined views [l’imaginaire] of the nuclear, which concluded with a visit to the exhibition on the anniversary of the triple catastrophe.

Nuclear aesthetics? Could you please clarify?

Amandine Davre: There is the question of how to make radioactivity visible, of representing it, of rendering it in a way that it can be more readily acknowledged. I was drawn to study censorship in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ways in which artists dealt with it. And then there is also the idea of the atomic as awe-inspiring [le sublime atomique]: the mushroom cloud, for instance, was at the same time magnificent and horrible.

And just how do the artists in the exhibition address these issues?

Ai Ikeda, Sievertian Human – Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment (2017)

Amandine Davre: In Ai Ikeda’s piece entitled Sievertian Human – Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment (2017), the numbers you see on the left indicate the time it takes for radioactivity to disappear (from the human body): 24,000 years after the person has died. Kawashima’s installation, 60 seconds – Extinction (2017), on the other hand, is able to recreate, with the lights off, the particles that our eyes do not detect but that nonetheless surround us.

Michel Huneault: I was on the coast of Tohoku, and it was a perfect spring day to do photography – sunny, with a nice breeze. It was a golden hour on a seaside landscape in the empty town of Odaka, and I had almost forgotten about radiation when the speakers that play music in public spaces in many towns in Japan started playing tango music. To no one. That’s when I realized that the invisible danger had hidden behind the beauty of the landscape. Now how do you represent that? I didn’t want to dwell on disaster porn. I wanted to make people feel what I felt, to recreate that sense of place.

Michel Huneault – Nature takes over an abandoned carwash in the Odaka district exclusion zone, approximately 15 km from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (2012)
Michel Huneault – One thousand origami cranes, for best wishes and good luck, facing the zone devastated by the tsunami and being rebuilt in Onagawa (2015)

 

When you experience that sense of place, your understanding deepens, and it puts you in a better position to contribute more relevant solutions for the future.

 

Michel Huneault – A Chinese quince tree (known as ‘Karin’ in Japan) in the Odaka district exclusion zone, approximately 15 km away from Fukushima Daiichi (2015)

Could you talk to us about the image of the quince tree?

Michel Huneault: While the scope of this work extends beyond Fukushima in order to cover 300 kilometres of the coast in the Tohoku region, that image is from a place within the exclusion zone, 15 km away from Fukushima. I was driven to the tree because it is so unusual to come across such a well-kept tree with fruit on the ground. It was bizarre to know that people kept coming to take care of their house and their garden, but they were not going to pick the fruit, or eat it…

I remember the expression on the faces of some people who were fishing in the exclusion zone, when they witnessed my surprise that they were fishing. They just looked at me as if to say “What difference does it make? This is where we live and it’s everywhere around us,” as if they had decided to force their minds to forget about it.

This brings us to two of Ai Ikeda’s pieces, which focus precisely on memory.

Ai Ikeda, Atomic-ity #1 and Atomic-ity #2

Ai Ikeda: After Fukushima, it became clear to me that there was a problem with memory in Japan (oblivion of the past), and that this had opened social wounds about the nuclear past of Japan. In my recent art works, the representation of memory is used to question and rethink new meanings about the nuclear imagination.

Persistence of Memory Radiation Exposure Remains, for example, reminds us that despite the process of historical repression in the face of the anxiety of the past, the impact of irradiation on the skin and biological tissues persists. And even after the body becomes ashes and dust, the nuclear materials remain.

Is this “problem with memory” and “historical repression” in Japan behind the fact that neither of the two artists from the Japanese community in the exhibition is currently living in Japan?

Amandine Davre: I believe that assessing this issue while living in it has to be very difficult. On the other hand, I was looking for a view from the distance, an external look, one that would be liberated from any form of censorship or control. When I’ve spoken to friends in Japan, I’ve realized that they don’t have access to the same information.

Ai Ikeda: As I was beginning to gradually form a more informed understanding of modern and contemporary art, philosophy, and critical theory, the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in Japan in March 2011. The disaster changed my perspective, and I realized that my perception of Japanese society and international relations and politics was becoming more critical. It became clear to me that not only could art be used to affect people and inspire them to help others, it also had the power to stimulate social debate and even lay the groundwork for social change.

Can you talk to us about the physiological aspects you portray in your piece, Internal Radiation?

Ai Ikeda, Internal Radiation Exposure – X-raying

Ai Ikeda: One of the effects of radiation exposure is chromosomal abnormalities or aberrations, which provoke the chromosomes to connect erratically or split repeatedly, causing illness such as cancers. This work makes visible the world of the inner radiation exposure, by evoking a microscopic observation of a specimen prepared on a glass slide on an X-ray view box.

Is this a post-Fukushima world?

Amandine Davre: For me there is indeed an after-Fukushima and it is important to take it into consideration when making decisions. I borrowed French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of a civilizational catastrophe, because that is to me what described Fukushima. I would like it to be a lesson for the whole world.

 

Hideki Kawashima, 60 seconds – Extinction (2017)

The exhibition runs from March 9 to April 15, 2017 at the Visual Voice Gallery (Belgo building).
372 rue Ste-Catherine O., Montréal
(514) 878-3663
http://www.visualvoicegallery.com/portfolio/current/

On April 13, artist Stephen H. Kawai is scheduled to participate in a symposium at Concordia University, exploring the influence of art on academic research.


[1] Radioactivity

[2] The interview was conducted in French (with Amandine Davre) and English (with Michel Huneault and Ai Ikeda). For logistical reasons, the latter answered our questions in writing.

[3] https://www.schiltpublishing.com/publishing/authors/michel-huneault/

 

Montréal Serai editor, Nilambri Ghai, interviewed Jeevan Bhagwat, a young Toronto-based poet, co-founder of the Scarborough Poetry Club, author of The Weight of Dreams and winner of the Monica Ladell Prize for Poetry (2003 and 2005) and the Conscience Canada Art/New Media contest (2011). Jeevan is currently working on a novel, and is also featured on a City of Toronto Map highlighting verses written by poets from the community. The interview follows his poems: “Lone Gull” and “The Land of Plenty.”

 

Public domain

Lone Gull

No one knew you

not even your name,

no one seemed to care

that, day after day

you would sit outside

in the unforgiving cold,

hand extended in a pleading gesture

asking for alms

without words.

 

The suits passed you by

unacknowledged,

your disheveled hair

casting shadows on your face

invisible

to their sightless eyes.

 

When the ambulance came

that December day

and took your frozen body

away,

the street corner seemed

more empty,

a space with no face

to remember you by,

 

you,

a lone gull

tired of hovering

just beyond

our collective conscience.

 

 

The Land of Plenty

In the land of plenty

stomachs groan

to symphonies of want

outside the food banks

that cannot wean

the hungry

on hope alone.

 

Politicians play saviours

and smile for the cameras,

make campaign promises

they cannot keep,

then vote themselves

a wage increase

on the backs of the

working poor.

 

In the land of plenty

single mothers swim

in rivers of debt,

watch their children struggle

to stay afloat

on welfare cheques

that cannot buy

a sail to hoist their dreams.

 

In the land of plenty

the poor slip through

a conscience cracked,

become forgotten

to the fortunate few,

become the faces of me

and you.

 

M.S.    What has been your experience as a founding member of the local poetry club? What kind of support have you received from the community?

J.B.     The Scarborough Poetry Club was founded in October 2015 by Anna Nieminen and myself. The experience of bringing together poets of diverse cultural backgrounds and different voices to share, learn and grow in a welcoming and supportive atmosphere has been wonderful. The Club meets regularly on the first Friday of every month between 6:30 to 8:00 pm at the Toronto Public Library’s Agincourt Library branch in Scarborough. Due to some extensive renovations at the branch last year, we were temporarily displaced and had to find a more suitable location to hold our meetings. Fortunately, one of the Club’s members, Sheila White, generously offered to host the meetings at her mother’s house and so we had the challenge of accommodating everyone’s schedule. Although some members could not participate as usual, we had a strong turnout and the poetry kept on waxing.

Both Anna and I firmly believe that Scarborough’s poets and artists have long been under-represented in the mainstream arts community, and we wanted to change that. The Club allows poets to have a place from where they can get their voices heard and network with other writers. Scarborough is blessed with a myriad of cultures, and we wanted to hear what they have to say and learn about how they can contribute to their community.

The response to the Club has been amazing! We have over 25 affiliated members, and the membership seems to be growing. We are also generously supported by the Agincourt Library branch and often promoted by Scarborough Arts through their media channels. The feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive, which speaks to the need to provide such an outlet for Scarborough poets.

I have lived in Scarborough almost all my life. My love for poetry started when I was in grade 4 and attending Danforth Gardens Public School. I was always in the library reading as many poetry books as I could find, and the librarian, Mrs. Earnshaw, encouraged me to write poems, which she would then display on the walls. Since those humble beginnings, I have been published in many literary journals/websites across Canada, the U.S. and internationally. My poetry book, The Weight of Dreams, was published by IN Publications in 2012.

M.S.    What kind of future do you think is there for young poets?

J.B.     I think it’s a great time to be a young poet. Toronto and the GTA are blessed with many venues where poetry readings are being held, poetry slams are going on, and poetry workshops are happening. Technology has also impacted the way poetry is being shared and digested. Even in our public schools, poetry is making a comeback and many aspiring young poets are getting the chance to express themselves in the classroom.

M.S.    Tell us about the poets you know and have met: the unheard voices.

J.B.     As a co-founder of the Club, I have been fortunate to meet many poets at different stages of their writing careers. Many of our members are serious about their craft and work diligently to polish their poems. Teresa Hall is a poet whose lyricism and insight culminates in her wonderful nature poetry. Sheila Bello, another Club member, is a courageous poet who is not afraid to tackle difficult issues such as racism and inequality. Reginald Rego, the senior member of our Club, astounds me with his deeply religious poetry.

M.S.    Tell us about the poets and authors who have influenced your writing.

J.B.     I have always been inspired by the poetry of John Keats and Pablo Neruda. But I am equally drawn to Canadian poets such as Patrick Lane and Roo Borson. I tend to gravitate to poets who exhibit a love of nature and beauty in all their myriad manifestations. With respect to authors, I love the expressive quality of Anne Michaels’ books and the penetrating insights inherent in Alice Munro’s works.

M.S.    The three poems that you have submitted reflect urban life and Toronto streets and parks. What are some other topics of interest to you?

J.B.     When it comes to poetry I don’t subscribe to any particular aesthetic. I believe that poets have a moral responsibility to speak up for those whose own voices have been suppressed or altogether silenced. Poets need to hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions or inaction. Social issues like homelessness, racism, inequality need to be addressed in poetry. But there is also beauty in the world, and poets need to communicate that too. I am particularly interested in how human beings interact with and understand the environment and each other. There is much insight to be gleaned from this.

M.S.    You are working on a novel. Tell us about it. Do you have a publisher? When do you expect it to be published?

J.B.     Yes, I have just recently finished writing my first novel. It is a coming of age story about a young woman who loses her mother in childhood and carries the weight of that loss for many years. A large part of the novel takes place in Scarborough and addresses issues such as the environment, death, grief and love. I’m in the revision stage now, so I haven’t sent it out to any publisher yet. Hopefully, I’ll get it published by next year.

M.S.    What do you think about the poetry map of Toronto? We couldn’t find your poem on Agincourt from the map, since it did not have a search link. How often is the map updated? Are there poems written in other languages as well?

J.B.     The Poetry Map is a great idea first put forward by the then Toronto Poet Laureate George Elliot Clarke. It allows visitors to the site to click on various “spots” to see which part of the city inspired or played a big part in the writing of the presented poem. I’m not sure how often the Map is updated, or if there are poems in other languages on it. My poem “Autumn Descends” is located over the Agincourt area on the Map.

M.S.    Thank you, Jeevan. Good luck with your poems and the new novel.


www.torontopoetry.ca

An article on Jeevan in InsideToronto.com

 

Mexican filmmakers Luis Ernesto Nava and Keisdo Shimabukuro, who are part of the Tres Gatos collective, have devoted the last ten years to understanding and documenting human migrations through Mexico, the largest migration corridor in the world according to the World Bank. After producing thousands of hours of footage and the ground-breaking feature documentary Entre serpientes y escaleras: los desaparecidos [Between Snakes and Ladders: the disappeared], they came up with the idea of going one step further: creating collective murals in the shelters scattered along the route, where the migrants could tell their stories. In their own terms.

These are stories of people escaping the extreme poverty and the violence that has devastated Central America, one of the most neglected and abandoned fronts of the Cold War. The needs of these largely armed, often threatened populations, many of whom are orphaned and hungry, have been ignored not only by their own governments, but also by international organizations as well as the United States. “America” here not only plays the role of a safe-enough, promising-enough land; it is also a key actor in creating the conditions that have led to their desperate desire to escape.

The murals have triggered unimagined reactions, as landmarks for the streaming masses of people who have been forced to abandon their homes.

I was here – with artists

What has been your motivation for documenting these stories?

Luis Ernesto Nava (LEN): Curiosity. It’s owing to curiosity. I believe that you have a responsibility to your findings, and that curiosity implies a commitment to tell the stories you come across, without making any concessions whatsoever. Besides that, personally, as a father I wanted to lead by example rather than avoid doing “dangerous” things because I had a daughter. I decided instead to redouble my efforts and go for it.

Keisdo Shimabukuro (KS): On a personal level, well, my father is a migrant. He fled from Japan to Peru after WW II, and later on he settled in Mexico. When I started doing fieldwork, I felt tremendous empathy towards the people who were coming to Mexico, and that led me to reflect on many things I hadn’t thought much about: I am Mexican, but I look Japanese (or Chinese, or Korean or…), so I can understand how it feels to be discriminated against, to live between two worlds. Mexicans tend to love foreigners, to worship foreigners, as long as they have fair skin and blue eyes.

In the beginning, we thought we would do a documentary about young migrants, about teenagers and children, but soon we realized we couldn’t address that specific topic without talking about gang violence in Central America, the intervention of the US in the region, women, the disappeared, refugees. So here we are.

Part of the existing wall

Why are Central Americans leaving home?

LEN: Poverty and violence, hunger and war. A movement of that scale (almost 2 million people annually, according to the Federal Government[i]) and marked by such perils and hardships can only be explained as a matter of survival.

KS: In Central America, in a context where organized crime is the most viable economic alternative, you can’t advise kids against joining a gang: you are talking about their father, their cousin, their brother, their best friend. Some of them understand that this path is killing them, but there is not much choice. Either you join them or you endure their threats. Or you leave.

LEN: When crime is the most lucrative activity, your father will teach you how to use a weapon as a means of survival, and the cycle (which has replaced the agricultural and production cycles) is really hard to break.

KS: And sometimes you just don’t have a choice – sometimes you’re enlisted by force.

At the border

How did this happen?

LEN: Let’s take El Salvador as an example. Used by the United States as a bulwark against communism from the 1950s until the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992, El Salvador was then abandoned with no reconstruction plan. This utter negligence resulted in a fully armed country (if you count everyone over 15 years old) – a country of soldiers – and today the northern triangle of Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world.

If the only difference between guerrilla groups and gangs is the fact that the latter lack an ideology, then we can say that the US preferred, allowed and even encouraged the former soldiers to fight amongst themselves. All of this, by the way, in the face of international indolence.

Migrants on the tracks

So then, how do you explain the fact that the image of the United States as a land of opportunity still holds currency?

LEN: When crossing over to Mexico doesn’t change things much in terms of still being prey to extortion and organized crime, an attack by a gang of rednecks is pretty promising as a worst-case scenario.

KS: As for the US, well, we know that as long as they’ve needed cheap labour, they’ve allowed illegal migrants in.

A victim of human trafficking

When you started addressing the issue of migrants across Mexico 10 years ago, it was a little-known phenomenon. Now it is a recurrent theme even in mainstream media. How do you feel about that?

LEN: Visibility is something that can only be celebrated. It was about time this reality was recognized and acknowledged. However, the phenomenon – actually, a humanitarian tragedy – is treated with some sort of romanticism that, in my opinion, interferes with the need to find a solution. Victimizing migrants and portraying them as heroes conceals the fact that their leaving home is a matter of survival.

It took a while for us to realize that when they say they are “in search of a better life,” they are actually talking about the difference between life and death. A better life means living, period, which explains why they are willing to go through all the difficulties that they know await them.

Mother and child

And what about the Mexican government?

LEN: In 2013, Mexico launched the Plan Frontera Sur, which hardened migration policies. Claiming concern for the safety of the migrants, the plan made it impossible, for instance, for them to ride on the roof of the trains. Ironically (but predictably), such a measure only suppressed the visibility of the phenomenon and made it even harder to monitor the moving populations. The human rights violations, the violence and the kidnappings by human traffickers escalated as these populations had to avoid the known routes and walk through dense jungle.

Is that when you came up with the project for the community murals?

KS: Yes. With five more feature documentaries in progress and after a few life-threatening experiences, we realized we wanted to take further action to boost visibility. So we developed the idea of “marking” the shelters, most of which were run as religious non-profit initiatives whose target populations were decreasing and whose humanitarian role was waning. It was an intuitive experiment, based on our gut feeling and convictions, launched with our own limited resources.

The murals depict a broad spectrum of human migration: survivors of human trafficking, refugees, asylum-seekers, family members of the disappeared, prisoners. Our priority was to provide the tools for people to construct their own personal accounts. We invited in street artists and organized workshops with the express purpose of making this possible, and visible.

LEN: Indeed. The value of the project is that it gives expression to each and every one of the many faces of human migration: it enables different individuals to testify to their experience.

For the people following in their footsteps, they have created a sense of belonging, some sort of rootedness. The murals, partly inspired by cave paintings, work as memorials, as a repository for collective memory, as landmarks for the identity of the migrants; they make it clear for them that there is a lineage, that they are not alone.

KS: Our pride lies in having achieved a direct, non-mediated channel of communication. People interested in issues as diverse as refugees, HIV, human trafficking and internal displacement can learn first-hand how all of these factors intertwine here.

LEN: Through these images, everyone can read the writing (painting) on the wall.

What kind of reactions have the murals prompted?

LEN: Everything that happened after the first mural, I was, in San Luis Potosí (in the centre of the country) where more than 400 people participated, has been surprising.

KS: One local girl, for instance, learned about the shelter through the mural, and wanted to volunteer. Her father, a shoe manufacturer, wouldn’t allow her to go. She asked him to come with her and, while she was talking to the priest, Padre Rubén, the father stayed at the basketball court and started reading the stories at the mural. He not only allowed his daughter to stay, but the day after, he sent a truck with a donation of 300 pairs of shoes for the migrants.

KS + LEN: The basketball court, which most people in the neighbourhood used to avoid out of prejudice and fear, has actually become a popular venue for baptism receptions and all sorts of social interactions and fundraising events. Now the shelter is supported by organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and this support has enabled its organizers to donate the surplus food they receive to their neighbours – who also benefit from the visiting doctors and psychologists – in a remarkably successful example of integration.

Is there a solution? 

KS + LEN: Migration is as old as war. By managing a border (as opposed to closing it, or trying to do so, or pretending to try to do so), governments could control the conditions in which the inevitable phenomenon takes place, and choose not to abandon these people to organized crime.

This is a global world, and the nation-state along with its borders has failed, so what were they expecting? People will keep moving in search of resources and survival, towards the most advantageous option, the way they always have. There you have it – the fruits of your free economy!

Civilians sharing food with the migrants

Who is responsible?

KS: One aspect that hasn’t been addressed is the role of family remittances for the Central American countries and Mexico. In the case of Guatemala, these remittances account for around 15% percent of the GDP[ii] and up to 17% in El Salvador.[iii]  Actually, the latter’s rulers have designed policies of arraigo, or rootedness, aimed at averting a situation where third- or fourth-generation citiz#_edn2ens of the US stop sending money to their relatives. If you deprived these countries of this income, they would be screwed.

LEN: They would be even more screwed, you mean.

For me, the pivotal issue is people’s attitude towards hypocrisy. If you don’t mind hypocrisy, you will try to exploit the situation or turn it to your advantage. But if you refuse to get caught up in it, you have no choice but to do something – or at least understand.

In that sense, everyone is responsible.

Memorial


[i] This figure was given by Mexican Senator Daniel Ávila Ruiz in 2015. However, the flow of people varies tremendously, as do the figures. According to some sources, the numbers are as low as 150,000 people/year. Such a variation only gives us an inkling of the difficulty of keeping track of these moving populations.

 

[ii]  IDB’s María Luisa Hayem Breve, quoted in: http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2015/05/150526_economia_remesas_boom_america_latina_lf

[iii] Source: http://www.laprensagrafica.com/2015/01/20/el-salvador-recibe-mas-de-us-4200-millones-en-remesas-familiares

 

 Tres Gatos is a multi-disciplinary group committed to promoting human rights and social reconstruction. Documentary filmmakers by accident, the three cats started off simply wanting to understand the phenomenon of migration. Ten years later, there is still no other agenda, which explains why a complete loyalty to facts — no compromise whatsoever — is the leitmotif of all their stories and all their work. All photos are from the Tres Gatos collective.

 

MIGRATING is a RIGHT, not a crime

 

Mural “ I was here ” in progress

 

Truth doesn’t hurt, but makes those […] uncomfortable

 

Life is like a game

 

Life is like a game: there’s more than one chance to advance

Loving children – childcare

May God take good care of them on their journey

Make something extraordinary out of the ordinary

God always lights your way

I stepped out with a lot of pain […], but with faith in God that I will come back soon […], I left in search of the American dream and to reunite with the love of my life.

[fragments of her tree]

I am the migration of those I met

What happens to the migrant, to the traveller, is that upon leaving the known territory, interrelationships with others become more apparent, personal connections need to be co-ordinated…

 

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers in the world

 

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers in the world. I am here but from here I wish you a happy day. I love you lovely Mama, and I know I am not with you but I always take you with me. I love you Mama. Manuel Rivas. 9/15/2015

I walk towards the United States to help […] my family and look for a future that’s ours […]

Always see the good things in life

[elephant] We always end up arriving where we are awaited

Which of the two lovers will have more [happiness], the one on the road or the one that stays? The one on the road keeps going; the one who stays remains thinking, always, of the road.

Of all the things you do in life, only those that you did with your heart [painted in red] will be memorable.

Caritas Vincit Omina [Love conquers all]

Name unknown, Rest in Peace

 

I seek refuge

 

If there are no borders in the sky

 

[Mural in Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala]

If there are no borders in the sky…

[Inside the feathers of the quetzal]

My dream is to help my daughters do well

When you arrive, go ahead with confidence

God takes his time, but he never forgets

May God guard your way, 12 years old, Keny

Keep going, don’t give up, 13 years old, Gladis Daniela

Migrant/human being/fighter/overcomer of obstacles, Cristina Aguirre

 

May nothing on earth stop us

 


Editorial note (April 10, 2017):
The following video clip by the Tres Gatos collective illustrates the mural project for migrants. It is in Spanish with English subtitles (and can be reset for French subtitles).

Make me worthy - street art. Mexico City. Photo by Claudia Itzkowich Schnadower.
Make me worthy – street art. Mexico City. Photo by Claudia Itzkowich Schnadower.


An interview with Jooneed J. Khan

Jooneed J. Khan is a journalist, writer and human rights activist. Born in Mauritius, he was for 35 years a reporter and analyst on international affairs for the Montréal daily La Presse. He co-founded the MMM* movement in Mauritius, was often fired from his teaching jobs and did some jail time there. He also reported from some 60 countries. He is now retired but more active than ever, and is a grandfather.  Serai editor Rana Bose sat down with him in an interview.

 

RB:      The complexities of the situation in and around Syria, the geopolitics, the opportunistic alliances and the brutal effect on the civilian masses are now well known. The overwhelming and catastrophic images of refugees, fleeing civilians and daily mass drownings in the Mediterranean have made this situation an intense mainstream concern today. It has become, as in times before, an exercise in competitive benevolence. We are waiting for another “We are the World” recording session! How can this charitable disposition be politicized into a better understanding of why people are fleeing? Is it because they feel persecuted as a “tribe” or are they simply fleeing violence in their lives?

JJK:     It’s because of all the above, and more, much more.

Migration is a permanent feature of human history, from the Asian settlement of the Americas to European settler-colonial expansion five centuries ago.

Causes vary. Asian settlement of the Americas came in successive waves beginning as early as 40,000 years ago, and was spurred over millennia by the constraints and opportunities of glaciation and deglaciation over the Bering ice bridge between Siberia and Alaska.

European settlement and colonization on the other hand were pure phenomena of conquest and the scramble for global economic and military supremacy among a handful of European nations.

The massive European settlement of the Americas, including Canada, and of Australia and New Zealand, of East and Southern Africa by the Boers and the British, and of Algeria by the French, with the concomitant dispossession and decimation of Aboriginal peoples in many places, was initially a result of this colonial imperative painted as Europe’s “civilizing mission” through the spread of Christianity, the so-called “White Man’s Burden.”

But it accelerated as the agrarian and industrial revolutions in Europe evicted peasants from privatized commons lands and herded them to new industrial towns – and to the colonies. The present so-called “migratory crisis” in Europe is only a culmination of lesser “migrations” of refugees and so-called “boat-people” we’ve witnessed since the end of WWII.

And it must be viewed in the overall context of the unequal world system kept in place and reinforced by the dominant West over five centuries.

Street art - rue Marie Anne. Photo by Jody Freeman.
Street art – rue Marie Anne. Photo by Jody Freeman.

RB:      It has also often been stated in a banal fashion that it’s all about resources, oil and gas finds, shipping channels, pipelines, warm water ports, and trade routes that are in contention in a 21st century dynamic to decide on alternate markets and exchange currency, etc. At this time (especially at this point when a ceasefire is being attempted at the initiative of the Russians), can you identify any ONE single major contradiction that leads and exacerbates the situation in this region? What forces are keeping the fires stoked and for what benefit? 

JJK:     The statement is not banal. Today, the so-called refugee/migrant crisis is indeed a consequence of the global struggle for resources, oil and gas finds, shipping channels, pipelines, warm water ports and trade routes… in a 21st-century dynamic to decide on alternate markets and exchange currency, etc.

You do well to highlight the war on Syria, as it is emblematic of the struggle of the militarily over-armed but morally discredited West/NATO alliance to maintain its global hegemony against the peaceful emergence of new poles of power (Russia, China, India, Iran, Brazil, the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Eurasian Common Market, the new Latin America).

The very emergence of these new power centres is moving the world away from our old West-dominated unipolar system towards a new multipolar global configuration.

Convinced that it won the Cold War against the USSR, the West/NATO Empire moved immediately, as early as 1989, to install a unipolar so-called “New World Order.” The expression was officialized by George Bush Sr. in 1990 as the US entrapped Iraq in Kuwait and moved to remap the whole of the Middle East. Somalia, Iraq, Rwanda (as political apartheid crumbled in South Africa and Mobutu was surgically replaced by Kabila in the Congo-Kinshasa), and the former Yugoslavia were all aggressed, devastated, even re-balkanized.

And in the wake of September 11, 2001, we got NATO in Afghanistan, Iraq-2, then Libya and Syria, and now Yemen.

We must consider and reflect upon the fact that the NATO/US Empire had a free hand in steamrolling over the planet for 22 years (1989-2011), with the WTO strategy thrown in to have the rights of corporations override the UN Human Rights Charter.

This was before post-Cold War Russia felt confident enough to veto the Western/NATO attempt to repeat a Libya-2 in Syria through the UN Security Council. China stood up alongside Russia. They stopped NATO in its (tank) tracks.

But, as they say in the US, “there are many ways to skin a cat.” So the NATO/US Empire sent in the bloodthirsty clowns: NATO member Turkey was already involved, so they soon got their other regional clients (Saudis, other Gulf oil and gas emirates, Israel, and especially their new surrogate and self-proclaimed Islamist murderers and destroyers of Daesh) to try and show that “Assad is killing his own people.”

Then, on Sept 30, 2015, Russia sent in its aero-naval power and started bombing Daesh and its pirated oil convoys through Turkey to smithereens. Putin had a George W Bush twist for NATO: “You are either with us or with Daesh”!

This is the actual background to the present ceasefire in Syria – which may go through much-to-be-expected ups and downs before the Empire and its lackeys come out of their “exceptionalist” bubble and sit down, as Churchill said, “to jaw-jaw instead of war-war” with those they have demonized as “enemies.”

This struggle for and against rebalancing the Unipolar World Order is your “ONE single major contradiction in the region,” and Syria is the main battlefield.

 

RB:      There is this notion amongst many anti-Assad groups (and I am not necessarily referring to Daesh or the Al-Qaeda affiliates) and as well a whole gamut of other opinions, that the root cause is Assad. If you get rid of this dictator (some even suggest by any means necessary, including taking Israeli support), everything will normalize. This view is held by a fair number of libertarian, socialist and left-of-centre academic and NGO groups as well. Can you explain your opinion on this perspective?

JJK:     Anti-Assad groups are many and varied, and some of them are genuine democrats who want to dismantle the old dictatorship and autocracy. But all of them have by now witnessed, hopefully, how getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and of Muammar Kaddafi in Libya has only brought chaos, destruction and civil war, and empowered self-proclaimed Islamist terrorism – with NATO powers, including Canada, not far behind.

The fact is the dreams of democrats in Syria, Iraq and Libya have been hijacked by the Empire and its lackeys to get rid of anti-imperialist, secular republics, and turn them over to Sunni/Wahhabi fundamentalist franchisees of Al Qaeda whose “Khilaafat” (Islamic State) ideology means non-secular monarchies on the Saudi and Gulf Emirates model – all creatures and protégés of the British and US Empires.

Our dreams and ideals are essential and we must remain committed to them. But we must also read and decipher how the US/NATO Empire has no regard for democracy whatsoever. Democratic regimes are big risks for the Empire – they won’t be dictated to, and they won’t let their resources be looted.

What the Empire and its regional allies really want are subservient regimes, as in General Sisi’s Egypt and in Essebsi’s Tunisia, who collaborate to safeguard and promote the Empire’s geostrategic interests, military, political, economic, in the whole region from Morocco to Pakistan.

They view as hostile to their interests the widening presence of China, Russia, India, the BRICS and the SCO, not just in the Middle East, but also throughout the Global South.

Right now, their regional priority is to prop up pro-Wahhabi forces to fight what they see as the anti-imperialist Shi’a Axis of Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the Empire is wracked with growing contradictions. There’s no love lost, for example, between Turkey’s Islamist regime under Erdogan and the Saudi ruling family. While targeting Syria and Iran, they are locked in a bitter rivalry for leadership of a putative new “Khilaafat”!

In his push to restore some form of Ottoman Empire across the Middle East and all the way to Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang, and in their desperation to cling to power through a wild, headlong rush forward, as in Bahrain and Yemen, both Turkey and Saudi may be overplaying their hands.

And then there is the growing tension between Europe and North America within NATO. The Europeans are more and more reluctant to follow the US lead in NATO’s permanent wars or in clamping sanctions on Russia – and the Russians are doing their level best to bring the EU to view Russia and China as partners rather than foes.

The US is trying hard to salvage, stabilize and reinforce the transatlantic relationship within NATO through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership proposal (TTIP). It is also pressing the UK to remain in the EU and avoid a “Brexit” at all costs.

And on Feb 29, Ottawa announced that “the legal review of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement [CETA] (English text) has been completed”.

 

RB:      What has prompted Russia to take the side of Assad, ally itself with Iran and Hezbollah, and in effect, also side with the Kurd nationalist and rebel forces? After all, not only has Assad made mistakes, he has a record of pretty nasty approaches to any opposition to his regime. Is Russia, at the present time, simply the flip side of the US/Western imperial gambit to retain global domination? And what about China? What is her role?

JJK:     Post-Soviet Russia remains the only other military superpower and the largest resource-rich country on the planet, occupying the heartland of the Eurasian continent – even after losing 5 million sq. km. with the breakup of the former USSR.

But since 1989, Russia has been destabilized with a weak economy mauled by greedy oligarchs tied to global corporate interests. It has also been frantically rebuilding, amid promises of rapprochement from the West, belied by NATO’s eastern expansionism and undermined by Islamist terrorism from the Caucasus in the wake of the Red Army withdrawal from Afghanistan in the face of NATO’s Mujahedeen and warlords.

Humiliated Russia watched passively as the US/NATO Empire, with its Project for a New American Century (PNAC), dismantled the former Yugoslavia, returned to Afghanistan, strangled Iraq with sanctions before destroying it, and went on to destroy Libya, and then Syria.

Syria 2011 was where and when Russia decided it had consolidated enough and built enough alliances with China and the Global South to stand up to NATO with its first-ever veto in 22 years at the UN Security Council.

Syria has been a long-time ally of the former USSR. It is also an ally of Iran. It is close to the Caucasus. And if Syria fell to Daesh – in spite of the democratic dreams of our socialists – it would boost large-scale terrorism in Russia itself, in Central Asia, and into China. It would cut off the Hezbollah from Iran, make Iran more vulnerable to NATO/Saudi/Israeli pressure, and isolate Hamas in Gaza.

In a way, yes, Russia is the flip side of the Western imperial gambit to retain and reinforce its global domination.

But Russia is also the spearhead of a global struggle to re-balance the World Order in a multi-polar fashion. Russia is not acting alone in Syria. It is closely backed by China and Iran. China has publicly stated it will send troops to Syria if Damascus makes such a request.

This proviso highlights the legal basis of Russia and Iran’s presence in Syria. All these countries have seized the legal high ground in this conflict, and painted the NATO/Empire Axis as violators of international law and aggressors against a legitimate member state of the UN, Syria.

As long as the US/NATO Empire had a free rein at the UN (cf Libya), it used the UN as cover for its warmongering. The dual Russia/China veto in 2011 deprived the Empire of such a cover; and now Russia and China are tightening the legal screws further, and the Empire has no choice but to waffle and zigzag, as moderate Syrian rebels and Kurdish nationalists also welcome and join in the Russian intervention against Daesh.

Plus, this bold military/political gambit by Russia, China, Iran and allies is not mere spectacle and swashbuckling; it is taking place in the shadow of the huge Eurasian development projects called the “New Silk Roads,” promoted by China and Russia, that eventually seek to incorporate Western Europe as well – all without firing a single shot!

 

RB:      When the Syrian conflict subsides — and hopefully soon — many Syrian-origin people will have settled all over the world, as did the Biafrans, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Afghans, the Somalis and others. Soon we will see the next generation of Syrians living in Holland, in France, in Canada, in Germany, in the US. Perhaps everything will be forgotten twenty years from now. Is the crisis in Europe (the racial unrest resulting from the resettlement of people due to war) a blessing in disguise for the creation and integration of a global society that is less segregated by racial/ethnic divisions and cultural/religious animosities?

JJK:     The protracted nature of the Syrian conflict (the US occupied Iraq within three weeks in 2003, and overthrew Kaddafi in Libya within seven months in 2011) has contributed to highlight the plight of Syrian refugees and displaced persons. These victims are in the millions after 5 years of devastation. Public concern about their plight has had time to grow and organize in the NATO/OECD countries, especially after Russia moved in to crush Daesh and shed a crude light on the Emperor’s nakedness.

So we talk a lot these days about Syrian refugees, and our governments have felt compelled to welcome a few tens of thousands and help them settle among us – but without stopping the destruction of Syria.

But many millions more Afghanis, Iraqis, Libyans, and ex-Yugoslavs have been victims of our wars well before the Syrians; and they too, men, women and children, are part of the waves of refugees that have descended on Europe over the past year.

Some have made it inside the EU, others are still knocking at the gates. Some are trapped in Greece or at its frontiers, others are massed in the so-called “jungle” of Calais, trying to get to Britain. Some are already being taxed in EU countries – their survival money and valuables are being seized; others are being arrested and even expelled.

Then there are those refugees from countries devastated by our economic warfare, mostly from Africa, who have made up most of the 21st-century “boat-people” to Europe – many of whom keep drowning in the Mediterranean in overloaded rafts put to sea by human traffickers of the new “sharing economy.”

There are also the refugees from Central America and Mexico who are coming to the US, in spite of quasi-military and vigilante law enforcement at the border, and in spite of fences propping up all over the place.

So yes, we’ll see new generations of Syrians settling in OECD/NATO countries, alongside new generations of other Middle-Easterners and Africans and Latinos – although we tend to favour the blue-eyed Syrians!

That does not mean we are headed for an “integrated global society.” The real “blessing in disguise” is for the neo-liberal economies of the OECD countries whose birthrate is plummeting, but who now have access to a precarious and vulnerable new cheap labour force.

The arrival of these refugees coincides with the sharp rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia, and of racist, even fascist, politics in our midst. That is not going to go away. In a century maybe, but not in 20 years.

Noam Chomsky believes Donald Trump is popular in the US because of “the breakdown of society” under neo-LibCon ultra-laisser-faire, with its scandalous inequality, and because “white America is dying” – literally he says, pointing to the high death rate among poor whites, typically seen only in wars and great catastrophes.

So we are in for more, not less, segregation, socially, economically and racially, as desperate poor whites turn their anger against poor non-whites.

 

RB:      Is the anxiety in Europe, and even in Canada, really about jobs and social security and economic fairness? Is there an unstated desire to preserve and perpetuate certain religious and cultural ways of life as preferable and dominant? In the case of France, obviously there is an entire colonial ghost that has settled down in every banlieue? Your thoughts?

JJK:     The anxiety in both Europe and Canada, and in the US too, is indeed about jobs, social security and economic fairness.

But, as Chomsky says, anxiety-ridden white America is not venting its anger at the elites and institutions which create, maintain and reinforce this unfairness. Instead it is expressing it as violent hatred against its own Black underclass, and against immigrants and refugees, Latinos, Muslims, and Asians.

This suits the elites perfectly, as politicians, preachers and the corporate media keep telling anxiety-ridden white America, with easy, legal access to guns, that their religion and way of life are under threat, further feeding into the murderous rampant racism.

The case of France is no different. Anti-Semitism was a feature of European societies even before the agrarian and industrial revolutions. Now that’s been replaced with xenophobia and Islamophobia.

France’s “colonial ghost” is linked to the long history of its sprawling colonial Empire, whose chickens, as they say, have come home to roost.

But as heirs of British and French colonialism, the US and Canada have their own “colonial ghosts” to contend with – especially as the dispossessed peasants and exploited workers of France and Britain and other Europeans were lured to settle in North America and, in turn, help dispossess and decimate the Indigenous peoples here.

Canada’s own “colonial ghosts” are the nearly 1 million men, women and children who are today the surviving members of our more than 50 First Nations, speaking as many languages and living in 634 communities (reserves) and in cities and towns across the country.**

These First Nations are in an awakening mode and are on the move, as exemplified by the Idle No More movement, which is networking constantly with majority-white Canadians as well as with more and more active immigrant community organizations.

White Canada’s anxiety was well used by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper – as demonstrated by its refusal to deal with First Nations on the basis of historical treaties, its hostility to UN human and Aboriginal rights activities, its US/NATO-style “anti-terrorism” foreign and military policies, its wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, its security-driven Bill-C51 that rolled back civil rights.

The party, now in opposition, filed the recent motion in Parliament calling on the new Liberal government to “condemn” the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at peacefully pressuring Israel, the occupying power, to comply with its Geneva Convention obligations to respect Palestinian human and national rights, and to end the occupation.

The Liberal Trudeau government has begun to ease this rightward tilt somewhat, and raised the number of Syrian refugees from less than 2,000 under the Tories to more than 14,000 by the end of January. But it voted in favour of the Tory anti-BDS motion, so there’s no guarantee of a sustained shift to a more humane and inclusive line.

 

RB:      What can we do here in Canada, in Montréal, to enable a cultural understanding of this issue of forced nomadism, the displacement of ordinary people due to wars that they do not want to be a part of?

JJK:     In the global framework, our challenge here in Canada and in Québec is the same as throughout the Western world, meaning North America and Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand: dominant culture and governance are Eurocentric in all these countries, and this Eurocentrism keeps getting more and more radicalized and chauvinistic as Western global supremacy is challenged from Eurasia, from the Middle East, from Latin America, and from Africa.

So globally we have to foster networking and dialogue between minorities and immigrants on the one hand, and the majority communities and First Nations on the other.

Luckily, even as First Nations are staking their legal and legitimate claims in the wake of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, public intellectuals and civil society organizations from the majority-white communities are leading the way in critiquing the old ideology and in agitating for inclusive change, basic democracy and mutual respect – a social movement that is clearly located on the left and that targets the Establishment.

These forces are acting both globally and locally. The right-wing anger towards immigrants and refugees, and also towards First Nations, is loud, especially when echoed in the media, but the left-wing expression of acceptance and support more than balances that anger, specially with the help of social media – in spite of the ubiquitous right-wing and racist trolls.

The overall debate about warmongering, climate change, corporate grip on democracy, economic and development activities that respect and rehabilitate the ecology of the planet — all of it is happening locally everywhere: in Canada, in Québec, in Montréal too, and we all need to be part of it in any way we can.

It’s a Canadian cliché to say that we all came to this country from somewhere else, that we are all immigrants.  And as clichés go, it’s quite disingenuous: it puts the dispossessed and marginalized First Nation victims on the same footing as the colonizing victors. It also creates a false sense of equality between majorities and minorities because mutual respect and fairness are lacking – as is evident on the job and housing markets.

But we have solid Charters of Rights for both Canada and Québec, and we have strong institutions and advanced jurisprudence in the field of women’s rights to found our struggle on.

“We Are The World” came into fashion in more innocent times, when sentimentality and emotional blackmail still worked. Now they don’t. Dysfunctional politics and economics and media manipulation are being questioned as never before. Artists are now being asked not just to sing “We Are The World,” but to embody the ideal they promote by taking clear stands on issues and against vested interests – and paying the price for it, if necessary.

 

* Mauritian Militant Movement

**EDITORIAL NOTE:  The figures are closer to 1.5 million when we take into account all Indigenous peoples in Canada – Inuit and Métis peoples as well as First Nations (https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-011-x/99-011-x2011001-eng.cfm). As for the number of communities and reserves, in addition to the 634 First Nation communities, there are 25 Inuit communities in Nunavut, 33 in NWT, and 14 in the Yukon (http://www.afn.ca/en/about-afn/description-of-the-afn).

INTERVIEWER’S NOTE: Subsequent to this interview, two important developments have taken place: on February 22, a ceasefire was declared jointly by Russia and the US. It excluded ISIS/ISIL, Al-Nusra and other organizations designated as “terrorist” by the UN. The ceasefire will be monitored jointly by the two countries.

On March 15, the Russians surprised everyone by announcing a withdrawal from Syria while maintaining their airbase at Latakia and naval base at Tartus. The jury is still out on why they did it. But for sure, in an overall sense, this move has taken the wind out of the sails on all sides of the conflict, leaving some disconsolate with the withdrawal and others feeling let down.   Rana Bose

 

 

Shapla on grass - 220x165
Shapla on grass – 220×165

 

Robin Pacific is a Toronto-based artist who has just completed a project with garment workers in Canada and Bangladesh. In the capital city of Dhaka, she met women who had migrated from their village homes to find employment in the city’s garment factories. Nilambri Ghai from Montréal Serai had the opportunity to speak with Robin.

 

Serai:   Tell me about your project and your interaction with garment workers.

Robin: There has been a phenomenal social transformation in Bangladesh, where there are now about 5,000 factories and four million garment workers, 85 percent of them women. Most of them have come from small villages because of the need to work and to escape the poverty that is so dire in the countryside. It’s been a double-edged sword because on the one hand, it’s taken women out of cultures where they are oppressed (if that’s what one can say) into a situation where, in spite of the sweatshop conditions, and the inhuman ways in which they are treated in the workplace, they have a measure of social independence. They have a social network of other women their age, and that is quite liberating. I had conversations with 36 women. I can tell that they are homesick. They feel in some ways alienated from their own culture. It is a complex, changing set of social phenomena. This has been both good and bad. Some of the women have avoided child marriage, others have come with their families. Often, when the husband can’t find work, the woman ends up being the sole breadwinner, which is sometimes resented by the husband, and occasionally results in domestic violence. But for many, the move has provided tremendous autonomy and freedom.

 

Serai:  Who takes care of the children?

Robin:  That’s a good question. I wasn’t always sure – sometimes it’s a neighbour, sometimes a relative. Some of the children go to school during the day, and when they return, they are on their own. The other thing is that the women are able to send their children to school and, without exception, all want their children to go to school and to become professionals. The women like their work and are proud of it, but they don’t want their children to be garment workers.

 

Serai:   What about housing?

Robin:  They are living in substandard housing, and every time the minimum wage goes up – as it has done twice in the last few years – the rents and the cost of food go up, but they have enough to send a little bit home, to send their kids to school, and to basically feed the family. They are often laid off if the orders are slow, and pretty typically anyone trying to organize a union is fired. All the women that I spoke with are in trade unions and are represented by two major labour advocacy groups: Solidarity Centre/Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity. Solidarity Centre is funded by the AFL-CIO. Its executive director is Alonzo Suson, and I have worked very closely with him. Kalpona Akter is the director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity. She is a very well-known activist who has spoken many times in North America.

These two groups promote union activities. They train workers to become leaders, and they organize labour groups in the plants and garment factories. Most unions in Bangladesh are corrupt, and are financed by – and support –  political candidates. At times they are allied with neighbourhood mafia-type groups. But these two groups and the unions they work with are independent. The women I spoke with are trade unionists. Quotes from them are available on my website: http://www.robinpacific.ca/projects/flowers-and-threads-exhibition-in-dhaka/

 

Serai:  You also spoke with garment workers in Canada. What struck you most about people from two very different environments? What was it that most impressed you?

Robin:  It was interesting in that, again, in Canada, the garment workers liked their jobs and took pride in their work. We tend to think of these women both here and in Bangladesh as being miserable, or downtrodden workers. But they take tremendous pride in their work, and that is something that I found to be very interesting and inspiring. Garment workers that I spoke with here all belong to Workers United Union – an organization that has done a lot of work around Bangladesh as well. The garment workers here were making minimum wage, which is $11.25. Many of them have been working there for years. There have been so many layoffs that only those with the most seniority have managed to stay on. Some of them have worked for 15 to 30 years at the same place. I took a tour of the Coppley Suits factory in Hamilton and saw that most of the machines were lying idle. That is what happened to the manufacturing sector with globalization, and as a result of the free trade agreements of the 80s and 90s. The other point I noticed was that they all wanted their children to get an education so that they do not end up as garment workers. I asked people similar questions both here and in Bangladesh: What is the first thing you see in the morning? What are your hopes? Where do you find your strength? Most replied that they wanted education for their children, and that they got their strength from their network of families and friends and from their unions.

I asked them to make drawings on petals. The sessions in Bangladesh were facilitated by Leah Houston who led the petal-making workshop, while I worked on the conversations because I needed an interpreter. And all throughout, Clare Samuel made these beautiful photographic portraits of garment workers in both countries. They made 18-inch panels on Japanese paper with watercolour crayons, and I assembled them into Shaplas (water lilies) – the national flower of Bangladesh –  and we hung these from the ceiling at the exhibition in Dhaka. Each one had four petals: four made in Bangladesh, and four made here. It was a physical manifestation of solidarity. The project is really about building relationships across language, culture, geography, religion and race.

I did a performance in a subway here with a Bengali poet, and it was contextualized around asking questions such as: Do I have the right to represent these women? Whose voice are you hearing when I read their words – their voice or mine? Is my aging white body a bridge? Am I appropriating their voice or am I facilitating it? I’ve asked these questions throughout the project. It was really important for me to keep raising these questions.

 

Serai:  I find it very unusual and interesting, especially the way you bring out these questions. Did you get any answers?

Robin:  I don’t think there are answers. I feel that I need to keep questioning myself as a privileged white artist, and addressing my unconscious assumptions. For example, I might believe that having a Canadian passport would keep me safe, but in fact, it could make me a target, thanks to the Canadian presence in Syria.[1] Also, I might feel that being an artist would give me a free pass. Well, being an artist does not give you much credibility with ISIS, which was laying claim to killing foreigners in Dhaka.

Here I was, a seventy-year old Canadian artist, and yet I found the garment workers in Bangladesh eager to participate and to be part of something. We told them that we were there because we wanted to meet the women who made our clothes, and I think they were very appreciative. These issues are very complex and yet you don’t want to question yourself into a state of paralysis.

 

Serai:  And yet at one level, they are very simple since they involve interacting as one human being with another. It depends a lot upon the individual, and you were able to connect and reach out.

Robin: I’ve been trained in listening skills, and when I was talking to women, I was simply being attentive and listening to their reality. It was beautiful, extremely moving, inspiring. They gave me more than what I gave to them. It was a wonderful experience. When I went back the second year and set up the exhibition, fifty of the garment workers came to the reception, and when they saw their drawings, their photographs, their words on the wall, they were so full of joy, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

Robin-Pacific-event-invite_FB_share-220x173

Serai:          Did you have sponsors for this project?

RobinWe financed the first trip ourselves. The second time around, a friend of mine held a fundraiser and raised $10,000.

 

Serai:  Tell me a little about the Lit Fest.

Robin: I had heard about it before I went and thought it would be a nice way to relax after the show, and then all this security stuff happened. The poet who had performed with me in the subway was writing for one of the secularist blogs, and her name and mine were all over the Internet because we had publicized the show. Five of the writers on that blog had been set upon and hacked to death by fundamentalists with machetes. I was really scared before I went, but I did go. But when I went to the Lit fest, it was amazing to hear all those writers, many of whom face tremendous threats, and to see that they were not allowing that to silence them. I found that I had gained a tremendous amount of strength from this knowledge, and in a small way had earned the right to be there. I saw that there were people there who were much braver than I was. It was a great privilege to meet some of them, to talk to them, to hear them read and speak.

This was their fifth Lit Fest. There is a Dhaka Art Summit that comes up every February. The Canadian High Commissioner in Bangladesh has invited me to go back and do another art project with workers. Dhaka is a really incredible place, a very difficult place to be because the traffic is so insane, and given the density of the country’s population – there are 170 million people in an area one-sixth the size of Ontario. The density in Dhaka is a crazy figure, like 19,000 people per square kilometre. And yet it is so alive and interesting. There certainly weren’t many tourists around except for one or two.

 

Serai:   Not even in the city?

Robin:  No foreigners went out there. The expats were on lockdown because two foreigners had been killed and ISIS had claimed responsibility. The Canadian and US embassies were locked down and people could only go to and from work. All the retailers who send their buyers for Christmas orders cancelled their trips. Everyone was on high security alert. Nobody was going there. The tour company that I worked with and from where I met Zia Uddin Ahmad, a wonderful interpreter who collaborated with me on this project – that company had to lay off many of their tour guides. Whoever was responsible for these killings did a lot of damage to the economy of the country. Some people believe that these were politically motivated. The current prime minister has been trying war criminals from the 1971 War of Independence. Zia said to me one day: “You know, Robin, you’ve been working very hard – you should go to the country for the weekend. I’ll take you to this village – you will love it – we will stay in this ecological rest house and you will be able to see the weaving of jacquard sarees.” We had a police escort back to Dhaka. It was only when we got back that I figured out that he had wanted me out of the way of potential riots in Dhaka following the hangings.

Can I talk about my labour campaign? All these projects are leaning toward a consumer awareness and activist campaign I am planning. Every time I talk to people, they express their resentment against big companies employing workers in Bangladesh. They want to know if they should stop shopping at Joe Fresh, H&M, and so on. The garment workers, however, don’t want a boycott. They want the orders, and want to keep their jobs. This made me develop my FAST campaign. It stands for FAIR living wage; ADULT labour only; SAFE working conditions, and TIMELY pay for work and overtime. What the campaign will include is a label shaped like a little t-shirt with a website address and the acronym: FAST. You will be able to pin the label onto your clothes, like an elaborate political button. On the website, visitors will learn that for a small increase of 2 percent on clothes, the FAST conditions could be met. The website will direct visitors to write to major retailers indicating their willingness to pay that 2% more so that garment workers can have a decent wage and working conditions.

 

Serai:   What are the conditions like? Have there been any improvements?

Robin:  The factories are not safe. There was a big scandal with the company H&M, which claims that factories are now safe, but these companies do not even know which factories are making their products in Bangladesh. The pressure is now there for supply chain transparency to allow people to know where their clothes are being made. Garment factories don’t want to pay what it takes to make the factories safe and to pay for worker training on safety features. Also, over 800 people have died in factory fires because they don’t allow women to take bathroom breaks, or because they think they will steal (so they lock them in).

 

Serai:   So what do the women do when they have to go?

Robin:  I guess they schedule breaks. I know, it’s incredible the kind of control and exploitation of women’s bodies that we see over there. I often ask them if unions have made a difference. Although there are 700 unionized factories, there is not even one collective agreement. However, the women tell me that whereas earlier, supervisors would spit on them, swear at them, hit them, and yell at them and deny them bathroom breaks, once a local is certified in a factory, the spitting, hitting, swearing and yelling stop. In my opinion, unionization is the only answer, and we can contribute to making this possible by agreeing to pay that extra 2 percent. I plan to roll out my campaign within the next 12 to 18 months.

 

Serai:   Robin, thank you very much for sharing this. Best wishes to you for your upcoming campaign and current projects.

 

[1] Editorial note: Canada’s greater military presence in Afghanistan is worth noting here as well.

 

 

 

ITP crew
ITP Crew



Like so many artist-creators who felt somewhat suffocated under our country’s last political regime, for me it was like a breath of fresh air when our new government was formed. Cuts to the CBC and the arts gave us all the impression that fiction and documentaries were no longer relevant… no longer part of who we are. Yet I can’t find a better example of a more relevant documentary series in this day and age than Interrupt This Program, created by Nabil Mehchi and Frank Fiorito for the CBC.

Interrupt This Program is a five-part, 30-minute series that delves into the underground arts scene in chaotic cities recovering from major traumas: long-term war, political unrest, natural disasters or economic meltdown. Each episode profiles three or four young, determined local artists (plus one Canadian ex-pat with an outsider’s perspective) who are using art to make an impact on their city: this is art as a form of protest, as an agent of change and as a display of courage.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nabil to give us further insight into this remarkable series.

 

How did you come up with the concept of the series? Why the title, “Interrupt This Program”?

The city of Beirut was the initial inspiration for the series. It’s where I was born and raised. I moved to Canada when I was 17, during the 1989 war (at the height of the civil war). So I never really got a chance to discover the city as an adult. When I started going back with Frank (Fiorito, my partner & series co-creator and producer), we started to uncover an effervescent underground art scene, and a sort of militant way of making art. Most of the artists we met seemed to be fighting, each in their own way, to reclaim all that Lebanon had lost (an Arabic identity, the heyday of the flourishing art scene of the 60s and 70s). We felt compelled to tell the story of a city that, in the minds of people around the world, only exists as the stage of all the horrors of the Middle East… when there is so much more to it. Young Lebanese artists are working hard at getting their voices heard amidst the chaos that is Beirut, and we felt compelled to tell that story, help them tell their own stories, in their own voices (no filter, no host, no narration). Of course, once we started thinking of all the other cities we were curious about, the list grew and a doc series idea became obvious.

It was actually the CBC that came up with the title of Interrupt This Program.

We went back and forth on possible titles and when they proposed Interrupt This Program, we all felt that it spoke to what all the artists in all those cities were doing in a way. They’re imposing a new narrative. They’re breaking with the conventions and status quo of their cities’ deadlock. They’re interrupting the program.

ITP crew photo
ITP Crew Photo

What do you think is the most resonating hook of the series? When I watched the first episode on Beirut, the resilience of the city and its artists resonated most with me…

The hook of the series I think is its universal themes. The always-fascinating yet obvious fact that wherever we come from, we all have the same aspirations and dreams; and that’s even more true when it comes to artists. In every city we’ve been to, the same statements kept emerging: we want to change the  conversation, we want to impose a new dialogue, we aim to raise awareness of some of the most burning and essential questions in our societies: basic questions of human rights.

The other hook of the series I think is its exoticism. We’re taking audiences to places they rarely have a chance to visit or discover, let alone (dig into) their underground art scenes. It’s like they’re travelling vicariously through our characters.

 

What made you choose these 5 cities for Season 1? Can you describe the selection process of the cities and the artists? 

The main criterion for the series was trauma. Each city had to have gone through a major traumatic episode or period that shook it to its core, whether it was a war, social/political upheaval, the overthrow of a corrupt government, an economic crash or even a natural disaster.

We did not want to do war porn. Each city had gone through something major in its recent political history, but is still labouring to get out of it.

Also, we chose cities that have been the subjects of recent turmoil. We wanted the first season to be very topical. Kiev, Beirut, Port-au-Prince, even Athens are all places where history is being made as we speak and (was unfolding) while we were there filming.

And we went searching for artists who are using art as a tool for protest, for social awareness and change. We wanted subversive, bold, unapologetic, militant art. Fearless artists who were putting themselves and their art on the line in order to impose a new vision. But then again, as one of the artists in the Athens episode put it: “All art is political; art without meaning is mere decoration!”

ITP Kiev Irena Karpa
ITP Kiev – Irena Karpa

What were some of the most difficult challenges you faced in producing the series?

I would say the most difficult aspect of the production was limiting ourselves to 3 or 4 artists per city. Once we started the research, we opened up the floodgates to endless stories and fascinating artists who were all strong and pertinent. A choice had to be made based on varying the disciplines and (on) the availabilities of these artists during our short 5-day shooting period per city.

Other than that, it was incredible to see how fast we were able to connect with all those emerging artists, and how generous and willing they were to let us into their worlds.

 

I find this series original in that it allows me to discover a city I do not know well, through the eyes of various artists – a POV that is diverse and dynamic. What did you discover most about the artists and/or the cities?

We were all humbled (every single person on the crew) by the courage and determination of all the artists that we had the chance to meet. But what we walked away with was the power that art has to change minds and perceptions. As Maria Kulikovska said in the Kiev episode: “Art comes from in here, from the heart, not only from the brain. And it’s very emotional, it’s something that you can’t even explain. I do these actions/provocations to start a discussion; I hope that something will start to change inside people.”

ITP Kiev Maria and gang
ITP Kiev – Maria and gang

Do you have further cities you wish to explore, in more seasons?

We have a list of about 25 more cities that we had initially researched and that we would love to discover and uncover. We have started preparing for another 10 episodes/cities to pitch to CBC for a 2nd season: Teheran, Ramallah and Lagos are 3 of them. That’s all I can say. You’ll have to wait and see (fingers crossed)

 

What is the one question you wish you were asked about the series? 

The one question I always love to answer because it’s something we genuinely thought of while developing the series is, “What do you want audiences to feel or walk away with after watching this series?”

And my answer is that we, as TV producers and filmmakers, would love to change people’s perceptions (or confirm them in certain instances). I want people to walk away feeling that they’re not that different from a person in Lebanon or Ukraine or Haiti. We live in an increasingly global society where the borders are slowly disappearing and our planet is in constant flux. People and cultures are mixing at such a fast rate and clashing at an even faster one. I would love this series to change people’s perception of the Other, the “Us versus Them.”

Especially here in Canada, where we have so many different ethnic communities. Immigrants, refugees, migrants, whatever we want to call them, they all have stories and traditions and cultures that we as a host country need to be more aware of. Just as they have to learn about our ways and our values, the same responsibility falls on us.

 

For more info about the series:

http://www.cbc.ca/beta/arts/interruptthisprogram