Zab Maboungou in Wamunzo – Photo © Pierre Manning, Audrée Desnoyers, Shootstudio


Introductory note: Wamunzo is a choreographic work by Zab Maboungou and Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata, which has been touring since 2018.


Jody: I’ve been wanting to interview the two of you for Montréal Serai for some time now, because the kind of music you create and perform is so distinctive.

For one thing, you are doing contemporary music – and contemporary dance – that is rooted in traditional African music and dance, and in the entire body of thought and reflection that has gone into those centuries of music and dance.

For another, your relationship to music is so multifaceted. First of all, Zab, you’re not just a dancer-composer, you’re also the choreographer, artistic director and founder of Nyata Nyata, and also the mother of Elli.
And Elli, even before you were born, you were immersed in this music – literally bathing in this music.

Also, you are both in a very multicultural urban environment. You tap into an array of different perspectives that not everyone can call on as artists and musicians. Some Indigenous artists and other creators from deep-rooted cultures are striving to respect cultural and ancestral traditions and make them theirs, right now, like you are.

I’m interested to know what that’s like for you, because it seems to me that there are certain responsibilities involved.

As well, you’re using the most ancient instruments – our selves, our bodies, our breath, our skin – and you’re creating music on drums, which are ancient instruments that also use skin. There’s something very physical and at the same time, because it’s skin, something related to protection there… There’s a whole element of spirituality involved – very deep cultural roots – and at the same time, very contemporary urban elements.

How do you feel about all of that?

Zab: I want to thank you for that introduction, which was just beautiful. Just gorgeous! You really put your finger on how, as human beings, when we practise the kinds of art that we do – dance, music, singing – these are arts of the body, which live in and through the body. These are arts that love the body and are not afraid of it. The way you speak about it makes me think that you know there’s nothing much more than that (laughing). You know?

There’s this movement, and all we do is kindle it. We set things in motion so that our breath continues to refresh us, even when we’re at the end of our rope.

That’s why the drum is so important. And why I’ve kept my relationship with the drum in a contemporary culture that didn’t want to hear about drums. It was no coincidence (that the drum was suppressed). Don’t forget that this contemporary culture is very much a product of colonialism. I found it unbelievable, this kind of displaced perspective: the drum is universal. People who don’t play the drum are in a minority. We’re in Canada. There are many Indigenous peoples, and the drum is at the centre, the heart, of their lives. I arrived here from Africa and am treated like I’m exotic, but long before I got here, the first peoples were here with the drum, with songs and resonance, call-and-response, everywhere.

I felt connected to them and at the same time separate, because the nations that were receiving me, Québec and Canada, didn’t take Indigenous cultures into account in their cultural institutions. Indigenous cultures were excluded. And I know something about exclusion.

That exclusion and marginalization is also about western societies’ rejection of parts of themselves. It’s important to understand that. The Christian religion came on the scene and did a “clean-up,” clearing out what was spiritually “unacceptable” from what was “acceptable.”

Western art is inconceivable if that relationship to religion is not understood. It’s important to understand how that happened and how it has evolved, even now in contemporary culture, where religion is seen as a scourge to its development. There is nonetheless a link. It is a particular history that we in Africa, and Indigenous peoples, have endured. When the colonizers came, they came with priests… And then they brought TV. (Laughing)

Jody: TV, the opium of the people.

Zab: (laughing) Exactly. So the priests came first. They used more radical measures on others that they wanted to conquer. And violently, because they weren’t on their own territory. When you are on someone else’s land and you want to take it, you have to use violence.
That sense of history and historical awareness is something I acquired because I had no choice. I grew up in a revolutionary family that was politically active, in the post-independence era. This is something I received from the time I was young, and of course I have tried to impart that to my kids.


Elli Miller Maboungou playing congas in Wamunzo – Photo © Peter Graham


Not “congas or whatever”: respecting Congolese drums


Elli: I’m really happy to be here – it’s my first interview with my mother!

Zab: Thank you, Jody, for this family reunion between me and Aunt Jody and Elli!

Elli:  Giving a little push for the younger generation to step up, eh? [. . .] It has taken me a long time to understand the complexity and richness of the drum and its rhythms, particularly rhythms from Africa – and for me, because of my family, rhythms from Congo and Central Africa. I found it very difficult because when I started to study music in Cegep[1] at the age of 18, I was not taken very seriously as a percussionist, studying jazz.

People would say, “Oh yeah, you play the ‘tam tam’ – cool, you can do some backup with us.” In concerts or jam sessions, that was how other musicians in jazz thought about Congolese and other traditional African drums. I think that attitude was pretty widespread in jazz circles in Montréal and across Québec. I didn’t have confidence in my instrument, even though my mother always told me the drums had a richness to them. But I didn’t have confidence in myself.

It took me a while to understand. It wasn’t until 2013, when I started to put together my band Jazzamboka, which means “jazz from the country or village” in Lingala. I began to do more research on rhythms from Congo and to see how I could really combine them with jazz. That’s when I started to get it. I thought, “Ah, there’s something there that’s starting to come out in my drumming that I couldn’t grasp before,” and people around me started to see it, too, and respect it.

I began working more on my playing, and listening to musicians in Congo, Ivory Coast, Guinée, etc. I realized that this music had everything it needed and was incredibly rich and complex. But here, people denigrated it somewhat. They had the idea that people are born with the ability to play drums, that it’s easy. It’s not true. Even musicians in pop or jazz bands in Africa all too often disregard traditional local percussion.

I started to push it harder. I felt it was my duty to try to demonstrate the richness of that culture. That’s still what I’m trying to do.

Now I get asked specifically to bring my drums from Congo for a number of projects. Not “congas or whatever” but my Congolese drums. This is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

Jody: In the concert Wamunzo, when you open on the drum, it has an immediate effect. It goes straight to the sternum, the breastbone. It is a very powerful call, not forceful, but has a kind of gentle strength that reaches the heart. What is the relationship between the drums and the person dancing? In the creative process there is a choreography, but there is something creative that happens in the moment too, isn’t there?


Elli talking about the role of the drummer


Elli: Yes, for sure. And that’s where another aspect enters into it that is a little more mystical, you could say – more about energy.

I think the role of the drummer with the dancer is to guide one another. The drum guides the dance and the dance guides the drum. It’s difficult to have this kind of connection, and that’s what we work on a lot with my mother. It’s the connection between the dancer and the drum, and between the musicians themselves. You can’t go to school and acquire a kind of energy like that. It takes constant effort, and it’s about working in co-relation with people … in an exchange. It’s a relationship.

Jody:  There is a spiritual side to your shows, too – “shows” is not quite the right word…

Zab: presentations…

Jody: Yes, because it’s more about sharing, I think. The people in the audience are part of it too, and their energy has an impact… And there are those who aren’t physically there but who seem to be there…

Zab: ancestors…

Jody: Yes, and those who are with us in our hearts. Do you prepare in a certain way, Elli, before playing in public? It seems to me that you’re especially receptive when you’re on stage. It’s a special quality – it reminds me of ’Ti-Georges Rodrigues.

Elli: A certain kind of concentration, yes. And I try to be at peace with my instrument before I play on stage… to be in synergy with the instrument and make sure we’re in sync before I start to play. And it’s important to not think too much, to be calm and quiet and rested before going on stage, and really concentrate on that. One thing is certain: when I come to the drum, I don’t think about anything else. I leave my worries behind. It’s magic.


Zab speaking about the art of the drum


Zab: That’s the art of the drum: the encounter is always A LIVE encounter. Like when I read a book and there is a literary encounter with one of the characters in the book, it’s through my body. It’s a live encounter. That’s I think how poetry occurs. That’s why I call my performances “poetics” – more than choreographies. I felt it was more appropriate for me to see myself doing poetics instead of choreographies. […]

I have always known that I wasn’t just the centre of things. I am a centre within centres because I have a body. So we’re at the centre somehow. But even that centre moves. All this time, I’ve constantly been placing myself in relation… to have a sense of my place among things, and with things – including humans, animals, nature, everything around us. Humans aren’t the only thing. There is life after humans. Life before. Life above and below, in everything. […]


We have to constantly educate ourselves


Zab: You can’t educate others if you don’t educate yourself. Anything to do with education is about you, primarily. It’s less about others. For me, It’s taken a lot of years of working, questioning, reflecting, criticizing… doing… This has been very important for me, the act of doing.

When I talk to people or go to a conference, it’s something I DO. It’s not just my intellect spreading itself around. I go in my body, I assess the context, and I take responsibility for that context. I’m not just a guest. If you invite me, that’s it, I’m already with you. You know? I can’t just come as a stranger. I’m aware I come from somewhere else, but I’m already a part of you. So this is what we have to learn to assume and understand. How am I part of a person who dares to invite me to talk? Something is already going on. What can I MAKE of this?

In the case of my kids, I told them, “Whatever you make of your life, I’ll be sure to teach you what I have to teach you.” I didn’t want them to feel alien when they come to Congo where there is a huge family waiting. This is an African family, so it’s not just Mama, Papa, the dog and the cat – we’re dealing with the village… I wanted to make sure that my kids know they have a place, that this is their family, this is their genealogy… along with their father’s side of the  family from the USA.

So this is reality – but beyond our family’s reality, basically, this is HUMANITY.


Geometry is at the heart of what looks like a circle


Jody: I think there’s an honesty in your art, Zab, that makes no bones about being physical, spiritual, social, political, intellectual – there’s kind of an architecture to it, there’s a structure to it, but there’s also a fluidity. And I think there’s no cover-up. Of course with all art there are things happening – some artifice – that suggest certain things…

Zab: which I bypass – I sort of deconstruct what I show…

Jody: Exactly. In a resolutely contemporary way, you deconstruct it.

I was going to say that in traditional Indigenous dances, we often see more circular patterns and formations. In your poetics, the dancers’ focus is very intensely internal. There’s a potency about their individual beingness and presence, and at the same time the movement is more angular, not as circular, not as spiralling. There is a kind of solidarity between them, but it’s not a touchy-feely kind… There’s a different quality to the intensity of the individual experience in a group, and it almost forms geometric patterns – like abstract contemporary art.

Zab: Yes, it’s abstract contemporary art, as you say. And this is a work of resistance. After a performance of Wamunzo, someone in the audience who was of African descent asked me, “How do you do it? How do you resist the circle?” That person really got it.

I totally counteract the tendency of circumvulation that people find typical of those dances, because I have another notion of what people think those dances are. If you look at those ancient, traditional dances, whether from here – Indigenous dances – or from Africa or Asia, you’ll find that geometry is at the heart of what looks like a circle. And first of all, the rhythms themselves call for geometry, lines in space, architecture, points, you know?

So the circle is what you may see visually, but you don’t have to visually see a circle. You can very well make a square and yet be in a circle. You create the vertical, but to reach that verticality and draw both the horizontal and the vertical, you need the circle. It’s the breath that is circling, and which allows you to have that.

This is why I was very secure in myself when I created the technique I call “Loketo” – rhythm, posture and alignment in time and space – and I thought, this is not just for African dance. Someone who dances ballet, classical dance in the West, can benefit from what I teach with Loketo… because these dancers go vertical, but in reality their breath is circular.

There’s also the capacity of “retaining,” which is a term I use often. What do you hold in and why? Because the body doesn’t just give itself away or flaunt itself. When I tell that to my students, they’re all surprised, especially the ones who are in theatre. They are a bit shocked when I say you have to hold something in reserve, not give it all! They think that’s in contradiction with what they’re supposed to do. I say, “You think we give, just like that?”

An offering requires a whole design


Zab: So here we may have the pseudo-Christian view of being generous. (Laughing). But I come from a culture that’s not just Christian. It involves ancestors. It deals with nature. It deals with all sorts of things. And I’m not just there, outside, giving. That is a very simplistic view of what giving is. Are you capable of receiving before you give anything?

Are you aware that you are the result of an act of receiving? You are what is received. That’s how you are. You have to be able to know or sense that in order to be able to assess that state of being – in order to offer properly, instead of giving away. It’s an offering – it’s different.

An offering requires a whole design. There’s a design inside because of a design outside, everywhere. In reality, there are trajectories that need to be illuminated, prepared, cleaned, healed and reinforced.

I don’t approach technique just as a technique. If there’s a technique, it has to heal my body. It has to make my body happy with itself while it’s working. When my body is exerting effort, it has to feel the joy of the effort, because the body is made like this. I didn’t choose that – my body is made for that. I have to be able to answer to what the body is made for.

So this idea of circle, of geometry, is really a way of retaining the circularity that is often seen superficially and misunderstood – a bunch of people in a circle doing their exotic dance, and we know that these are traditional people, which is why they’re in a circle… This is ignoring the power of what circularity is. This is not really understanding what is non-linearity. This is not understanding that we are not symmetrical people.

I go against all of that. Everything I do, whether it’s with space, rhythm, or my body, as soon as I perceive the easy way, I counteract it with a line – not just a rhythmical line, but a line of the body, too, which looks like it is breaking the circle when in fact it is promoting that circle in another dimension. Dimensions are very important to me. On stage, it’s about building dimensions. Being able to make dimensions appear.


Rhythm is infinitely creative


Jody: It’s almost like overtones in music. All of a sudden there’s something else happening that wasn’t planned…


Zab Maboungou in Wamunzo – Photo © Kevin Calixte


Zab: Yes, exactly. But in the meantime, you have to build the paliers – the levels. And since the rhythms are very organized and codified, they’re complex. That’s why I tell people we’ve had algorithms for a long time – they are there in the drums…

But what’s amazing is that rhythm is infinitely creative. You can’t just hold it in a box – that’s not what rhythm is about.

Rhythm is about time. That’s the circularity, the infinite, you know? My challenge here is looking like I have completed something, and showing that it’s not complete. That’s the main challenge. This incompleteness is very essential for me.

Jody: That’s also part of the honesty of what you’re sharing here.

Zab: It’s what I call “opening the space.” When people ask me, “Zab, what do you hope for?” I say, “Opening space. I hope that when people come to see us, they feel that there’s a space for them that’s been opened.” That’s all I strive for, basically.


Check back soon to see a video of the full unedited conversation.


Other awards

Nyata Nyata received the inaugural Envol Award for cultural diversity and inclusive practices in dance (Conseil des arts de Montréal – CAM). The company was shortlisted for the CAM’s 30th Grand Prix in 2015 and was named Dance Laureate 2015 for its powerful piece, Mozongi.

Zab Maboungou is the recipient of the Charles Biddle Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award from Montréal’s Black Theatre Workshop, and the 2020 Dancer/Company of the Year award at the Dynasty Gala, which celebrates excellence in Québec’s Black community. She was also celebrated under the UN’s “International Decade for People of African Descent” for her exceptional contribution in North America.

Elli Miller Maboungou’s jazz band, Jazzamboka, won the Stingray Award for Best Music Composition at the Montréal International Jazz Festival in 2017.

For more information on Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata, please visit its website and Facebook page and follow its activities on Twitter.




[1] Cegeps are Québec’s community colleges.










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.



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



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.




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.

  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)

  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)

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

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 –

[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.

[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).




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



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.