As far as memory serves, the last Montréal Seraiissue dedicated to music was exactly eight years ago… so it seemed about time to put out the (trumpet) call and see what “Just Music” meant to our community of contributors. Surprisingly, despite their wildly different approaches and focus, the submissions we received seem to hold a common thread – a thread of history, a thread of legacy, a thread of continuity in cycles, rhythms, tradition and culture, both musically inherited and imagined. There is a sense of lineage that runs through this issue. Montréal Serai’s own lineage dating back to its theatrical beginnings in the 80s has always had a strong link to music and the telling of stories through that medium. Here are the stories of our contributors.
It is well known that Montréal has an important foundation in jazz. In a singular piece by writer and musician Paul Serralheiro, he uncovers his previously unpublished, 40-year-old recorded interview with Earl “Fatha” Hines, a pillar of jazz whose touring band once included Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. Amidst the bustling sounds of the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club, we hear Hines state simply, “You see, the story people don’t realize is, we didn’t know we were making history.” The Serralheiro of present day beautifully contextualizes the young Serralheiro’s wide-eyed brush with greatness. We feel privileged to be able to share this extraordinary find with our readers for the first time.
There is a good chance that anybody that has heard of classical Indian music also knows the name of the late virtuoso sitarist and composer Pandit Ravi Shankar, for years the most globally recognizable face and sound associated with the genre. Pandit Shankar’s student, sarodist Aditya Verma, provides us with a personal account of his journey at the age of 18, from Montréal to Delhi, immersing himself in the ancient Indian apprenticeship tradition known as Gurukula, living and learning music in the home of his guru, Pandit Shankar. We learn of the oral tradition dating back thousands of years that transmits Indian music from generation to generation. Pandit Shankar used this tradition to impart musical lessons to his students; Aditya’s father used this tradition with his students; and today, it is how Aditya relays musical knowledge to his own students. The musical lineage is intimate, encompassing, and generative.
Generative inspiration can come from archived treasures as well. While Paul Serralheiro found an old cassette recording that led to his piece, Gavin Morais was inspired by archives of a much more personal nature. In Patterns of My Father’s Voice, Morais uses cassette-recorded radio performances of his late father’s poetry to stir up electronic musical soundscapes, propelled by the meter of his father’s recitations. Wonderfully assembled staccato beats and melodic snippets ricochet in drenched musical atmospheres, exposing the resonance of Michael Morais’ words. In Gavin’s piece Semen stick together, the listener almost feels that the late poet is being spurred on by the sonic collage, and the playful double entendres of his poem somehow become even more (pleasingly) absurd.
In a piece exploring lineage of another sort, feminist cultural historian, writer, and Serai editor Kerry McElroy reviews Robyn Sarah’s memoir Music, late and soon, recently shortlisted for the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction, awarded by the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Here we have another tribute to a mentor and teacher, Sarah’s piano teacher Phil Cohen, a main actor in her life story from early days to present. Kerry writes “The book is circular as a text, much the way that ideas of time, past, present and future are explored in the author’s life throughout it—in flashback, blurred timelines, and stressed continuities.” We learn of the author’s return to classical piano after many years of absence to become a writer, and her reunion with Cohen, and his philosophies on music and life.
Multidisciplinary artist Himmat Shinhat, himself part of the lifeblood of Montréal Serai’s musical legacy, provides us with a view into the recent documentary film I am a Cliché. The film explores the life of Marianne Elliot Said aka Poly Styrene, frontwoman for British punk band X-Ray Spex in the late 1970s. The film is co-directed by Said’s daughter Celeste Bell, and Shinhat tells us that “Bell explores her mother’s journey through the challenges that confronted her as a biracial, non-conformist artist, celebrating her life and her art and offering inspiration to future generations of artists…. This film is a precious document that counters the ongoing erasure of BIPOC presence in the arts.” It is interesting to note that Said’s lyrics presciently spoke of themes such as genetic engineering, mass media control, consumerism, and the environment, leaving a much more complex legacy than the standard punk rock fare.
Serai’s Jody Freeman shares her conversation with Zab Maboungou and Elli Miller Maboungou of Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata, Montréal’s contemporary dance company founded by Zab more than 30 years ago, about the inheritance of the drum and the complex rhythms from Congo, West Africa and beyond. Reflections on the colonial suppression of traditional drums and subsequent denigration of the complexity and richness of what is encoded in their rhythms run through this exchange. As a contemporary jazz percussionist and Nyata Nyata drummer, Elli takes up the baton, exploring and honouring his Congolese instruments and their source. His dancer-choreographer-philosopher mother explains it this way: “… 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… Rhythm is about time. That’s the circularity, the infinite, you know?”
Johanne Ricard discovered stone sculpture in Carrare, Italy while completing her bachelor’s in visual arts. In the presented pieces with musical themes, Ricard explores the influence (and legacy) of her father, a musical director and teacher, through the perhaps unexpected medium of stone sculpture. The spiraling, curved forms and traced etches (at times geometric) are evocative of sounds, flora, the body, and musical concepts and instruments, sometimes abstractly and sometimes explicitly. Ricard states “Liées à mon histoire familiale, plusieurs de mes œuvres portent l’empreinte de la musique.” Thanks to Chantal Mantha and Karine Ricard for helping revise the French in this piece.
Poet and activist Ilona Martonfi’s incisive poetry in this issue juxtaposes sobering incidents with the lifeforce of traditional folk music. In The Orangery, the protagonist’s ritual of cleansing and emerging from a dark episode is contrasted with a Sicilian folk song about “love” with a refrain about flowers. Images in The Lundu prod the reader to consider the realities of the people behind the folk music and dance in Brazil. Traditions are turned askew in this new light.
Emerging writer Sophie Gazarian provides us with a beautiful story of a family’s relation to the waxing and waning of music, noise, and sound. The intimate journey traces a landscape of sonic abundance as well as deprivation as each member rejoices and tolerates in turn. This legacy of sound and silence reaches beyond the simple story as the protagonist states, “My father always said that the first stories were told in song: the chirp of birds, the hum of insects in the summer heat, and the whistle of high winds through the trees. Before humans created their spoken and written languages, they found other ways of telling tales.”
And thinking of silences, in Joseph Kary’s quiet and introspective photo essay on musicians he asks us to contemplate the “music between two notes.” His images, frozen in time, allow us to scrutinize “musicians in the instants within the music, the moment’s pause that captures the whole.” We get to reflect on how many such moments manifest the root of musical momentum.
Some people are transported by such momentum, and metamorphose the beats and tempo to germinate their own creative offerings. Playwright and poet, Serai’s own Rana Bose takes us on a personal account of his poetry process. Sounds, pulses, basslines and beats all inform his spontaneous artistic practice, and we tumble, dance and shuffle along with him in this rhythmic rumination.
We hope you enjoy this issue of Montréal Serai. Our contributors prove that even “just music” is humming with so much more.
[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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
2016Thunder Blanket (TV mini-series short), on the experience of having breast cancer
2015Legend 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.
There is a vital energy pulsing through this winter issue of Montréal Serai. It radiates off the landing page, with the vibrant art of Leah Kanerahtaroroks Diome, who is from the unceded Kanien’kéha:ka Territory of Kahnawake. In her paintings, Leah shares a piece of her heart and invites us into her culture and language. The restorative power of art is integral to her story.
Activist Michèle Audette is forthright in her interview, sharing truths about systemic racism and sexism, being born into segregation and denied her right to grow up in her Innu culture and traditional territory. From a very young age, she was cradled by women from diverse Indigenous nations who infused her with visions of justice and healing and courage to fight. Resilience has deep sources.
Sáasil Uj Chi Xool, a 10-year-old Maya schoolgirl, storyteller and artist, shares her story of “The Little Deer and the Tiny Star.” Her parents, María Reneyda Xool Yam and Hilario Chi Canul, are right behind her in this creative project and are committed to the revitalization of the Mayan language.
Multimedia artist, poet, musician and filmmaker Craig Commanda from Kitigan Zibi offers a luminous array of beadwork, poetry, films, music and art. Reflecting on past, present and future, his artistic practice “seeks resurgence contributing to cultural preservation and revitalization for and by Indigenous peoples.”
Nineteen-year-old Alice Cormier, an Inuk artist from Kuujjuaq who is enrolled in a Visual Arts program in the south, talks to Montréal poet and novelist Carolyn Marie Souaid about where she comes from and how her Inuit culture shapes her art. (The “south,” in this case, refers to Montréal.)
In “Sheets to Die For,” seasoned poet David Groulx leaves us pondering before plunging us into dark night-waves in “Relinquere.”
Maya Khankhoje’s story, “The Emperor and the Crab,” sidles up with a sly pinch of truth about the power of resilience. Maya is one of the founding editors of Montréal Serai.
Choreographer, dancer and teacher Amrita Choudhury shares her experiences of travelling to teach and perform in western Canada and being stranded there without stable accommodations when the first wave of the pandemic struck. While no stranger to racist insults, Amrita was deeply affected by the violence she witnessed. In “Reflections from the Heart: Journeying Through COVID Isolation,” Amrita attempts to reconcile these experiences with her gentle approach to life and dance.
Anishinaabe filmmaker, singer-songwriter-musician and photographer Marie-Josée Tremblay presents her latest short film NIB8ÏWI, with its haunting soundtrack. NIB8ÏWI – the Abenaki translation of her original title, Durant la nuit – is accompanied here with a stream-of-consciousness text (in French) on the terrors of the night.
In a sweeping piece called “India’s Indigenous Peoples and the Rise of Brahminism: Bhima-Koregaon, Then and Now,” Shankar Tadwal, a Bhil tribal activist in Central India, Subhadra Khaperde, a Dalit feminist fighting for social justice, gender equity and sustainable agriculture, and Rahul Banerjee, an activist working for equitable and sustainable development, offer their insights into the historical and current significance of the town of Bhima Koregaon—particularly in relation to the Adivasis’ resistance and the Dalit movement against the caste system. The accompanying photos tell their own truths of survival and resourcefulness.
Intrepid film critic Mirella Bontempo digs deep in her review of Trickster and Inconvenient Indian, highlighting their multilayered reflections on Indigenous realities and their searing exposure of colonialism. Citing Thomas King, Kent Monkman and Skawennati’s Time Travellers, Mirella focuses on the ongoing importance of Trickster and Inconvenient Indian and the Indigenous voices informing them. She comments in her bio that she “learned about First Nations’ tricksters while writing this piece, and about raceshifting after it was written.”
We hear many voices resonating in these stories, recalling those who came before us, those no longer with us, and those—as the legends tell us—who are still tiny stars in the sky, waiting to come.
Our deep thanks to our contributors and to our readers. We invite you to share in this dialogue.
In the past couple of years, we have all discussed and dissected, with intensity, the man-made climatological changes that have hit our earth. It has become frustratingly clear that it is not enough to debate the science, the predictions and the impact on our future lives on earth, as our only channel of activism. Climate change is not simply a result of bad habits and poor science, but a systemic overpowering of peoples’ choices through the erosion of the strength of the commons and the right to assemble freely and converge together for a more cooperative and sharing society.
“… the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit. […] Commons can be also defined as a social practice of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates.” (Wikipedia)
Vast segments of the country are part of the commons, places where public jurisdiction or public access is not something that can be constrained. Parks, forests, river areas, wetlands, falaises, the migratory pathways (in the skies and on the ground) of birds and animals immediately spring to mind. But the commons also includes parts of a city – the urban landscape, the parks and plazas outside subway stations. These are areas where the poor can congregate to afford themselves some pleasure… the public version of the backyards of folks in gated communities.
The commons is where people meet and have a right to congregate. It has to do with human rights and individual freedoms, where access to essentials like water, food and shelter are controlled by local populations and not by private interests.
Political decision-making in the shadows
There is a nebulous political structure that decides how many school playgrounds a borough will have. In local government, who decides where social issues can be resolved? Who decides to cut trees to build a soccer field – and how many trees to cut? How is the process of implementing public welfare decisions constructed (such as decisions on social housing, growing trees, forming cooperatives, etc.), and by whom? The whole cooperative decision-making process and cooperative living style – community living style – is not really in the cards, even though heroic movements have fought for it for decades, right here in Montréal.
All this is being discussed in various forums, but there is not enough impetus for preserving the public wetlands, forest areas, parks, mountains – everything that surrounds the city and everything in the city that could be defined as the commons.
Many of us are deeply concerned and worried about what is going to happen, not just for the next five years but for the next twenty. Where do we stand with all this? It seems to us that the climate movement has waged a fairly decisive battle in making sure that this man-made crisis is clearly identified for what it is. However, the same climate movement has very limited controls over any decisions that governments may have arrived at as a result of signing on to certain targets.
Very simply put: large, polluting, fossil-fuel-using nations routinely renege on targets or opt out of programs. Canada is one of them. We have decided to deliberately miss our 2030 targets by 15%. There are limited political watchdog surveillance systems that monitor the provincial and federal governments’ actual performance in curbing our ever-increasing capacity to exploit our natural resources.
There is something else looming large that is not being discussed enough: a shadowy image in our minds of an ever-growing political structure that is preparing subtly to oppose environmental measures through a variety of sustainability-friendly measures that are combined with coercive policies in non-sustainable areas. The forces of privatization and the fossil fuel industry are surreptitiously rebranding their claims. The climatological battle cannot be won unless we curb privatization and fight for the public commons.
The environmental movement in Canada has parked itself outside the obvious areas where jurisdictional decisions are taken. Having a Green Party or an NDP with a competitive green policy is patently inadequate unless these parties are part of a political movement that operates in the commons. And the movement for the commons has to integrally respect Indigenous land rights and cultural heritage.
In this issue
Our issue features a photo essay on the Wixárika people’s opposition to a Vancouver mining company’s operations in Mexico. Photographs by José Luis Aranda and commentary by Serai editor Claudia Itzkowich highlight these Indigenous activists and the sacred land of Wirikuta that they are committed to protect.
Freelance journalist Patrick Barnard makes the climate crisis personal in “First Person Climate Change.” Reflecting on science and the weather and key figures shaping his consciousness over his life time, from CBC’s Bob Carty to Moby-Dick, Patrick implores us to halt the “mad narcissism… the driving force of the world as it is organized today.”
Blossom Thom, poetry co-editor of Jonah Magazine, speaks in her poems of yearning, love, and oceans shouting to the shore, sleep collected in remnants, gold dust coating our throats. In “The Garden of Dutiful Women […] whirling, we step on the edges of blades.”
Rae Marie Taylor, author of The Land: Our Gift and Wild Hope,” ponders the distance separating humans from the natural world since the Industrial Revolution, and the need to reclaim our wildness and preserve the commons. In “The Root of It,” she writes: “We need each other and the land that speaks to us of life other than our own. We need the tides and the shores of our planet […] the forest and the hills, the plains and the rain, the elk […] We are necessary to their survival. They are as necessary to ours.”
Better known for directing plays and films, Guy Sprung reflects and muses in his poem, “Dusk on Loukes Lake:” “I float | downside-up | in a darkening world…”
In her poem entitled “Dhrupad of Destruction,” Savitri Sawhney evokes the eternal dancer of creation, conservation and destruction in Hindu mythology, Nataraja, dancing “to the sound of crushing ice, melting glaciers and rising seas.”
Vrajesh Hanspal’s dark poetic prose piece, “Forest Floor,” plumbs our more sinister imaginings of the forest and its carpet of organic detritus teeming with the crawling, ticking and cooing creatures that respected no boundaries…
Two incisive poems by Paris Elizabeth Sea tear into our theme without mincing words, in Moment, arriving.
Maya Khankhoje reviews a highly original novel by Brenda J. Wilson entitled TAKEWING a.m., which centres on the yearly migration of the monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico and back.
And this editorial features a drawing by Canadian cartoonist Oleg Dergachov, commenting on human obliviousness as we fly too close to the sun.
We hope our issue boosts your spirits and stirs your creative juices as we spin new filaments of community in this uneasy time of Corona.
Veteran war correspondent, Robert Fisk, speaking to a packed house at St. James United Church in Montréal in 2015, reflected on ISIS and the colonial history that has fomented justifiable resentment across much of the Middle East and continues to underlie ongoing conflicts. He pointed to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which the British and French colonial powers secretly agreed to divvy up much of the Middle East between them.
For the past 40 years, Fisk has been investigating and reporting on the forces setting (and unsettling) the world stage. He has been steadfast in recalling history, exposing the underlying interests at play, showing deep respect for all communities of people and speaking his truths as a human being who for much of his life has witnessed the ravages of war. His comments about faith and loss of faith continue to resonate:
“[…] as a civilization in the West we have lost our faith. The irony is that we who have lost our faith have the power to impose ourselves upon people who have not lost it, while people who’ve kept faith do not have the physical, military, or political power to defend themselves.” (Robert Fisk Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley)
One hundred years after the Sykes-Picot agreement, the dislocation of the world’s population has now reached unprecedented proportions, and we would be hard pressed to find a small pocket of humanity or nature left unscathed by the traumas of colonialism and the successive iterations of capitalism that have pushed our planet to the brink.
Nothing sacred, no planet B
On Friday, March 15, 2019, two events unfolded that have a bearing on our theme. One was the culmination of ever-broadening student strikes (#FridayforFuture) rallying young people around the world, calling for crisis intervention to save the planet. In Québec alone, more than 150,000 young people occupied the streets of Montréal and Québec City.[i] The other was the murder of 50 Muslim worshippers at the Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a young white Australian man driven by white supremacist ideology and hatred. That calculated massacre was perpetrated at the same time as young New Zealand students swelled the streets of Christchurch, marching to sustain life on earth.
Québec and New Zealand now share a grim history of Islamophobic shootings. Both have white supremacist groups whose ideologies are touted by right-wing populist politicians. But in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown real political will to close ranks in solidarity with the grieving Muslim community, fight Islamophobia, take strong gun control action, and set a new stage. In Québec, the response was all over the map: an initial outpouring of public shock, grief and expressions of support for the victims and their families, followed by a return to what journalist Allison Hanes describes as “business as usual when it comes to Muslim bashing, casual hate and unrepentant ignorance.”[ii]
Thinly veiled Islamophobia
The new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government has just tabled its bill, An Act respecting the laicity of the State, which claims to be based on the following four principles: “the separation of State and religions, the religious neutrality of the State, the equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.” To clinch the government’s own appearance of religious neutrality, the day before it tabled this legislation the CAQ government whipped its members into line to pass a resolution to remove the crucifix from the National Assembly (Québec’s parliament) – after a heated debate in which the vast majority of the party’s members argued to keep it as a part of Québec’s “heritage.”[iii] Doublespeak and double standards abound.
Bill 21 prohibits public employees in teaching and various positions of authority from wearing “religious symbols.” While these symbols are not defined in the bill, the main targets are women who wear a hijab or other religious or traditional head coverings, and anyone wearing a kippah or turban. For the sake of appearance, conspicuous crosses aren’t considered kosher either, although tattoos of a cross would be allowed. It also bans anyone wearing a niqab, burka or other religious face covering from receiving or providing public services. To ward off legal challenges, given that freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are enshrined in the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter, the CAQ government has chosen to override these sections of both charters, using their “notwithstanding” clauses.
Over our dead bodies
It was no coincidence that the first international charter of rights, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was proclaimed in 1948 in the wake of World War II.[iv] Article 18 states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
As pointed out by the CSN labour confederation, “the rights and freedoms guaranteed by these charters are founded on the 6 million people who died during that war because of their ethnicity, and all the others killed because of their political convictions, their union activities, their handicap, or their sexual orientation.”[v] (Our translation)
Montréal freelance writer Idil Issa, a Muslim woman of colour who began wearing a hijab in her mid-twenties as an expression of her developing spirituality, looks further back in history for the roots of our human rights charters:
“The current Coalition Avenir Québec government, led by Premier François Legault, seems dangerously unaware of context and history in its plan to bring in legislation banning religious symbols for teachers, police officers and other government workers deemed to be in positions of authority. […] But this isn’t the first time that people of various religious confessions have had their belonging questioned, their accession to government posts limited, and the expression of their faith severely restricted. A quintessential example is medieval Spain. After the fall of the Andalusian empire, Jews and Muslims, who had once established an intellectually fruitful convivensia, had to submit to the will of the victor, no longer able to publicly express their faith. It was precisely measures like these undertaken by ruling powers in Europe, driving people with various religious confessions underground for centuries, that contributed to the establishment of the principle of freedom of conscience, a hallmark of modern democracies.”[vi]
The CAQ didn’t even entertain the possibility of a more open, pluralistic model of secularism.[vii] It opted for the hardline version inspired by France, stamped with all the prejudices, fears and arrogance of a former colonial (and once Catholic) power that dominated and exploited much of North Africa not so long ago. And while the term laïcité is a concept rooted in the French revolution, its current application targeting religious Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews has nothing to do with Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
In fact, the ugly debate in Québec that has been sowing division and fear for more than a decade is based not on any urgent problem that needs to be addressed – such as, say, the imminent takeover of government and schools by mullahs ready to impose Sharia law. It is based on fears of being overwhelmed by the Other, and of a weakening of the core values that have evolved in Québec. Twelve years ago, those fears drove the small town of Hérouxville in central Québec to adopt a code of values warning immigrants that “we” don’t stone or burn women here.[viii] The fact that there were no immigrants in Hérouxville only amplified the fear. Lack of familiarity can breed contempt.
A dangerous tempest in a teapot
According to a number of specialists, the current charters of human rights and freedoms and the evolution of case law in Québec and Canada already guarantee the secularism (or laicity) of the State and public institutions, de facto and de jure (in fact and in case law). According to the Bouchard-Taylor Report, further measures could be applied to ensure greater neutrality of the State, such as by putting an end to implicit identification of the State with a religion. For example, by terminating the practice of saying an opening prayer before a municipal council session, removing the crucifix above the chair of the National Assembly, ending tax avoidance measures given to certain religious organizations, and cutting off public funding for confessional schools.
While the State and its institutions have an obligation of religious neutrality, the Bouchard-Taylor Report points out that their employees are not individually bound by that obligation but are required to show impartiality and reserve in performing their duties, and to refrain from proselytizing.[ix]
Respect for women and the right to work
The disconnect between public rhetoric and action to ensure equality for women, the right to decent work and pay, and measures to end poverty and violence against women has long been evident, especially to Indigenous women and other women of colour. And with the volatile ingredients of faith, identity and culture thrown into the mix, the debates around secularism are ripping the veil off the paternalism underlying the attitudes of a number of Québec figures who claim to be fighting for equality.
Journalist Allison Hanes steps into the fray:
“Who is oppressed and who is the oppressor? In the eyes of Quebec’s new minister for the status of women, the answer appears to be black and white. Isabelle Charest said Tuesday that she sees the hijab as a sign of oppression. She ‘clarified’ Wednesday that her opinion extends to any religion that prescribes a dress code.
‘For me, this is not freedom of choice. When someone doesn’t have freedom of choice, for me it’s a sign of oppression,’ she said. ‘I told you the hijab does not correspond to my values. My values are that a woman should be free to wear what she wants to wear or not wear.’
But who is oppressed and who is the oppressor when a minister whose job it is to promote equality singles out, stigmatizes and sets apart a particular subset of women?
Muslim women unfortunately seem to bear the brunt of the radical secularism that has emerged from Quebec’s deep historical ambivalence toward religion, though Jews, Sikhs and Christians may end up as collateral damage.”[x]
Hanes tears a strip off the brand of paternalistic feminism that “is unfortunately being wielded as a weapon to keep some women down rather than lift everyone up.” The minister for the status of (some) women “only succeeds in insulting all women (and people) of faith by insinuating they can’t think for themselves, aren’t exercising their own free will, and may be complicit in their own oppression.”
Reading Allison Hanes makes me think of Mohammed Ali. She doesn’t mince words and she doesn’t miss a beat:
“It sure doesn’t seem like Charest plans to do much for any of the women in Quebec who may soon find themselves ousted from their classrooms on the basis of how they dress.
The oppression of women persists in Quebec and comes in many forms. It can be found in troubling rates of domestic violence, in the poverty rate, in the glass ceilings, double standards and sexual harassment that still plague women on the job. It can be seen in a culture where women are judged on their appearance, held to impossible standards, objectified, marginalized or denied a voice. And it can be seen in a policy that sets out to strip women in hijab of all vestiges of authority.
If Muslim women are oppressed in Quebec, it seems to have less to do with their religion and more to do with a lack of respect from their government.”[xi]
It’s up to us to step up and speak out, and there’s no time to lose. The students who are fighting for our planet are setting a new stage of their own making, hopefully one that will be based on genuine solidarity and mutual respect.
In this issue, food for heart, mind and soul:
Sharon Bourke’s landmark essay on “People Power, Identity Politics and Open Books”
Martine Eloy’s piece on systemic racism
Artwork by Élizabeth Gélinas in “Un dépouillement eloquent”
Rana Bose in “Making Khichdi or Hodgepodge Out of Identity and Class”
Marie-Josée Tremblay’s multi-layered reflections on being Métis, “Ni autochtone ni blanche”
Antoine Bustros’ animist tale, “Les patineurs”
Maya Khankhoje’s review of Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
Paul Serralheiro’s review, “Charlotte Hussey: Reclaiming Narratives in Glossing the Spoils”
Maya Khankhoje’s review of Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
Special thanks to Muriel Beaudet, Louise Dawson and Chantal Mantha for generously offering their copyediting skills in French.
[ix] This section is drawn from the Confédération des syndicats nationaux’s document, « La Laïcité de l’État », p. 11, which cites the Bouchard-Taylor Report : Gérard Bouchard et Charles Taylor, Fonder l’avenir : le temps de la conciliation (version abrégée).
Interview with Catherine Bainbridge and Ernest Webb
The evening of the interview, I showed up at Catherine and Ernie’s door. Ernie had just come back from a rehearsal with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra for Tomson Highway’s opera, Chaakapesh, The Trickster’s Quest.
When Catherine got home, we talked a little about our theme for this issue, “Beyond the Pale,” focusing on renegade filmmakers who honour their vision and put their heart and soul into it, defying the resistance and obstacles they face.
I brought up their film Power of the North from the early ‘90s, which portrays what happened when the Québec government massively flooded the Cree territories around James Bay for hydroelectric power. The flooding caused high levels of mercury in the water, which was disastrous for the fish and everyone who depended on them for survival.
As soon as we got talking about Power of the North, Ernie and Catherine started singing a song from the film, “Daba jeegajee mwoh’némas” (“You can’t eat the fish”). The first time I met Ernie, he and Catherine had come to hear Choeur Maha rehearse that song. They had given Maha’s director a refrain in Cree and asked her to create a song out of it for Power of the North. I can still see Ernie there with tears in his eyes, listening to a choir of non-Native women singing in Cree.
Jody: You seem to naturally create Native/non-Native collaborations that are based on respect, leadership, recognition, teamwork. And you bring a lot of heart to your creative projects. How did that come about?
Catherine: For me, the spirit of collaboration (and understanding it as something natural and fantastic that humans do) came from improv, as the rule of improv is that no one is in control and you’re sharing… and you’re not blocking. Not blocking is the No. 1 thing. You’re just building on each other’s idea and no one can control it. When it’s not shared, that’s when it’s not good.
I think we’re taught to block at a very early age. To say “no” because we’re afraid. We’ve been taught to block very early, I think, sometimes by being put down for our ideas. Women know what that looks like. Most people of colour know what that looks like, to not be listened to… to not be heard.
Improv breaks all those things. The people who really get it wrong are the ones who try to control and shut down and not listen. If you’re not listening, you’re doing it wrong. All you have to do is listen. That’s the awesome thing. It’s transformative, for me.
Ernie: One of our mantras, I keep repeating this, is that the right people get together at the right time for the right project. And when it’s right, it’s right, and when it happens, it’ll happen. And hopefully magic will be there as well, too.
Catherine: I think part of it is that you put it out in the universe… like, this [refrain] would be an awesome song. I can’t quite remember how those pieces came together for Maha. Do you remember how it happened?
Ernie: Shawn [Goldwater] rapped it.
Catherine: Shawn rapped it, and then we thought that with Choeur Maha it would be amazing…
Ernie: Yeah, ‘cause we’d just gone to their show the week before…
Catherine: (laughing) There we go! It’s as simple as that: they’re awesome, let’s put them in the film! […] Whenever you’re making a film, or writing an article, or painting, or in the process of doing anything, you’re curious and completely open to “How do we tell this story?” And then every experience is feeding into it, every person you meet…
Ernie: And there’s the way you approach it, as Catherine said: “How do you tell this story?” You get to look at all the different angles, the different perspectives… One thing that we learned early on is that you don’t pull your hair out and go crazy by trying to tell the story. You try to tell a story.
Catherine: Another one we learned that we always stand by is that we go at everything with love… that no one in anything we do will feel humiliated to be in it or embarrassed in any way… even when discussing difficult things. That’s a super important thing that we follow.
Jody: Back in the early films as well?
Catherine: The one person that I slightly worry about was the Hydro Québec public relations representative whom we had dancing on the dams, doing a jig on the dams. He was so funny and lovely, and I hope he didn’t get into too much trouble for it, ‘cause we really loved him.
Jody: I had a feeling that you two took that kind of approach, that but didn’t know how conscious and deliberate that was.
Catherine: Super conscious… but not from an intellectual point of view, just as human beings.
Jody: … that everyone should feel valued in this…
Catherine: … even in difficult discussions.
Jody: It also seems that the stories you tell – it’s almost unavoidable – look at power relations, but not from an abstract way of doing it. Like with Power of the North, it was really what happened to the Cree community when their lands were flooded, right? And what happened to the fish.
Catherine: Yeah, and how to make it entertaining. Just like the opera that Ernie’s in right now, the opera written by Tomson Highway. It’s really funny. It’s exceptionally funny and goofy, and yet parts of it are very serious. It does speak about Chaakapesh, the main character …
Ernie: … who’s on a quest
Catherine: … who’s on a quest to save the Beothuks from being murdered by the Europeans, the “moniasses”…
[Jody:: rhymes with boney-asses!]
Ernie: … which is what they call the white people out west –“monias.”
But at the same time, he’s talking about it in an absurd way. There’s so much truth in absurdity. You know, it’s the contrarian kind of view, ‘cause we have the sacred clown as well, too, who’s free to tell the truth no matter how biting it is.
Jody: And doing it clowning around…
Ernie: It’s the sacred clown. You say what needs to be said and what follows might be uncomfortable laughter but it’s still the truth, you know? And that’s how I feel that Tomson, as a storyteller, is. He was born on a trapline in northern Manitoba and he grew up with the same traditions (you know, with Chaakapesh). We have the tradition of Chaakapesh, too, as a folk hero, as an archetype, as a character in a legend. So it’s actually quite universal in the north-eastern nations. Some call him “Little Brother.” And so what Tomson’s done is he’s brought to light and started a conversation on something as horrific as genocide, but he’s using an archetype where you can laugh, where you can sort of point and say “hahaha,” but that truth, that deep truth, is still there.
Catherine: And here we are at Place des Arts with 2,000 mostly non-Native people in the most European setting you can imagine, right? With the MSO (Montréal Symphony Orchestra) there, and that is what’s on stage, that’s what’s being seen, these white opera singers singing about that, and it was awesome. I was weeping and laughing, it was magnificent. And there were definitely people being a bit uncomfortable…
Ernie: … (wondering to themselves) should we laugh?
Catherine: Yeah, they didn’t know whether to laugh or not… We were laughing loudly, so we were trying to help everyone laugh, trying to make everyone laugh loudly! But it was wonderful, it was magnificent. Like we were saying, you know, Robert Lepage didn’t get it. That collaboration you can feel in the [opera] performance that they doing here – it’s all over it! So that’s the thing when people talk about all these questions – [it’s about] collaboration, sharing…
Catherine: yeah… It’s collaboration… It’s the voices being heard.
Ernie: (laughing) Right, good night!
Jody: So for Rumble, more than 25 years after you two started… Rumble takes you to such high places and it has so much depth at the same time. It really feels like a coming-out party, celebrating people who many people didn’t know what or who they were calling on for their music and for the rhythm of their being.
Ernie: Well, I think I’ll pick up on what you said, “Welcome to the party.” There was that Native North America album that was released a year or two ago. I was playing all those songs thirty years ago on the radio, on the community and regional stations…
Catherine: Like Morley Loon and Willie Dunn and all those people…
Ernie: And so I’m like, “Welcome! You’re 30 years late, but welcome to the party!” And picking up on what Catherine was saying, you take on this project and you don’t know where it will take you.
And I have to honour Catherine’s efforts in our projects. She took Rumble – you know, Rumble is based on a song by Link Wray and it was banned – it was an instrumental song, but it was banned…
Jody: from the radio
Ernie: … ‘cause it might incite teen violence. And so from there we explored the blues, we explored jazz, we explored the Choctaw fiddlers. We went to Coeur d’Alene and saw where the jazz vocals and stuff were born. And through it all, Catherine was the brains behind the operations. She’ll deny it, but she’s the brains… and hopefully, the two of us together make the heart of whatever project we work on. She was engaging scholars of the blues and telling them, “You have to look at the blues and the origins and where it comes from in this way now, and they would keep denying it ‘til the end of the phone call. But then she would talk to them a week later and they’d be, “Well, let’s see now…”
Catherine: But what Ernie said is way too nice and wrong! It’s not like that.
Ernie: Oh, please!
Catherine: But I’ll tell you how it is. How it is, is (and I’ve said this before): women can direct in any way – quote unquote like men or just like women – they can have a vision, and know it, and do all that. But there’s something I always say: there are hunters and there are gatherers, and women can be gatherers, too. And we do that exceptionally well. It’s one of our talents that doesn’t have as much place in the industry…
Jody: or as much status…
Catherine: … or as much status in the industry. It’s very hierarchical, it’s sort of military, and I understand why. There’s a lot of money on the line and a lot of time on sets, and it was built in that manner. But women gather super well and, again, in that spirit of improv. Ernie and I have always seen the world the same way, and he’s the rock of everything underneath how we look at stuff. You know? And that’s the most important thing. And then, within Rumble, when I say gathering, the people who truly are responsible for the storytelling in that film are not us. We went to them… and that’s why there’s that depth. They’ve spent their whole lives knowing this stuff… knowing it very, very, very deeply. Like Pura Fe from Ulali. It was lived knowledge and oral traditions…
Ernie: With Catherine, though, she helps bring those people, those things, those ideas, that information together in a cohesive and loving manner. These people spent their lives [researching]… like the Choctaw fiddlers. There are two photos of them in the film, but that’s the result of somebody’s 15-year, 20-year research journey.
Catherine: This brilliant academic who’s in the film spent seven years researching in the Library of Congress in the basement, finding these stories, and we get the results of that…
Ernie: Even if it’s just two photos in a two-hour or three-hour movie…
Catherine: And they’re brilliant photos. And there are other researchers in the film – there’s a ton of them.
And another thing that’s super important is to mix things that aren’t normally mixed together. Like Stevie Salas is a rock star, and he comes from LA… rock!
Catherine: Rock, you know… chicks! and
Ernie: … big hair!
Catherine: … big hair, and awesomeness, and wanting to make it! A real balls-to-the-wall rock star kind of guy, you know…
To mix him, who was very much a muse in the film, very much, coming from that world – and someone like Pura Fe, who were the two …
Ernie and Catherine (in unison): pillars!
Catherine: … And then a third person, Tim Johnson, who’s Mohawk – he comes from a scholarly point of view and he was the head of programming for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. So those three people, content-wise…
And logistically-wise and business-wise, there’s 9 thousand million people, too – unsung heroes of huge proportions …
Jody: who are still trying to catch up on their sleep…
Catherine: yeah, exactly, who are still slightly traumatized from when we didn’t have money to finish…
But those [three – Stevie Salas, Pura Fe, Tim Johnson], in terms of content – they were the pillars. And we were following them. We don’t have a lot of fear, ‘cause we have each other. Right? I think that’s why we don’t have fear. And in not having fear, we absolutely believe it’s possible. And early on, we felt there was something there that other people were saying wasn’t there. We’ve had a whole history of our society telling people that Native people aren’t there, that their music’s not there, that their culture’s not there, that they’re not there…
Ernie: that our culture’s primitive…
Catherine: yeah, that it’s primitive, it’s disappeared, it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter, it’s dead, it’s gone, it’s whatever… And knowing that that’s not the truth, and then knowing there’s something buried there, ‘cause we could feel it! When Pura Fe – Pura Fe was not believed for so long! And we talked to all the blues scholars and they said, “No, no, no, no, no. Native people are not there [as a major musical influence.]”
Ernie: “It’s from Africa”
Catherine: “It’s all from Africa.” Which it certainly is – the whole blues and jazz, as we say, none of that is possible without African people… African-American culture. But it was the African experience in America that created all those genres, and that experience in America involved Native people – at the beginning, hugely. Hugely! And that part was wiped out, that chapter was missing for a million reasons that you find out in the film. Why? That was the question. Why? Like, a) Is it true [what we felt]? We would push and push and everyone would say, “No!” All the official channels would say, “No.” And we kept pushing, pushing, pushing. Stevie, Pura Fe and Tim Johnson – they believed, and we believed. They hadn’t put it all together, and that was our job to go and put everyone’s story together. Once you put all the stories together, then it’s undeniable.
Jody: The part that stopped me cold was when someone interviewed in the film talked about wanting to pass as black so people wouldn’t know they were Native.
Catherine: That was Monk Boudreau. He’s from New Orleans.
Jody: The extent of the violence is not something white people want to acknowledge.
Ernie: Get over it.
Jody: There’s denial, yeah, but what I’m saying is that the stories have to be told and told and told.
Ernie (sighing): No matter how many times you tell the story, there’s always going to be echo chambers.
Catherine: What does that mean?
Ernie: When you go to a website and hang out with people who only share your views. So it’s just like an echo chamber…
Catherine: I feel like Rumble got out of the echo chamber, ‘cause people felt a safe place… that’s the power of music, ‘cause music connects you to the divine. That’s what it does. And it connects people together. It connects us together without fear, and by doing that, it leaves you open to hear things. I saw so many white people at screenings and film festivals understand the violence and feel it from [another perspective], and they weren’t being blamed for it. They were inside, with the people, and were feeling what they felt, so it was another experience. Maybe that’s the thing – we’ve got to get out of the echo chambers.
Ernie: But this music that we featured in this film, everybody grew up with that. And everybody had ideas about where it might have been from, who was doing it and why. But these people who’d come up to us and say, “Holy shit, I thought I knew!” Like even this radio disc jockey from the Mohawk nation. He comes up to me after a screening and says to me, “I thought I knew it. I thought I fuckin’ knew it. But apparently I didn’t.”
Catherine: I love running into all the musicians who really know and love music history, who say that. The musicians who really know their stuff know it’s true what the people are saying… what the storytellers are saying.
Ernie: Even writers from Rolling Stone…
Catherine: They said they didn’t know. David Fricke in the movie was awesome – he was one of the main interviews. He’s from Rolling Stone. He’s a brilliant speaker and writer and knowledge keeper for the music industry, and he was so awesome. But he, too, said he didn’t know all that.
Ernie: But every film for us is a journey. And you learn from every one. If you see our films in a chronological way, you won’t see too many of the same mistakes repeated with each subsequent film.
Catherine: We’ll make new mistakes, I suppose (laughing).
Ernie: But they’ll be, I think, philosophical from this point on as opposed to technical (both laughing). Hire the best and get out of their way!
Jody: Your editors must have been pretty intense.
Catherine: Yeah, it was a very intense process. We had great editors. It really was like a village. I have to say, Alfonso Maiorana who is co-director and director of photography… the visual beauty of the film is his – it’s his gift. And he’s a real lover of music. That was such a gift, all of that.
And then Meky (Marie-Pier) Ottawa is the animator. She is Indigenous from here, and she didn’t know all those people [in the film]… She was like, “What?” and you can see it in her animation. She has this very funny, edgy, beautiful style. She was just featured at the Musée de Beaux Arts. She’s a brilliant artist.
And Stevie [Salas], I have to say, is a real great collaborator. He was always saying that he wanted famous people [in the interviews] ‘cause [otherwise], they’re not going to believe us. I’ll quote him: “If a bunch of Indians say we had something to do with this, they’ll be like, (tsk) Shut up!” But if, uh,
Jody: Tony Bennett says …
Catherine: If Tony Bennett says it…
Jody: or Martin Scorsese says it…
Catherine: you know? Or if what’s-his-name, the punk guy… Iggy Pop! If Iggy Pop tells you, you’re going to believe it. So if you look at the structure of the film, there are a lot of very famous people telling you stuff before we get to Pura Fe telling you stuff. That’s in the Link Wray section – it’s stacked with famous people, right? Well that was Stevie’s contribution, 1,000%. He wanted those famous people in there, to set it up. You know, you’re going to believe that Iggy Pop knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Link Wray, and Martin Scorsese…
Catherine: (laughing) Ignatius, you know? Right?
So those kinds of tricks you learn as you go. We’ve been doing Native content for a long time now. And it’s only now that anybody is actually interested, outside of Indigenous communities.
Ernie: When we would pitch ideas and documentaries, one time this guy said, “Ah, I don’t want any more Native crap.”
Catherine: He was head of CBC! Seriously, you don’t know what to say. You’re just shocked. I remember pitching to this gal – I won’t say which network she was from – and she said, “Well, what would people find interesting about that?”
Ernie: But I think, to get to talk about your theme “Beyond the Pale,” there’s a price to be paid to be beyond the pale. Sometimes you carry like a debt, or something that you need to pay – an indebtedness … And sometimes you get offers where you could pay off that indebtedness by not being beyond the pale. Sometimes it looks like a way out from your struggles and hardships that you’re going through. There are a few instances where a “yes” would have resulted in an easier go for us in terms of doing what we love to do and what we’re compelled to do, and what we’re asked to do. And one of the things we’re most proud of as storytellers, as people who are tasked to tell [other] people’s stories as well, too, is that we never gave up or we never sold out…
Catherine: We didn’t sell out, I guess is the thing. If we’d got a yes… we tried [to get a yes]! We just never were successful at it. We were so bad at pitching commercial-league, “viable” ideas – we were just terrible (laughing). People would say, “Uh…no.”
Ernie: But the one thing that we’re most proud of is that we stuck by our principles and our values.
Catherine: Yeah, it’s true. So the hardship comes…
Jody: Is it true you had to remortgage your home?
Catherine: Yeah, numerous times. We put our house up on mortgage so many times. Yeah, you have to pay enough to cover your bank loans to finish films. So you’re on a wing and a prayer. Ergo, in the finance department, Linda Ludwick, brilliant woman that she is, is still (like you said) traumatized about finishing a film that doesn’t have money to finish. You go on a wing and a prayer and you do it. But they’re all such brave folks that we work with. You know Christina [Fon]. Christina is a salesperson, getting out there and selling. So you have all these different characters, everyone doing their bit.
Ernie: You guys complete each other.
Catherine: Yeah, totally. I’m very nerdy in my thinking, you know. [Ernie sighs. I start laughing and challenging her.] Like a complete egghead. I like thinking and talking about intellectual things, and then trying to find ways to make them entertaining. I like big thoughts and ideas. Not academic, but I love ideas and how things work. But Christina is a trained athlete. She was a national gym champion in Canada. Athletes are great to work with, ‘cause they’re focused, they’ve got a goal, and they work towards it. And they’ve got their eye trained on the prize.
Ernie: To get back to Reel Injun,Christina called the assistant of Clint Eastwood once a weekfor a year before we got the interview with him for Reel Injun. And we only had 45 minutes on a specific date. We sent him beautiful Cree mitts made from Waskaganish, and maple syrup.
Catherine: He almost cancelled because it was raining or something, and Christina pleaded with his assistant. And because Christina had talked to her for a year, the assistant got him to show up for the interview. And because the assistant did that, and because Christina had developed a caring relationship…
Ernie: (laughing) a loving relationship!
Catherine: A loving relationship with that person – it really was like that. That woman really came through for us and for Christina.
Ernie: The right people get together at the right time.
Catherine: And now we’re working with Neil again – Diamond – the Neil Diamond, not the singer – on a movie called Red Fever, about cultural appropriation and all that it entails. And the complexity and nuances and questions and cool shit – conversations and stories – that it can bring up. Neil’s line is: “Why do you love us so much? What did we ever do to you?” Like, why are you wearing your head-dresses to Coachella and all the music concerts? Fashion, why are you appropriating it all the time, like music? Why do you love us so much – what did we ever do to you? You know, that Jewish/Indian thing that always works. Similar humour – you know, genocide, they get it.
Jody: I read that you were working on a film What’s up with White People?
Catherine: Yeah, we’re in development on a film that, for now is called White Privilege aka What’s Up With White People? And it’s the history of the creation of white privilege. What actually happened, how was it built. The actual moments. This is straight-up history, not an emotional thing. A factual thing.
The discussion went on about a book called Before the Irish Were White, and Theodor W. Allen’s book, The Invention of the White Race, and Nell Painter’s book, The History of White People. Ernie disappeared to make pasta with Bolognaise sauce. Catherine was jotting down ideas in her notebook, sparks flying off her pen! Then we all converged in the kitchen with two of their daughters and their nephew, and took the feast to another level. I still have a smile on my face. Welcome to the party!
For more about Catherine Bainbridge and Ernest Webb and their wild and wonderful team, check out Rezolution Pictures:
 The film Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World had its television broadcast premiere in English on The Movie Network / HBO Canada, where you can still stream it. It aired in French on Radio-Canada last fall and had its European premiere in French/German on ARTE. It has also aired in French on APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) and will be in English as of February 2019. Its US broadcast premiere is set for January 28, 2019 on the PBS series, Independent Lens.
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 – 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.
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” (i.e., whose words and actions call for a major shift in perspectives), Conradi challenges Québec’s racist and misogynist colonial heritage, and plants the seeds for creating the kind of solidarity-based community and society that the women of Val d’Or invoke.
Alexa Conradi has been a feminist and social-justice activist in Québec for the past 20 years – one who challenges the ravages of austerity policies front-on and stands with all those whose lives have been made more precarious. She was president of Québec Solidaire in its early years from 2006 to 2009, helping shape its social democratic, environmentalist, feminist, LBGTQ and sovereignist program. From 2009 to 2015, she headed the Québec Women’s Federation (QFF), which took a lot of heat – and hateful vitriol – for its solidarity with Muslim women and its opposition to Québec’s Charter of Values.
Conradi’s new book of essays, Les angles morts, Perspectives sur le Québec actuel (Les Éditions du Remue-ménage, 2017), is intended to do some serious shift disturbing. Conradi interweaves the personal and the political as she invites her fellow Quebeckers to take a good hard look at their blind spots. Time to tear off the rose-coloured glasses about how egalitarian, fair, welcoming and non-violent Québec society really is.
The following interview with Alexa Conradi is a slightly abbreviated version of our conversation.
MS:First of all, congratulations! We just heard the news that your book has been nominated for the Political Book Award presented by the Québec National Assembly. Did you have any inkling that it might be considered for an award?
AC: Absolutely not. I certainly didn’t write it in terms of awards or recognition. I wrote it to be able to think through the unbelievable, unique and sometimes difficult experiences of the position I have been in, which gave me access to people, events and possibilities in ways that very few people have access to in the course of their lives.
I was more motivated to look at the times we’re in, really. The question of recognition is an important one, and one that I’ve struggled with, because as someone in a minority situation but nevertheless at a privilege in Québec society, I haven’t been able to completely free myself up from the wish to be seen, heard, understood and recognized as being part of the society. I didn’t write with awards in mind, but I’m not completely outside of the wish for the book to resonate meaningfully with people in that society and reclaim a space inside it. So it’s not so much about rewards and awards as spaces of mutual understanding. That was something that did drive the writing of the book.
MS:A great deal of research and reflection, first-hand experience and soul-searching has gone into this book, which covers almost every angle (!) of what has happened in Québec since the Quiet Revolution. It is a tour de force of historical, political and feminist analysis and reflection that offers us a feast of thought-provoking ideas and insights.
You cover a lot of ground. Your book raises hard-to-duck criticisms while showing a lot of love and respect for your fellow Quebeckers of all backgrounds. You clearly embrace bell hook’s perspective on “love as the practice of freedom.” 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.
MS:The existence of systemic sexism in Québec is not that difficult to discuss, thanks to feminist debates dating back to the 1970s. But engaging in civil debate about systemic racism has become almost impossible in many circles in Québec, and politicians engaged in xenophobic nationalism have shamelessly fanned the flames of demagoguery that stifle reflection and self-questioning. As you point out, the divide between Quebeckers of diverse backgrounds and those of French-Canadian descent has become deeply entrenched. What’s it going to take, do you think, to break the impasse we’re currently facing and go beyond knee-jerk denial and defensive evasion?
AC: Today there are a number of different types of possibilities that could really make a difference. First, this tendency in Québec is situated in a pretty Western tendency at the moment. Québec has its own particular history and its own particular form, but all over Europe, for example, we’re in a time where people – where many white people – are feeling anxious and expressing that in very racist terms.
So, Québec is not an exception. But in terms of possibilities for the future, one of them is that younger people aren’t showing as much racism as an older generation of people. We have to remember that the ones discussing in the public sphere are not the only voice out there. Politicians who hold power are usually much older, usually white, and usually more established, let’s say. They’re not necessarily always a good reflection of all people’s sentiments. And that goes for media people as well. If you look at who are the commentators in media, they tend to be older white men as well. We have to be careful not to take their voices as being the truth.
There is some incredible organizing in Québec at the moment around anti-racism work, led by people of colour – black folks and Indigenous people, and Muslims as well – and they are doing a lot of really important work of making connections in places that are fairly invisible to the media or to the public discourse. But it’s happening and it’s making a difference. After the launch of my book, I had twenty-five stops all across the province and met with people who are concerned about this rise in racism in Québec society and the consolidation of certain racist sentiments – the freeing-up of racist speech. And that was in every region: people who are willing to get organized, think about it, speak up against racism and get involved. That’s encouraging.
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.
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.
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.
MS:One of the last essays in your book invites us to rethink our relationship to the earth, and to reproduction, from a perspective that puts life and all that sustains it at the heart of political and economic activity. Building on ancestral Indigenous knowledge is central to this vision. Could you give our readers an idea of what the Buen Vivir movement is all about? And how would you say that in English: well living, or something like that?
AC: That’s it. It’s not the idea of “better,” it’s about living well. These are movements based in Latin America that have come out of discussions largely centred on Indigenous peoples’ histories, organizing, and struggles for recognition and decent lives inside Latin American countries. But it has translated in political terms into trying to find ways of moving away from a capitalist logic of governance and production to placing the sustainability of communities and the earth at the heart of how everything then flows.
This particular idea is a spiritual concept at the same time as a political one – spiritual not in the sense of a religious idea, but in a sense that ultimately we are all connected, all of us, every living creature, every part of life is connected, and so then we are highly responsible for those relationships. And that needs to be translated into how we organize ourselves economically, politically and socially.
And then there have been feminists organizing within this tradition to say: “in that context, we need to completely rethink production and reproduction and that division where production has always historically been associated with male labour, and reproduction with female labour that was highly undervalued.”
If we put the maintenance and the reproduction of life at the heart of things, then that actually changes the dynamic altogether of, and even our understanding of, what is productive. Instead of seeing production as being how many more products we produce, [it would be more about] “how do we look after one another properly?” That’s a very different logic. Of course, anyone can say, “yes, but that’s very naïve, a very Utopian kind of perspective.” But […] we can’t get anywhere if we haven’t thought about it – imagined it, thought about it, started to try and find ways to create it.
There are countries in Latin America that are starting to try and think this through, and they’ve given themselves the possibility of doing so at a structural level. We don’t have any of those mechanisms in Québec society or in Canadian society at this point, but that would be pretty exciting.
MS: There are some very powerful experiments in community self-emancipation that are unfolding in place like Jackson, Mississippi. Activists there are building what they call “solidarity economics.” They’re pooling resources, labour and community wealth, in combination with communal land ownership and agriculture and 3-D manufacturing. And they’re not limited to Jackson. They intend to take this movement and spread it through Mississippi and beyond Mississippi. There’s a book called Jackson Risingthat 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.
MS:Your book is grounded in the personal, in experiential life, and that makes a difference in terms of how readable and how touching it is.
AC: I was brought into the world as an activist, let’s say, through the feminist movement and through women’s centres. Through them, I learned that we are always in a relationship between an “I” and a “We” and an “Us” in the way we’re working. And I found this to be such a powerful tool to embrace consciousness, to bring solidarity, to make things real and concrete, to translate ideas and concepts into real life. Then later, in studies at the university level, I read about traditions in Latin America where, if people were speaking or giving a speech in a political moment, they would get up and say, “I am so and so, and I am part of this tradition,” and would move from this “I” position to very quickly situating themselves in a “We” tradition. You hear that with Indigenous rhetorical traditions, with black North American rhetorical traditions, and in the feminist tradition.
I find these very powerful ways to make shifts possible, but also to build an “Us” and a “We” that is not based on the domination of one type of discourse or a false universal “Us” that incorporates the stories of many different perspectives. That was a motivation in my activism and also in the writing, to keep that kind of a tension and a dynamic present. I wanted the book to be not so much for the academic world (although I think it still could be relevant for people studying), but written in a way that people didn’t go, “oh God, I have to get through this book.” I wanted it to be true stories and concrete situations, and real moments of possibility or tension that connected with my life but also the lives of other people whom I’ve met. So that was the reason for the form of the book. There’s always a certain amount of risk-taking in being so personal in public, but such is life. I’m asking lots of people to take risks, so if I don’t take any, it doesn’t make any sense.
MS:Your book is being translated, right? Do you know yet when it’s going to be coming out in English?
AC: I don’t know the publication date, but I would think in the fall.
MS:With your same publishing house?
AC: No, it’s with Between the Lines in Toronto. Between the Lines is a really engaged publishing house that does a lot of translation of books to keep the dialogue going between English-speaking Canada and Québec and French-speaking Canada, let’s say, to keep diversity of French in Canada visible.
MS: In closing, I’d like to acknowledge the compassionate and incisive kind of feminism that infuses your book. I find it heartening on many, many levels. Your imagination takes us deep into the wisdom of the ancestral land that sustains us, and far into the dreamings of life beyond capitalism. So I’d like to thank you, Alexa, on behalf of all of us at Serai, for sharing that with us.
AC: Thank you for those lovely words.
[Note: All photos in this interview, except for the one of Alexa Conradi and her book, were taken by Jody Freeman.]
 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.
[This tribute to Art Solomon is an adaptation of a radio documentary written for Radio Canada International in 1995, a year and a half before he died. Now, twenty years after his death, his words and actions and powerful spirit continue to give heart to those wounded and dishonoured by the violence and sleazy arrogance of the old white capitalist boys’ club and its “just us” system, as Art called it. His respect for women was deep and reverent, rippling outward in ever-widening circles. I first met Art in 1993 when he came to Montréal to speak at an international suicide prevention conference at the Université du Québec à Montréal.]
Imagine that we are all sitting in an auditorium in a Canadian university. It is 1993, and we have come halfway around the world for an international conference on suicide prevention. The keynote speaker is Art Solomon, who has been invited to share his insights and experience as a spiritual teacher in Canada’s Indigenous communities. A tall slim man not quite 80 years old, with light-flecked eyes shining out from under thick black eyebrows, Art Solomon brings an immediate hush to the auditorium. Art lights sage in a traditional sacred ritual, and as he gives thanks to the Creator, smoke from the sage spirals up, slowly reaching all of us with its sweet scent. Then, with humour and simplicity, passion and humility, Art speaks of the injustices suffered for hundreds of years by Indigenous peoples in Canada, and of the healing that is needed to restore balance within ourselves and within all Creation. The auditorium is transformed into a place of sacredness where all are honoured: the dead, the living, those yet to be born, the land and air and waters that sustain us. We all feel it. This is a deeply heartful man whose gentle presence has great power to heal and inspire.
Art Solomon was an Ojibwe elder. His mother was French-Canadian and his father, Ojibwe. Art and his wife, Eva, lived in northern Ontario and were married for 59 years. Their five daughters and five sons had 29 children and grandchildren. When Art was asked how he became an elder, he said simply, “People (from the community) make that choice and call that person out. There’s nothing formal about it.”
For the last 30-odd years of his life, Art worked tirelessly for his people and for world peace. He rarely received a salary for this work. Art helped inspire movements as diverse as the World Council on Religion and Peace, the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples, and the American Indian Movement. He also helped create the Native Studies Department at the University of Sudbury in Ontario, and the University Prisons Programme.
When Art was asked how this all came about, it didn’t occur to him to take personal credit. “It started by itself,” he answered. “It really didn’t start anywhere.” His work in Canadian prisons began in response to what was needed. People asked him for help and he responded. Art’s prison work was initially with Native women, and his first book of poems and essays, Songs for the People: Teachings on the Natural Way, begins with the following:
“If this is poetry,
It is given and dedicated to the Native Sisterhood in the prison for women
At Kingston, Ontario,
To the women’s side of our Indian nations
And to all true women…
…We must walk in beauty and with power.”
Women hold an honoured place in Art’s vision of “setting things right.” In his subsequent book, Eating Bitterness, Art writes that women “are our source of spiritual power, they are our inspiration, they are our backbone, they are the heartbeat of our nations, and we must have a strong and true heartbeat to be a strong people. If our heartbeat is weak, we will be weak. Those are some of the reasons why we must give honour to our women people like it was long ago.” Women’s leadership role in restoring the harmony and balance between all living things is central to Art’s vision.
Art Solomon’s love, dedication and wisdom earned him deep respect in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across Canada and beyond. In his home province of Ontario, the provincial government presented him with the Ontario Bicentennial Medal and named him a Member of the Order of Ontario for his longstanding contribution to the community. Queen’s University awarded him an honorary doctorate in Divinity, and Laurentian University granted him an honorary doctorate in Civil Law.
Art’s concern for peace and justice took him all over the world: to Switzerland in 1977, for the World Council of Indigenous Peoples’ conference; to the Island of Mauritius in 1983, for the World Council of Churches’ conference; to Nairobi in 1984 and Australia in 1988, for conferences of the World Council on Religion and Peace; and to Beijing in 1989, for the World Council of Churches’ conference.
His message couldn’t be clearer: we must care for the land, the water, the air and all living things, for we are all related. If we don’t take care of the earth, we don’t take care of anything. We must reverse the destruction and undertake a profound healing process to become whole again. We must learn from Indigenous peoples around the world, who, in Art’s words, are “the final teachers on this earth.”
When asked if there were something in particular he would like to share, Art reflected on the centrality of women. “When women take hold of their part and start to come together,” he says, “that will right the balance. We have to wait for that.”
Art Solomon trusted in that vision and tended it while he waited, carefully planting the seeds of heartfulness and harmony, fiercely protecting and nurturing the soil in which they grow.
His words call us to remember what it means to be whole. In his presence, we feel as if we are part of a great and abiding forest freshly washed with rain.
Portrait of Nina Simone, heart blazing, on Jeanne Mance St., by Montréal street artist (and jazz singer) MissMe, who describes herself as “an artful vandal.” For more on MissMe, go to her website at http://www.miss-me-art.com/. (Photo by Jody Freeman)
Anonymous mural photo of South Asian school girls on an industrial building in the old textile neighbourhood of Mile End (Casgrain St.) (Photo by Jody Freeman)
Lea Roback, portrayed here as a young union organizer in the 1930s in this unsigned mural in Montréal’s Mile End. She fought for women’s, workers’ and immigrants’ rights – for social justice and universal access to education – and was active in the peace movement. Even into her 80s, Lea was always turning up on picket lines and marches, and she encouraged young people in their social activism and artistic endeavours. On her 90th birthday, the Lea Roback Foundation was created to award scholarships to socially-committed low-income women in Québec. http://www.fondationlearoback.org/home.htm (Photo by Jody Freeman)